A front-page article in USA Today recently highlighted cities around the U.S. who are posting “Welcome. We are building an inclusive community” signs at their city limits or in front of schools and city halls. The efforts, the article reports, are “a symbolic plea for greater tolerance.”1
There’s that word again: tolerance.
Tolerance is certainly a buzzword of our age. It pops up daily in the media, in our conversations, and in mission and values statements that cross our desks at work and school. In Los Angeles you can drop in at the Museum of Tolerance, and on the other coast you can visit the New York Tolerance Center, both part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
UNESCO has an entire tolerance program, including tolerance networks, poster contests, a plan for action, conferences, and even six different flags promoting tolerance. Websites encouraging tolerance are a mere mouse click away. We’re called to tolerance at every turn, it seems.
French-born microbiologist RenÃ© Jules Dubos wrote twenty-five years ago that “Human diversity makes tolerance more than a virtue; it makes it a requirement for survival.”2
While I’m reluctant to quibble with luminaries like Dubos and Wiesenthal, or take on organizations like UNESCO, all this tolerance talk has forced me to examine my profound discomfort with tolerance.
We tolerate mosquitoes on a campout, poor service in an otherwise good restaurant, or a dirty public restroom. We tolerate people talking loudly on cell phones in public. We tolerate long waits at the doctor’s office. We tolerate a favorite dog that takes perverse pleasure in rolling around in dead fish. We tolerate potholes. We tolerate menstruation, friends that pat your belly when you’re pregnant, and childbirth. We tolerate flying coach and holidays with obnoxious relatives. We tolerate getting published but not getting paid.
“Tolerance” implies “less than.”
Tolerance suggests that what is being tolerated is substandard, or even undesirable. Tolerance says, “This is not ideal, but I’ll put up with it.” Tolerance perpetuates hierarchical thought and action.
Using the language of tolerance in regards to other people requires examination. What does it mean for whites to tolerate blacks, or Hispanics to tolerate Asian Americans? What does it mean for Christians to tolerate Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs? For heterosexuals to tolerate homosexuals, or citizens to tolerate immigrants? What does it mean for English speakers to tolerate Spanish speakers? And for the able-bodied to tolerate the disabled?
Hearing the questions framed that way unsettles me.
Tolerance is barely acceptable, if at all, for those who take God’s claim on the world seriously. This is the God who creates the cosmos, from the Milky Way to the bacteria churning through my compost pile. This God speaks a breathy word, and the universe–macro and micro–springs into being. This God infuses every rock and cell with God’s image, pulse, and fecundity. This God looks at creation and declares it good.
This God shows no partiality to any created one of us. This God presses us not only to disregard the divisions that separate us, but also to justly repair the harm that such divisions have caused. This God calls all people into the Kingdom, to work, play, create, enjoy, and rest there.
If this God is doing these great things with and through all of creation, it’s time to repudiate tolerance and the inferiority it suggests. It’s time to courageously and prophetically replace tolerance. And I suggest affirmation.
1 Haya El Nasser, “Cities make quiet plea for tolerance” USA Today, 4 August 2006.
2 Rene Jules Dubos, Celebrations of Life (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982) 115.