Please Don't Just Tolerate Me!
Is Christianity a religion of love or of hate? Both! And I don’t just mean that there are some Christians who do a lot of loving things, other Christians who do a lot of hateful things, and the latter are wrong. Well, that’s true in one sense, but is also very boring and obvious. There are some Buddhists, Jews, and Zoroastrians who love well, and others who hate terribly - the question is what does that say about the essence of Buddhism, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism, not just the empirical fact that it’s true.
When it comes to genuine Christianity, it has always been the case that the greatest saint is also filled with the greatest outrage. That is why the same person can be stirred to melodramatic (to our senses) bewailing of their own sins as well as moved to kissing the feet of the bloody criminal. Christians are freed to both hate death, and yet celebrate death’s own defeat in Christ, seeing what it cost him and revelling in its final victory. Love drives out fear, but not hate; just as the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. With an increase in love, should come an increase in hate, properly directed. Anyone who has played sports knows that it’s much worse to be ignored by the coach than to be yelled at.
“[Christianity makes one] more angry with theft than before, and yet much kinder to thieves than before. There was room for wrath and love to run wild. St. Francis, in praising all good, could be a more shouting optimist than Walt Whitman. St. Jerome, in denouncing all evil, could paint the world blacker than Schopenhauer. Sometimes this pure gentleness and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture; the lion lay down with the lamb. But remember that this text is [often] too lightly interpreted, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is--Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.” - GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy
Chesterton’s masterful summary provides an image that has been lost in our society. One can see this loss in the way we cling to democracy’s final universal virtue: tolerance. Note that the same word is used both in how we exhort each other to co-exist in a pluralistic world, and in how much alcohol one can handle: tolerance is the highest goal for modern democracy as well as the frat boy! What does that tell us?
If the young freshman has a low tolerance, then he’ll be “giving back” his alcohol to the toilet early in the night - his body reacts quickly and he has changed. If the seasoned senior has a high tolerance, he can encounter this foreign drug without reaction or change. The same is true for our society’s virtue of tolerance. We exhort one another to tolerance in dealing with differences so that we can co-exist with, but not change or impact, each other!
If I am merely willing to tolerate someone, then I can sit together in a room, let them speak their mind without taking it seriously as a viable option for myself, and go about my business. The advantage, of course, is that I also don’t descend into fist-a-cuffs every time I hear a different opinion. The disadvantage is that the outcome is the same as fist-a-cuffs - I have virtually silenced the other by tolerance because I don’t take them seriously enough on their own terms. I’m merely placating them with a superficial ear. This fact is perhaps more dangerous than intolerance because the silencing and ignoring is less obvious. It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back for tolerating each other because we have avoided outright anger. But at what cost?
In any relationship I’m in, please do not pay me the paltry complement of tolerating me (I thank Kierkegaard for drawing my attention to Shakespeare’s “Better well hung, than ill wed”). This virtue has great value in the political sphere, but that is because there is a higher common love that people of different faiths, say, can come together and pursue.
For example, if I join a multi-faith effort in feeding the hungry, then I am of course tolerating the differences in faiths, but that’s not what brings us together - what brings us together is the common love for humanity and hatred of hunger. If I grab a beer with someone afterwards, I hope we can move far beyond mere tolerance to genuine dialogue where we can take each other’s differences (and similarities!) seriously.
In my marriage, there are (many!) things my wife has to tolerate about me, but how sad of a relationship it would be if those outweighed her reasons for love! Those are things she can put aside for a higher good. Our problem is that tolerance has become our higher good, trying to handle meaning that it cannot bear. Unwittingly, we silence our conversation-partners, make more superficial all of our relationships, and withdraw into our individualistic lives without being willing to put ourselves out on the line in a truly vulnerable way. Surely that betrays a lack of confidence in both what we love and what we hate.
If Chesterton is right - and I think he is - than the goal is not more love and less hate, it’s better love and better hate, more honest and refined, properly directed toward the Good. The more I love my lover, the more I will hate the addiction that is destroying her. We see this summed up in the Cross of Christ, where God’s love led him to hate the sin that was destroying us in order to redeem us. Thank God Jesus didn’t stop at tolerance!
Originally published here