The Paradox of Tolerance – Rev. Anthony Makar



“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.” The immortal poet Rumi says that, and in so doing, he is at one with our Unitarian Universalist heart. He is at one with our history. In 1568, the first and only Unitarian King in history—King John Sigismund—declared, “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well; if not, no one shall compel them, for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the Superintendents (Bishops) or others shall annoy or abuse the preachers on account of their religion, … or allow any to be imprisoned or punished by removal from his post on account of his teachings, for faith is the gift of God.” A person’s faith is their secret way of being with the mystery, and it cannot be compelled by any external force, it can’t even be compelled by the person in question gritting their teeth and trying to force themselves to believe. It comes from a place within that’s deeper than trying, it comes from the soul, it comes from God.

For almost 500 years, this has been our tradition. Tolerance is synonymous with who we are.

But it’s nevertheless complicated. It’s confusing.

At times, it’s tolerance that leads us to allow bad behavior in our congregations. We don’t hold offenders accountable, because tolerance. A few years back, on a UU minister’s email chat, there was a thread on this topic, and one story had to do with a congregant who regularly laced the social hour beverage with LSD and the leadership tolerated it for almost an entire year. Another story had to do with a congregant who was known by a few folks as a sexual violator and he began preying on women in the congregation and leadership did nothing. Yet another story—all sorts of stories, actually—about individuals who would berate others viciously in person and by email and people sort of sighed and tolerated it.

Is this truly what tolerance requires of us?

Confusion can also hound us as we consider ideas and convictions. The Rev. Kathleen Korb says, “I once got in serious trouble with a fellow UU for what she considered my intolerance in religion. How dared I say that Unitarian Universalism is better in any way than other religions? Our truth is just as partial as that of others — as indeed, of course, it is. All I could legitimately say, she felt, is that Unitarian Universalism is better for me than other religions are.” But then Rev. Korb goes on to say, “It always seems strange to me that after saying this with all sincerity we get so upset when our children grow up and choose to become Roman Catholics or fundamentalist born-again Christians, or Scientologists….” Would this truly make King John Sigismund proud? No one disagreeing because disagreement feels too judgy? No one debating ideas about religion and human nature and politics because the whole idea of progress from error towards greater truth feels threatening?

What would our ancestors, who gave their very lives in service to their/our faith, say?

And what would they say about times we’ve been silent in the face of oppression? Offensiveness is one thing—offensiveness can be the atrocious table manners of kids, or that person who keeps on checking text messages while talking to you. Offensiveness makes you feel uncomfortable, hurts your feelings. But oppression reinforces the status of marginalized folks. Oppression is when someone tells a racist or sexist joke, and it’s not just about hurt feelings. It’s political. The humor acts like a drug on bystanders, it releases inhibitions, it makes it ok to go along with the discrimination, it solidifies it even further. It solidifies injustice.

Does tolerance extend even to such things? Might we even measure the degree of our virtue by how hard we work to shut up and say nothing and do nothing when, for example, he-who-shall-not-be-named recently told his supporters at a rally in North Carolina that “Second Amendment people” could deal with she-who-shall-not-be-named in case she’s elected President? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. That little assassination joke.

Does tolerance demand that we pretend nothing happened?

Now, I know I’m asking a lot of rhetorical questions, and some of the answers might seem obvious. But when we try to hold folks accountable for their bad behavior, we really can get called out as intolerant. When we stand up for what we believe, we really can get called out. We can even call ourselves out. We can fall into anxious hand-wringing when, for example, we sense our disgust and anger towards conservative evangelical Christians who condemn GLBTQ people as morally perverse and straight on the way to hell. We sense the disgust and anger in ourselves, which flows out of the very correct insight that conservative evangelical Christians reinforce larger cultural prejudices and give covert permission to those who are inclined to take their prejudices and translate them into violence. But when we sense that disgust and anger, we call ourselves out! We wring our hands and beat our chests! We say, “We need to be more tolerant!”

And you better believe, we get called out by conservatives. One popular meme goes, “I’m a tolerant liberal. Agree with me OR ELSE, you racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobic, inbred, redneck, bible-thumping, NASCAR loving, gun-toting, America-loving bigots!” We are charged with liberal hypocrisy, and we may well wonder—are they right?

We seem so far away from the sweet pure insight of Rumi, according to which each of us has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged. We seem so far away from our beautiful Unitarian King whose Edict on Toleration was a watershed moment in the history of the West.

We’re lost, and we need to find the way home, and that’s the outrageous intent of this sermon in our remaining time together….

It starts by thinking through the paradox of tolerance, which can be expressed simply as, “If tolerant folks express intolerance, how then can they claim to be tolerant?” The implication here is that we have a moral duty to allow what is morally wrong … but that can’t be right, right? But the paradox seems to drive us into that corner!

Let’s think this thing through. Imagine an obnoxious person who, when others disagree, rails at them, insults them, hounds them, taunts them, and, in the end, is the only person talking, because everyone else is too afraid to peep. What has happened here is the collapse of a space of toleration in which free meaningful speech thrives. Speech is meaningful and free when many people get to talk and what’s expressed has genuine informational content. Speech is NOT free when only one person gets to talk and all the others have been browbeaten into silence. Speech is NOT meaningful when it’s laced with rudeness and insult. And so: to preserve the space of toleration here, we must expel the obnoxious person if they intend to persist in their obnoxiousness. Yes, from a distance it can appear like we are being bullies. But we are up close to it; we know the truth of what’s going on. We’re saying no to the bully in order preserve a tolerant space of meaningful free speech for everyone willing to participate. If we don’t say no, then intolerance becomes absolute.

