In most democracies we proudly proclaim that we are tolerant societies – willing to see the other’s point of view, wanting to reach out to those who are different, not judging.
But tolerance can end up meaning that nothing is sinful – we never say, “this is wrong”.
I’m reminded of the dangers of tolerance by a small paragraph in a story about a champion cyclist, Thomas Dekker, who chose to take decisions that ended with him being branded a drugs cheat.
One of the early steps of dangerous tolerance was taken by his mum and dad who were told by Dekker’s team trainer that doping was necessary if their son, then aged 21, was to be a champion.
Dekker recounts that his mother pressed her lips tightly together but only said, “I hope this turns out OK.” She was willing to support her son’s choice if it meant he would win.
Four years later, Dekker was caught and suspended for two years. He returned to cycling but was never more than a decent professional rider.
Tolerance of illegal behaviour led to a ruined reputation. I wonder whether his mum and dad regret their acquiescence.
What else do we ‘tolerate’ in the cause of short-term or selfish gain?
Guided by nothing but opinion polls and pub philosophy, we fail to talk about morality and virtue, or to think of them at all. We laud our own brand of diversity, tolerance and non-judgementalism but fall into a trap of having no standard of timeless Truth.
Increasingly, in a media of half-truths and rushed, careless reporting, we tolerate what we agree with and hate everything else. We have a certain set of topics that immediately allow us to judge others while hypocritically seeing our own views as fair and open-minded.
I see this all the time around issues of gender equality. The conservatives see gender equality as laughable or extreme – feminists are man haters who push abortion rights and they pay homage to women as equal but different. Meanwhile the left see themselves as champions of equality and all about the rights of women to make their own decisions; those who disagree are dangerously out of touch.
Our ‘tolerance’ ironically only extends to those within our own tribe. I’m pretty sure Thomas Dekker’s parents would have hated the idea of cheating in sport as a general principle, but were willing to tolerate it in the case of their own son.
When we talk about gender, we are willing to tolerate huge inconsistencies. Those who support abortion on demand can never ‘tolerate’ the idea that abortion is not the ideal solution to unwanted pregnancy and that we could have a debate about the lie of sexual freedom and the need for man and women to take responsibility. And people who staunchly oppose abortion on demand can’t bear the idea that all sorts of girls have unwanted pregnancies and that we need a bigger discussion about sexual freedom and responsibility.
So I’m not sure I want to live in a society that misuses tolerance – I want to live in a society where we can debate ideas honestly and where we can accept difference but also be respected for holding firmly to beliefs about right and wrong.
I want to have zero tolerance for self-righteousness, for hatred and arrogance (from the left or the right). And I think the Bible is a good place to start to find those truths.
Amanda Jackson is WEA's Associate Secretary General for Church in Community and also serves as Executive Director of WEA's Women's Commission. You can read her latest blog at https://amandaadvocates.blog/