By now, unless we have been living under a rock, we have joined our voices to the moral outrage surrounding Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson's remarks published in a recent GQ issue, and the subsequent suspension of Robertson (now re-instated) from the hit television show produced by cable company A&E. In an interview with the magazine Robertson expressed graphic intolerance of homosexuals and appalling insensitivity to the plight of African-Americans during the Jim Crow era.
Accusations of intolerance, and cries for tolerance, have been aggressively leveled at each, Robertson and A&E, depending upon the side taken by the crier. Despite the hostile verbiage directed toward the two central parties in the drama, prevailing reason seems to have concluded the following: the first amendment protects Robertson's right to free speech, but not his right to a TV show. In other words, both parties were within their legal rights. Was there not, however, another critical issue involved?
In this essay my focus looks beyond the particular issues raised in the interview to the larger debate over tolerance from a Christian perspective as it pertains to moral issues. For many, tolerance in response to liberal speech and behavior equates to political correctness, widely considered a modern virtue by the political and religious left, but often a vice by the right. For others, tolerance of a cultural shift away from traditional Christian values is considered betrayal of the conservative cause, and evidence of the baptism of an apostate church by secular society. Or as the lament goes, the world is winning the church; the church is not winning the world.
Is tolerance, then, a virtue or a vice? The easy answer is, it depends upon the issue, and to whom one speaks. As a rule, one might anticipate conservatives (e.g., Robertson) to be intolerant of any real or perceived erosion of traditional values. One might also expect liberals to be more comfortable with evolving cultural values, perhaps proving impatient, even agitated, with conservative condemnation of cultural change, (e.g., A&E).
Although millions were jolted by Robertson's words and A&E's response, each position represented a major segment of American society. Each party was intolerant, but for different reasons due to competing worldviews.
Since intolerance implies judgment, or suppression of freedom, Christians may disagree on its practice. On one hand, Jesus admonishes believers saying, "Judge not, lest you be judged." Too, this is America, land of the free. Who are we to take away from others, what God and constitution grant them: freedom? On the other hand, Jesus judged the Pharisees and Sadducees, as well as His culture. Doesn't the Good Book encourage believers to "contend for the faith," a difficult assignment to complete without judging when a battle should be joined?
The people of God are called to, "do justice." Justice, however, is impossible apart from judgment (The Hebrew word translated justice, or judgment, is one and the same.). Even forgiveness depends upon judgment. Forgiveness says, "I judge you guilty; and I forgive you."
So how are we to think? To tolerate or not, judge or not, that is the question. The answer is yes, of course, we judge all things, meaning sometimes we inevitably practice tolerance, while other times we do not. Jesus judged the money-changers in the Temple, turning over their tables, but understood when two sisters blamed Him for the death of their brother. Paul judged the sinful. Daniel judged the Babylonians. The prophets judged kings and screamed, "NO!" to their society. Without judgment there can be no justice, no repentance, no right or wrong, no morality nor immorality, no law and order, no fairness, no hope, and no conversion.
Perhaps what Jesus meant by His "judge not" admonition was that we should not set ourselves above others, arrogantly counting ourselves better than they. Once He asked, "Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor's eye, when you have a beam in yours?" Then when some wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery, He responded, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Too, by including lust as adultery and sustained anger as murder in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it clear we are all adulterers and murderers.
Therefore, "we," not "you," have a sin problem. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." "There is none righteous, no not one." True, the Bible knows nothing of tolerance for sin, willful living contrary to the will and Spirit of God. However -- and this is the rub -- all of us are guilty. Not "you," but "we." Not "them," but "us." And all of us are eligible for forgiveness. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sin he is faithful and just to forgive our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I John 1: 8-10)
Tolerance, on the other hand, leaves sin unaddressed. The good news is Christ came to address our sin problem, not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:16-17). "While we were yet sinners, God loved us, and Christ died for us." (Romans 5: 8) Good News, indeed! If we lose the doctrine of sin, however, we lose the doctrine of salvation. Simply put: no sin, no Savior. Bonhoeffer surely had it right. The last word with Christ, when He gets His way is grace; but you can't speak the last word, he noted, until you speak the next-to-last word. And the next-to-last word is "guilty."
So in the latest skirmish of the culture war, who is the sinner: Phil Robertson's targets, Phil Robertson, A&E executives, or the author, or reader, of this essay? All.
Our mistake is not in addressing the sin problem of the human race, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. Our mistake is failing to understand we are all part of the problem -- and that a solution awaits.