This is what New York Times writer David Brooks is addressing in his fantastic article entitled “The Governing Cancer of Our Time,” where he’s grappling with the rising phenomenon of people who are “against politics.” He writes, “We live in a big, diverse society. There are essentially two ways to maintain order and get things done in such a society — politics or some form of dictatorship.” David Brooks goes on to define “politics” in pretty much the same way I’ve defined the “space of tolerance that allows for free speech.” He says, “Politics is an activity in which you recognize the simultaneous existence of different groups, interests and opinions. You try to find some way to balance or reconcile or compromise those interests, or at least a majority of them. […] The downside of politics is that people never really get everything they want. It’s messy, limited and no issue is ever really settled. […] Disappointment is normal. But that’s sort of the beauty of politics, too. It involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their vantage point and try to balance their needs against our own.”

But then David Brooks says, “Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups — best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right — want to elect people who have no political experience. They want ‘outsiders.’ They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power. Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.”

That’s David Brooks, exploring a very real collision of two mutually exclusive ways of being. We feel this collision every day in America. And we can’t allow the paradox of toleration to confuse us. It’s just the way it is: to preserve politics, to preserve the space of toleration that enables meaningful and free speech for everyone who wants to participate, we must say no to the bully.

We must be gentle/angry people.

Which takes us to a second insight that can help clear up the confusion around tolerance and bring us home: disentangling from moments when we’re standing up to the bully, we’re being gentle/angry people, and the bully responds with outrage. With pushback. He invokes “liberal hypocrisy.” Or, better yet, he invokes “political correctness.”

Alyssa Rosenberg, in the Washington Post, offers something quite trenchant in a recent article entitled, ‘”Politically incorrect’ ideas are mostly rude, not brave.” She writes, “When Donald Trump took the podium in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention last month, he promised voters that ‘I will present the facts plainly and honestly. We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.’” She goes on to acknowledge that, indeed, Trump “claimed the Republican nomination by exploiting a preexisting sense that important truths were going unspoken in American public life and positioning himself as the only person daring enough to say them.” But now Alyssa Rosenberg gets to the heart of it: “But what if the things people have held themselves back from saying for fear of social censure aren’t inherently meaningful? The sad thing about so much supposed truth-telling is that their supposed transgressions aren’t remotely risky. They’re just rude. Presenting commonplace unpleasantness as an act of moral courage is a nifty bit of reframing. This formulation allows its practitioners to treat their own laziness, meanness and self-indulgence as ethically and politically meaningful, when in fact they’re anything but.”

In other words, when a bully charges others with being PC, they’re throwing down a red herring, they’re trying to get things off track. They don’t like how things are changing in the world, they don’t like the feeling of losing power, they don’t like how people who haven’t had very much power are starting to gain some. So they claim PC and make it sound like they’re the ones being victimized! “Important truths are going unspoken,” they warn in apocalyptic tones; but the only unspoken truth here—the only one—is the shameful truth of the bully’s sense of entitlement to keep on bullying. That’s all.

Saying no to the bully is just a good kind of intolerance, which is justice.

This is the final thing that needs to be said, and we are home. Not all kinds of intolerance are alike. It’s analogous to the situation with cholesterol. One kind is indeed bad, the LDL kind. But there’s another kind, called HDL, that’s actually good for you. The more, the better. Same thing goes for the body politic. There’s a certain kind of intolerance that strengthens the heart of the body politic, makes it healthier.

The justice kind.

Justice says no to LSD in the Sunday morning coffee and to all other bad behavior in congregations and elsewhere.

Justice says no to all the jokes that make bystanders think oppression is OK.

Justice says no to assassination jokes.

Justice calls conservative evangelical Christians out for their complicity in helping sustain a culture of violence towards GLBTQ people.

Justice doesn’t allow people who are against politics to have their way.

Justice doesn’t feel ashamed of itself when PC is invoked.

Justice says no to the bully.

Once we get clear on this, then, and only then, can we get clear on what tolerance truly asks of us.

Tolerance asks us to create spaces where people don’t have to think alike to love alike. It says, “Have opinions. Believe what you believe. Hold on to the faith that comes to you from a place within that’s deeper than trying. You really can tell another person, ‘I disagree.’ But be respectful. Be kind. If your faith is a gift of God, so is theirs. And be open to the possibility that they may have a piece of the truth you lack. Try walking in their shoes for a time, see what happens. See what you find.”

That’s what tolerance asks for, and it also asks this: to be supremely, resolutely clear on how terribly fragile it is, how easily overwhelmed by bullies of all kind.

Justice is the precondition of tolerance.

If there is no King John Sigismund, there is no Edict of Toleration.

Sustain justice. Do that, and the Christian and the Jew and the Muslim and the shaman and the Zoroastrian and the Unitarian Universalist and the stone, the ground, the mountain, the river, can each have its secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.

Sustain justice, and history will not have to record, as Dr. King has said, “that the greatest tragedy … was not the strident clamor of the bad people but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Be gentle/angry people!

AMEN