Tolerance, a Force for Good or Evil?

My father was a great dad in almost every respect. Notwithstanding his cheery, loving disposition he was affected by a bit of residual puritanism which sometimes surfaced in amusing ways. I remember one such instance when I was about 12 years old. Our family received some free tickets to a newly released film, Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. While the movie itself was quite entertaining I was more bemused by dad’s reaction to the story line which he earnestly viewed as immoral because Professor Harold Hill, the charming confidence man who wins the heart of the local librarian (Marian), is actually rescued from his well deserved fate of being exposed, horsewhipped, and thrown in a jail cell. Anything less than severe punishment represented a serious breech of justice in dad’s somewhat legalistic mind. I saw the thing a little differently. The real moral of this zany story revolves around the redemptive love of a good woman, Marian, and how that love has the power to transform a jaded, fast talking slicker into a genuine human being who learns to care more about others than himself.

The Music Man is ultimately a story about redemption through the virtues of love, patience, and tolerance. God operates in the same way to save each one of us from our own selfish impulses through his kind and loving forbearance, thereby providing us with a much brighter future than we could ever obtain by running our own private con games. Harold Hill is really a universal type, representing all of us, replete with our own little human conceits and foibles. And God, like the lovely librarian, is exceedingly tolerant of our little deceits. That is why he continually offers us forgiveness instead of condemnation. Still, we would rather excuse our own sins by pointing to manifestly worse evils of others, sidestepping those little personal dis-honesties and deceptions we have learned to live with (and gloss over) much like Meredith Wilson’s main character. After all, the horrific brutalities which are reported daily in the media not only testify to the malignant depravity of the human condition but make our lesser transgressions appear harmless by comparison. Yet we righteously wonder why God will not immediately strike down the truly monstrous malefactors. Should a Hitler even have the right to exist? In other words, where should a God of justice draw the line in our limited human opinion?
Perhaps the most frequently asked question by both believers and skeptics alike is this. “If God is truly good, why does he allow such horrendous evil in his world? One can only begin to answer that timeless and vexing question by acknowledging that evil is a direct consequence of God’s great gift of freedom. If we value freedom we must also accept that evil will inevitably accompany it. That is the cosmic trade-off. No freedom = order and tranquility whereas the possession of freedom = the very real possibility of dissent and disorder. Freedom is a very messy proposition. It presumes the ability to disregard accepted norms and laws, even God himself, if one so chooses. It opens up the possibility for manifest evils. It is with good reason that St. Luke identifies Satan as “the lawless one.” And Satan is the penultimate “free spirit.” God might have easily created a universe where no possibility of evil exists, but only by denying his creatures of that sublime, and admittedly dangerous, gift of freedom.
Freedom is also paradoxical in the sense that evil ultimately chokes off the very freedom that made it possible in the first place. The individual who decides to go on a crime spree is eventually caught and locked up, thereby losing the very freedom he sought to exploit. In God’s system all creatures are meant to enjoy freedom to the degree which is proper to their particular states. In Satan’s system only one is free, Satan himself. All the rest he will make his slaves because he, being the strongest (excepting God), feels compelled to dominate and enslave all the rest. Evil devolves into the law of the jungle and consequently it defeats freedom in the end.
But our current temporal world exists in the interim, bounded by time somewhere between heaven and hell. It has not yet reached its final destiny meaning that good and evil, freedom and tolerance must somehow co-exist. For the time being we must learn to tolerate certain evils, because the alternative means a loss of our valued freedoms. Puritan society in 17th century New England was not a free society,  it was in fact a rigidly intolerant one. Ironically, the Puritans who had fled England to find religious freedom denied that same liberty to others after having arrived in America. Consider how Maryland, a colony initially founded on the principle of religious tolerance, enacted severe discriminatory laws against Catholics and others after 1697 once the Puritans had gained a political majority. Freedom cannot be shared for long among many peoples without a willingness by all to practice a high degree of tolerance. That is also why the Middle East today is embroiled in such turmoil.
At times, we must tolerate things that we may find loathsome or offensive in order to preserve some greater good. God himself demonstrates this principle ceaselessly. He does not punish the sinner or revoke his freedom every time he abuses it. In fact St. Peter reminds us, “He is patient with you, not desiring that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9) God expressly tolerates certain evils in order to prevent much greater ones. His time line is eternal, not temporal. The evils with which we must contend are transitory and fleeting. These pale in comparison with the greatest evil imaginable, namely the forfeiture of one’s eternal future with God in heaven. He wants to prevent that most tragic outcome without compromising our human freedom. He is willing to give us ground strategically in order to help us survive the battle. He tolerates our errors and omissions now so that we can learn from them later and perhaps change our ways.           
