Monday, September 24, 2007

Final Thoughts on Tolerance (at least for now)

A few final thoughts. I began talking about tolerance from the perspective of disagreement within the church, and proposed this definition: Tolerance is the subjugation of personal preference and opinion to the promotion of unity. Another way of saying that is not only do I not have to get my way, I don't resent it when I don't. I believe that this is a large part of 'loving my neighbor', and very much what it means to 'consider others better than myself'. I think these definitions work both in corporate settings and in interpersonal relationships.

As we talked about where to draw the line - what should we not tolerate, or what do we believe that God would not tolerate - it seems to me that it is our nature to draw lines where God would not, and to ignore some of the lines that God would draw. I don't know that it is our nature, but it certainly seems to be our history. Much of what we don't want to tolerate seems to come down to differences of opinion; what God seems not to tolerate is arrogance, injustice, mistreatment of the poor, the embracing of evil.

Even when dealing with with issues of justice, the line is not always clear. One obvious example in today's world is immigration, where there is a need to balance security with fairness. It seems to me - wherever one falls on a continuum from 'give me your tired, your poor' to 'send em all back where they came from' - when compassion is absent, when an entire group of people is presumed guilty until they prove their innocence, when one group of people is required to document its status to a higher standard than the ordinary population, the line has been drawn in the wrong place.

A less clear issue to me is the balance between personal freedom and corporate security. I don't have any idea of some of the things our government leadership knows about the dangers in today's world, but I have a concern when the government takes the position that it may monitor private conversations without warrant, when it can imprison people without charge, when it condones mistreatment and even torture, that the line may have been drawn in the wrong place. One of the scenes from Truth and Translation featured a former victim of torture at the hands of the police confronting the police official who had tortured him. The official's response was that if he could prevent multiple deaths from a terroristic act by torturing one individual, that he would do it again.

A little closer to home. Taylor and a group of about 50 Pepperdine students departed from LAX on September 5th, and arrived at Frankfurt International Airport on the 6th. News broke on the 4th that three German terrorists had been arrested - they had a large amount of explosives and one of their primary targets was the Frankfurt International Airport. As the news came out in bits and pieces it became apparent that their arrest had been largely enabled by American monitoring of their cell phone conversations.

I am thankful that the line was drawn where it was.

For me, the end did justify the means in this case. There are people with more knowledge than I whom I gladly trust to act appropriately. Yet, the nagging thought that 75 years ago the German people trusted a charismatic leader to act appropriately...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Intolerance in the News

The same morning that the front page chronicled the marchers gathering in Jena, the lead story in the Metro section was that local state representative Kirk England was switching from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. His reason? "I found that the Republican leadership in Austin had no tolerance for the values and priorities of the folks I represent."

The referenced leadership would be a governor who alienated his own majority party members by issuing executive orders to enact laws that the legislature wouldn't, and a Speaker of the House who survived attempts by his own party members to remove him as Speaker only by a questionable parliamentary procedural interpretation that was the basis for his refusal to hear motions from the floor for the last two weeks of the legislative session.

Descriptions of both men range from principled to obstinate to arrogant, depending on who is doing the describing, but there are few who would describe them as tolerant....

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Intolerance in the News

I opened my paper this morning and front and center on the front page was an article about the thousands of people gathering to march in protest in Jena, Louisana. The vast majority of what I know about that situation I have learned from the media - I have no doubt that there are details of which I am unaware. Of some details there seems to be no dispute.

There was an oak tree on the high school campus that was for whites only; A black student asked a school official if black students could gather under the tree and the next day there were three nooses in the tree; The principal recommended that the students responsible for the nooses by expelled, but was overruled by the school board - they were given 3 days of in-school suspension instead; There were multiple confrontations between black and white students; A black student was beaten by a group of white students and former students at a Friday night party; A white student was beaten unconscious by six black students the following monday; One white former student was charged with battery in the Friday incident; The six black students were charged with attempted 2nd degree murder in the Monday incident; The charges were reduced to aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery for Mychal Bell, the first black student to stand trial; Bell faced an all-white jury; The 150 people called for jury duty included black citizens, but only 50 people appeared, and none of them were black.

