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Beyond Tolerance to Tenacious Love

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The preservation and cultivation of tolerance is vitally important to the well-being of our multi-faith, pluralistic society. President Obama's recent address to the U.N. General Assembly on the subject of such themes as religious liberty, tolerance and diplomacy in a violent world illustrated well why these ideals are so critically important in our world today and also reflect what makes the United States, though flawed, such a great nation.

As a Protestant evangelical Christian, I celebrate our country's estimation of tolerance and the creation of space for freedom of religious expression in a multi-faith society, and for a variety of reasons. As the old saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Unlike some evangelical Christians who talk of taking back America and making it a Christian nation, I would never want to see one religious group -- including my own -- have a monopoly given how easily those in power religiously and politically can distort the use of power to unfortunate ends. Moreover, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s particular vision of beloved community inspires me to seek to cultivate relationships with leaders of diverse religious and political backgrounds to collaborate on promoting the common good.

With these points in mind, I have cherished the opportunity to build a friendship and partnership with Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, a leading Unitarian Universalist. My friend Dr. Sewell asked me to write an article on the subject of tolerance and related notions that would also include a response to her thought-provoking piece titled "Saying Goodbye to Tolerance" published in The Huffington Post on Oct. 19. In the piece, she refers to me and reflects upon evangelicalism. Further to what she says about our personal connection, I have been grateful for the various opportunities I have had to meet and work with Dr. Sewell on such topics as global climate change and the need to build beloved community in the face of various culture wars. I write this article in the hope that this friendship and partnership can be further nurtured and cultivated based on our shared concerns over the common good in our multi-faith society.

As the title suggests, tolerance is the subject of Dr. Sewell's article. I encourage the reader of this piece to read carefully "Saying Goodbye to Tolerance." One of the concerns often raised concerning orthodox Christians is that their belief that Jesus is Lord leads them to be intolerant of other religions. While there are countless heinous incidents throughout history, where adherents of various religions (by no means only Christians) and secular/political ideologies have oppressed people of other traditions because of their strong convictions, the connection is not a logical one. Rather, the grounds for such ungodly acts are unbiblical from the vantage point of Jesus. In fact, for Christians, Jesus calls us to love all people sacrificially, including our enemies. We are called to forgive our enemies, not hate them (Matthew 5:43-48), and to lay down our lives for them, not theirs for us, just as Jesus laid down his life for us when we were his enemies (Romans 5:6-11).

In addition, it is important to note in a discussion on tolerance that tolerance and intolerance do not function as properties of beliefs but of behaviors. If tolerance were to be framed as a matter of acceptance of another person or tradition's belief system, then anyone who rejects my belief system as true would be intolerant (I discuss this point in the book to which Dr. Sewell referred in her essay: Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths {Thomas Nelson, 2012}, pp. 312-313). My Zen Buddhist friends with whom a small group of evangelicals and I partner reject our Christian worldview but do not reject us personally. Rather they are very tolerant and respectful of us. I believe the same is true of our particular approach to them, and they have confirmed it (you can listen to a recent audio recording of my dialogue with Abbot Kyogen Carlson of Dharma Rain Zen Center at Powell's Books on our partnership). I know of many adherents of various religious traditions, whether they be Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus or atheists, who believe that their views best reflect ultimate reality and that my views are wrong. They are not morally culpable for holding their positions. They are not intolerant of me. To make such a connection would not be tolerance, but intellectual suicide. The result would also be the death of tolerance. Without tolerance, America could not function as a multi-faith society.

I do not have the right or basis to claim that those individuals who reject my beliefs are going to hell, a point raised in Dr. Sewell's article. I am a sinner in need of God's grace which I believe Jesus provides. I am to live as the repentant publican or tax collector, not as the self-righteous Pharisee, who claimed not to be in need of God's grace (Luke 18:9-14). What is more, I do not shove my views on others, but hope to share the good news of Jesus with them in the hope that they, too, might come to experience the grace and mercy of Jesus, while also listening carefully and allowing them to share their faith with me. I am encouraged that there are a growing number of evangelicals who are doing the same, as illustrated in the work of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. A mutual friend of Dr. Sewell and mine, journalist Tom Krattenmaker, and like Dr. Sewell, a self-professed liberal, is drawing attention in many of his writings to a more redemptive form of evangelical witness that is moving toward the radical middle.

Of course, there are extreme voices in my tradition who condemn those of other beliefs and lifestyles and who are guilty of hate crimes. Conservative Christians have been the recipients of such condemnation and oppression as well. And yet, in a nation where evangelical Protestantism is the largest Christian group in the United States (see the U. S. Religious Landscape Survey: Diverse and Dynamic, February 2008 of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), evangelical Protestants must be all the more on guard against using their influence and power not to harm others but to cultivate the common good that will benefit people of all walks of life. I share with Dr. Sewell concern over what these particular Christians might say and do and we need to be vigilant in challenging demeaning speech and safeguard against hate crimes' occurrences concerning people of various walks of life.

Dr. Sewell's words provide an important and timely reminder. They also sound an alarm. If my friend and colleague says goodbye to tolerance concerning my evangelical movement, those extreme and un-Christ-like voices within evangelicalism might gain the upper hand. In any conflict, intolerance only breeds more intolerance; hate only breeds more hate. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made clear in his Christmas sermon just months before his death, we must match intolerance and hate with love to build the beloved community, where the victory for the oppressed becomes a double victory that includes all people.

However, tolerance alone is not sufficient. Tolerance can sometimes be confused with indifference. Tolerance must give way to tenacious love that overwhelms the forces of indifference, intolerance and hate. Only then can we live into Dr. King's vision of the beloved community and the common good, which for him was bound up with his faith in Jesus his uncommon Lord.