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Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Why Toleration Must not Be Tolerated

So often we hear, “We need to be a more tolerant world…nation…church...people, etc.” It’s certainly said with the best of intentions: a desire for people to get along better, to understand one another better, and to reach out beyond our limited perspectives. Yet it harbors within it the seeds of its own inability to transcend differences and unite with the “others” among us.

First of all, who are the “we” who need to be more tolerant? Simply and starkly put, those with the power to offer or deny a place at the table. In other words, it’s the oppressors, the guardians of the status quo, the gatekeepers of who’s in and who’s out. Toleration at its base is just another form of discrimination: the tolerant only “tolerate” inferiors. Therefore, toleration is a political tool and as such is used by the powerful in service or disservice of the less powerful.

Toleration can only be practiced by those who have the power to rescind it. Toleration asks, “How much can I put up with until I finally reject you?” The tolerater, whether an individual or a society, sets the rules and determines the outcome. History is replete with examples. Rome tolerated Jews and then Christians until they could no longer tolerate them. Gypsies, as with the Jews, have been repeatedly tolerated, then expelled, throughout their history. Minorities everywhere live with the reality that their tolerated status (when they have it) is on loan and they must act accordingly.

Toleration can have a positive function, as a sort of way station on the way to true equality and acceptance. Whereas interracial marriage was once not possible in America, now it’s common place. Antipathy may yield to tolerance, and eventually end in acceptance. The problem with a way station is that it can be confused with the destination and forward progress is halted.

Naturally, where I am headed with this is the notion that “We need to be more tolerant of gays.” “We,” of course, are the straight dispensers of power in the church or society. Who put us in charge of the destiny of anyone? We merely claimed it for ourselves by virtue of our majority position, and we are reluctant to abandon our status.

One thing I’ve learned in my many years of consulting with congregations on gay issues is that when churches initially become “Open and Affirming,” it usually means open to LGBTs and hoping to be affirming someday. We merely tolerate them in the meantime. Some don’t make the transition because they confuse toleration with acceptance. When pastors brag to me about their O&A congregations, I ask a simple question: “When did you hold your last same-sex wedding in the church?” Most of the time I get a reply that means, “We’re not ready for that yet.” Affirmation at its most basic means LGBTs are no longer an “other,” but as fully appreciated as we appreciate ourselves.

Okay, maybe we can’t do away with toleration all together as it does serve as a transitioning point to hoped for full inclusion. But we should never concede that it is sufficient.

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