The obvious perception is that justice in Jena is different for blacks than for whites. As I mentioned, there may well be details that might shade that perception a little, but the overwhelming evidence is that overt racial discrimination is alive and well.

What does that have to do with tolerance? The easy answer is that a lack of tolerance fostered an environment where these things happened. The more difficult questions are how can tolerance develop in an environment of injustice and so lacking in trust? What responsibility do we have to refuse to tolerate such an environment? Perhaps more to the point, how can we justify that we continue to tolerate it?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Britain's Got Talent

American Idol, America You've Got Talent, and similar shows feature judges who demonstrate varying degrees of tolerance and intolerance for the people performing on their shows. This video clip from the initial performance of the eventual winner of the Britain's Got Talent show is terrific - while enjoying the performance, watch the transformation in the judges' attitudes from a barely tolerant disdain to enthusiastic embrace...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Truth in Translation

Happy Birthday, Dad.
A most vivid example of both tolerance and intolerance thrust itself into my consiousness when Barbara and I went to see Truth In Translation a week or so ago at SMU. This is a play about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), as experienced by the diverse group of translaters who interpreted the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators into the 11 languages spoken in the country. The TRC was set up by South African president Nelson Mandela to help the country deal with the aftermath of the terrorism, violence, torture, and other human rights abuses that happened during the struggle to end apartheid.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered an opportunity for anyone who felt they had been a victim of violence to come forward and be heard. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony in exchange for amnesty from prosecution. Throughout the play, pieces of actual testimony emerged through the voices of the tranlators. Their reactions as they listened to and repeated the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators painted a vivid picture of the range of emotions the testimonies brought out. Their interactions with each other, as members of the various cultures within South Africa, portrayed a microcosm of what the country itself was going through.

One of the most striking things about the evening was when we entered the lobby prior to the play. There were dozens of poster-sized banners, each portraying the story of one of the people who testified before the TRC. What was striking was that many of the people who had been victimized or who had lost loved ones had forgiven and had even developed a relationship with the person who had victimized them. There was one particular quotation that struck me, although a couple of weeks later I can't reproduce it verbatim. The context was that a woman had developed a friendship with the man who had murdered her father. The essance of what she said was that forgiveness was a journey; there were days when it was very difficult to forgive and days when it seemed that forgiveness was not needed, but that it was an ongoing journey and not something occurred once and then was bottled up and put away.

Monday, September 17, 2007

More on Tolerance

In the previous post I mentioned learning to practice tolerance in several different contexts - within a congregation, within the church at large, within interpersonal relationships, within the larger community. Over the past few weeks I have been considering some of the implications of the practice of tolerance, and have been deliberately conscious of examples and non-examples of tolerance within these contexts. Over the next few posts I will point out some of the examples that I've noticed.

There is an old saying that he who stands for nothing will fall for anything. One of the issues raised in class discussion yesterday was the potential of being too tolerant; the specific question was "Where do you draw the line?" The seemingly obvious answer would be where God draws it, but that may not be as obvious as some seem to think. The Pharisees were pretty certain that they knew what not to tolerate, but Jesus was pretty clear that they didn't get it. He seemed to tolerate people while not tolerating behavior - "Where are your accusers? Does no one condemn you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more."

It appears fairly certain that certainty is not tolerable to God, but certainty has been at the root of most of the division (which also seems to not be tolerable to God) the church has known. I would define tolerance as the subjugation of personal opinion and personal preference to the promotion of unity.

Using this definition, one recent example of tolerance at Skillman was our "Together We Worship" service a couple of weeks ago. We had a service focused on kids, with songs, a dog, and even communion geared towards children. While much of what was planned would not fall within the preference of most of the adults present, it was one of the most enthusiastically supported and participated in assemblies in recent memory.

