Op-Ed

Just how intolerant is your tolerance?

The Rev. Robert Cunningham
The Rev. Robert Cunningham

I was very humbled by the outpouring of thanks for my last column about what Christians obsess over, and I was heartened to see that it was a balm to many church-wary souls. However it did leave me wondering whether my opinion will be as welcomed as my apology.

Let’s find out.

I am an ordained minister in the most theologically conservative of all major denominations. I actually do believe there is a God. I actually do believe this God is exclusively revealed in Jesus of Nazareth who is risen from the dead. I actually do believe the Bible that testifies about this Jesus is the inerrant word of God and only infallible rule of faith and practice. And yes, I actually would like to convert you to these beliefs.

Still there?

If so, hang on while I apply these convictions to debated issues of our day. I would love the opportunity to nuance and explain my beliefs, but they are what they are: I believe abortion is a grave injustice in our land, and I work and pray for its abolition. I believe marriage is a holy institution designed by God for one man and one woman.

And speaking of man and woman, I believe gender is a beautiful and sacred reality that does in fact coincide with our reproductive organs. An olive branch, perhaps? I also believe that Kentucky bourbon is a glorious gift from God to be enjoyed in proper proportion. (And now I’ve lost the evangelicals.)

How tolerant is your tolerance? The ideal of tolerance is easy in the echo chamber of our own tribe, but when someone from another tribe walks into the room, it seems the limits of tolerance are quickly defined. And these days those limits are progressive values. An opinion that is not in line with the narrow parameters of our increasingly secular society is now disregarded or even scorned.

I understand and sympathize with the fact that the tolerance movement is, in many ways, a reaction to conservative fundamentalism and its shameful history of hatred. I only ask us to consider whether the response has given rise to a new form of fundamentalism. Is it possible that in a great twist of cultural irony, the creed of tolerance has become a severely intolerant creed?

The rebuttal I hear is that anyone is free to believe what they want, just as long as they don’t try to impose those beliefs on others. But this is an incredibly naïve and self-defeating construct. To say that nobody should be allowed to impose an opinion onto the public is to impose an opinion onto the public. This notion that nobody should be evangelistic with his or her beliefs is itself an evangelistic belief.

The inconvenient fact about our convictions is that they are our convictions because we actually believe they are true, and we want others to believe they are true. We all see our truths as absolute, even if our absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth.

So consider this as a way forward: You be honest with your deeply held convictions, I’ll be honest with my deeply held convictions, and then let’s have the courage to risk our convictions with that forgotten practice called dialogue.

Where does tolerance come into play? Tolerance demands that we dialogue with humility, civility and, above all else, love. Tolerance means that I can passionately hold to traditional sexual ethics while with equal passion lament and condemn Orlando’s tragedy, and neither compromises the other.

This is tolerance according to Jesus. Contrary to modern conceptions of Jesus as someone who never disagrees with us, he actually came into this world to threaten our ways with the ways of his kingdom. When I read the Scriptures, I am constantly encountering a Jesus who disagrees with me in many ways. And yet this same Jesus who so fiercely challenges us is also the one who lays down his life for those he disagrees with.

I believe this is the definition of tolerance our angry, partisan, and deeply polarized culture is desperate for: a tolerance that has less to do with our opinions and more to do with how we treat those with opposing opinions, a tolerance where the craziest conviction this evangelical holds is to love those who think I’m crazy.

The Rev. Robert Cunningham is pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Lexington. Reach him at assistant@tcpca.org.

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