Love the sinner but hate the sin. If God is tolerant and patient with me when I transgress his laws, it is only right that I should be tolerant towards my neighbor. Of course,that does not excuse me from making fraternal corrections where I am in a responsible position. A parent still has the responsibility to form and correct his children. But as abhorrent as any particular sin may be, one must remember that every sinner is a fellow traveler and equal to me in the eyes of God. This does not justify making excuses for evil, whether of one’s own fault or of those around us. It is never right to call evil good or to defend some vile activity as right or virtuous. Christians especially have a grave responsibility to act according to a well formed conscience, not caving in to social or political pressures. The challenge comes in neither condoning (the evil) nor condemning (the perpetrator). This is a fine balancing act since the evil that we may produce by an intemperate reaction (or possibly no reaction) may well turn out to be worse than the original transgression.      
I like to use the case of Martin Luther, although history is full of hundreds of similar examples. In his zeal to stamp out certain deplorable abuses among the clergy and Church hierarchy in 16th century Germany, Luther ended up dividing and polarizing all of Christian Europe. His zealous intolerance of one particular evil had the effect of unleashing a far greater evil, namely the splintering of Christianity for some 500 years, and still counting. Furthermore the division became much more than a simple break (as, for example, with the Eastern Orthodox Christians) devolving into a compound spiral fracture which has resulted in the countless competing branches of Christianity that we see today.
Like Luther, and the Puritans after him, our natural inclination is a refusal to tolerate anything we find morally offensive. But the greater challenge may be exercising prudential tolerance, which can only be done by positively exerting one’s free will. Freedom and tolerance are thus symbiotic because it is only in freedom that we can choose to act against our natural inclinations. Unfortunately, puritanical intolerance is again on the rise in our world. And it is not only that brand of religious intolerance gaining ascendancy in the Middle East that threatens mankind but also a secular, anti-religious intolerance of the sort seen in totalitarian states like Cuba and North Korea. Even in the United States a recent wave of coercive policies now attempt to force citizens to violate their consciences, either through mandates that would force religious nuns to provide contraceptives or by lawsuits that seek to penalize a private business for refusing to bake “same-sex” wedding cakes. Christians again find themselves on the ropes, forced to answer to a secular inquisition for minding their own religious convictions. Worse, they are publicly ridiculed and vilified for their supposed intolerance by the very people who themselves are fundamentally intolerant of basic Christian principles! 
Genuine tolerance cannot be reconciled with the gross imposition of subjective values − religious or secular − upon others. Neither does it allow for refusing to recognize basic moral absolutes such as the protection of innocent human life, respect for property rights, and the sacredness of the family. Tolerance is a conundrum in the sense that it demands at times that we refuse to tolerate certain things, infanticide for example or incest, even though we may need to tolerate lesser evils. Still, there are those willing to tolerate any kind of evil under the disguise of tolerance. Such people invariably get caught up in the contradiction of tolerating anything… except intolerance. On that one point they are likely to be rigidly intolerant, publicly branding anyone with whom they happen to disagree as “intolerant.”
Ironically, it is Christian forbearance which made possible the development of modern liberal democracy precisely because it insists on the intrinsic value and dignity of every person. Even so, that process did not happen overnight but only over a long period of time. But Christianity did provide for a more humane model than the old, universal social “caste” systems (e.g. ancient Egypt, Rome, China, etc.).  The Christian ideal of toleration eventually became a cornerstone of all successful democracies. That history has not prevented our enemies from now using tolerance as a weapon to undermine democratic society itself by insisting that we now tolerate, and in fact embrace, views which are essentially hostile to any spirit of truth or tolerance. In short, certain groups anxious to advance some agenda or other consistently refuse to reciprocate a tolerant spirit. But tolerance, like freedom, is not an easy ideal to maintain especially when the two sides are not playing by the same rules. And when freedom is lost, tolerance is always kicked out into the street alongside it.
Tolerance must never be construed as indifference to evil, but neither does it mandate that we should condone the evil. If and when some evil can be intelligently confronted, without any danger of its provoking hysteria, it should be opposed, kindly and calmly, with fortitude and perseverance. But it is always prudent and wise to first reflect on the parable of the wheat and the weeds. “Do not uproot the wheat in order to attack the weeds.” In any event the time of harvest will surely come when the Lord commands his angels, “First collect the weeds and tie them into bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Mt 13:30)
God himself exemplifies tolerance in the very best sense. He shows tremendous restraint and respect for the individual’s use of, and frequent abuses of, human free will; by which he also sets an example for each one of us to follow. His divine tolerance sends the world a very clear, and much needed, message. A profound respect for religious liberty and freedom of conscience must serve as guiding principles for all peoples, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jew; Hindu or pagan. Admittedly these are difficult principles to put into practice but without such concerted efforts there can be no peace, even superficially. Violence, death, and destruction are inevitably the fruits of intolerance. Christ warned those whose zeal sometimes outpaced their good sense, “whoever takes up the sword shall perish by it.” (Mt 26:52) True tolerance, guided by reason and faith, is always the better path for if Christ commanded us to love our enemies, we must first be willing to tolerate them.
Francis J. Pierson

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