Sadly, within this same recent timeframe we received a memo from one of the other congregations in town asking us to participate, financially and by lending our name, in an ad denouncing a decision by another of our local congregations. Regardless of one's opinion on the decision or the issue involved in the decision, the lack of tolerance exemplified here cannot contribute to the unity that Jesus prayed for.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


During the month of September we have been discussing Tolerance in the Covenant class, using Romans 14 and 15 as the primary text. We began the discussion somewhat abstractly, talking about the differences in the history and contextual backgrounds of the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians in Rome and how that impacted their views on eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. We looked at the apparent contradiction in what Paul instructed the Romans and what he told the church in Galatia - in Romans he seems to come down on the 'side' of the Jews, and in Galatians he sides with the Gentiles - and suggested a couple of principles that seem to be consistent across both letters.
The first principle seems to be to accommodate the outsider. In Rome, the Gentile Christians were the established or dominant group; in Galatia, the opposite is true. In both instances he criticizes the establishment for trying to force the outsider to conform to its brand of Christianity.
The second principle seems to be to develop a tolerance for differences in interpretation, opinion, and practice. Tolerance is a mindset to apply within the congregation and to the church at large; to interpersonal relationships and to citizenship within the larger community.
I will have quite a bit more related to this concept over the next few days, but I thought that this comic from Sunday's paper captured the essance - you can click on it to see a more readable version...

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Middle Wife

I am working on a series of posts on Tolerance and Unity, but in the meantime Barbara sent this to me and I couldn't resist sharing it....

The "Middle Wife" by an Anonymous 2nd grade teacher

I've been teaching now for about fifteen years. I have two kids myself, but the best birth story I know is the one I saw in my own second-grade classroom a few years back.

When I was a kid, I loved show-and-tell. So I always have a few sessions with my students. It helps them get over shyness and usually, show-and-tell is pretty tame. Kids bring in pet turtles, model airplanes, pictures of fish they catch, stuff like that. And I never, ever place any boundaries or limitations on them. If they want to lug it in to school and talk about it, they're welcome.

Well, one day this little girl, Erica, a very bright, very outgoing kid, takes her turn and waddles up to the front of the class with a pillow stuffed under her sweater. She holds up a snapshot of an infant. "This is Luke, my baby brother, and I'm going to tell you about his birthday."

"First, Mom and Dad made him as a symbol of their love, and then Dad put a seed in my Mom's stomach, and Luke grew in there. He ate for nine months through an umbrella cord."

She's standing there with her hands on the pillow, and I'm trying not to laugh and wishing I had my camcorder with me. The kids are watching her in amazement.

"Then, about two Saturdays ago, my Mom starts saying and going, 'Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh!' Erica puts a hand behind her back and groans. "She walked around the house for, like an hour, 'Oh, oh, oh!' Now this kid is doing a hysterical duck walk and groaning.

"My Dad called the middle wife. She delivers babies, but she doesn't have a sign on the car like the Domino's man.

They got my Mom to lie down in bed like this." Then Erica lies down with her back against the wall. "And then, pop! My Mom had this bag of water she kept in there in case he got thirsty, and it just blew up and spilled all over the bed, like psshhheew!" This kid has her legs spread with her little hands miming water flowing away. It was too much!

"Then the middle wife starts saying 'push, push,' and 'breathe, breathe. They started counting, but never even got past ten. Then, all of a sudden, out comes my brother. He was covered in yucky stuff that they all said it was from Mom's play-center, so there must be a lot of toys inside there."

Then Erica stood up, took a big theatrical bow and returned to her seat. I'm sure I applauded the loudest. Ever since then, when it's show-and-tell day, I bring my camcorder, just in case another "Middle Wife" comes along.

Monday, September 03, 2007


The task is not, in essence, the securing of uniformity, or cooperation, or Church reunion, or any of the external forms, through which nevertheless the unity may be manifested. Within the wide bounds of the Christian Church there is abundant scope for the multiplicity of races, languages, and social conditions; room also for separate organizations with different traditions of faith and order, and much diversity of operation. But there is no room for strife or hostility, for pride or self-assertion, for exclusiveness or unkind judgments, nor for that kind of independence which leads men to ignore their fellowship with the great company of believers, the communion of saints. These things are contrary to the revealed will of God, and should be made at once to cease. As these disappear, the outward manifestation of unity will come in such ways as the Spirit of God shall guide. ... G. T. Manley, Christian Unity [1945]