Tolerate This

It bugs me that pluralism and tolerance have become dirty words among many Christians. One good example of this is a book titled Be Intolerant: Because Some Things are Just Stupid by Ryan Dobson, son of James. (The title alone reveals a great deal about what is wrong with the so-called “Christian right” way of thinking.). The assumption seems to be that the best way to deal with rampant moral relativism is to become intolerant people. In other words, when tolerance gets out of hand, we should leap to the opposite pole—a legalistic overreaction that strikes me as more Pharasaic than Christlike.

I would like to suggest that Jesus provides the right model for responding to moral relativism: grace and truth. Jesus certainly had a particular (and perfectly correct) view of the nature of things, including the sinfulness of people. He did not shy away from calling sin sin. But one of the most fascinating aspects of Jesus’ teachings is that it finds Law inadequate. In other words, being intolerant doesn’t get us where we need to be. Naming sin as sin doesn’t effectively deal with it. So in addition to truth, Jesus provides grace. But grace is costly. Demonstrating God’s grace required Jesus to associate with sinners and ultimately to take on himself the ugly consequences of their sin. He dealt with sin by humbling himself among the perpetrators. Being right did not make Jesus a jerk.

When the Bible calls upon Christians to share in the sufferings of Christ, this includes humbling ourselves among people we know are wrong. We should be ready to proclaim and explain the truth, and we should be ready to demonstrate grace. If a young woman is suffering under the burden of raising children born out of wedlock because of her own foolish/sinful choices, we should not just tell her she shouldn’t have slept around. Rather we should share the burden of her sinfulness by providing for her materially, emotionally, and spiritually. In this way, the gospel is demonstrated as well as proclaimed. It’s better to volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center than to picket an abortion clinic.

Just this morning, I heard a great example of this. I was listening to “Fresh Air,” a radio interview program on NPR. Terry Gross, the host, was interviewing a young woman who represented an odd wave of evangelical Christians in Ivy League schools. Revealing her own prejudices, Ms. Gross asked this young woman how she handled the presence of “very out and organized” gays and lesbians. The guest replied, “I have several friends who are gay. They know I think homosexuality is wrong, but that doesn’t keep them from being my friends.” Grace and truth.

Now a couple test questions:

(1) Which of the following is a more accurate description of the American evangelical church?
A) A humble group of people who would give the shirts off their backs to help anyone.
B) A proud group of people who want everyone else to shape up.
(2) Which of the above is a more accurate description of Christ?

Intolerance is the opposite of humility; it requires dominion. If I am following Christ, I am not in a position to be intolerant. It seems crazy, but it’s the way of the cross.


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