“In many ways tolerance is a lost virtue, and often, where it does exist, it exists from the wrong cause.” Those are the words of the Scottish scholar William Barclay, first published in 1953. Though there has been a great deal of talk about tolerance since then, it’s not clear that the lost virtue has ever been found.
Over the decades, talk about tolerance has risen like the waves of the sea, only to subside, then rise again. The concept of tolerance has been a wedge that activists hammer to create an opening for the acceptance of a previously unpopular opinion or practice. Once acceptance has been gained, interest in tolerance invariably falls until the next cause blows in.
There was a swell of tolerance talk in the 1990s and early 2000s, but if that was the decade of tolerance, the second decade of the century has been the decade of intolerance. Tolerance has become an anti-virtue. We are not going to tolerate – you can fill in the blank: racism, sexism, illegal immigration, hate speech, east coast elitism, Trumpism, even intolerance – any longer.
Both the demand for tolerance and the counter-demand for intolerance can be wrong-headed. Frequently, those demanding tolerance want us to accept their opinions and practices, while those demanding intolerance want us to reject the people who hold opinions or take part in practices with which they disagree. But this is to get things backwards. It is unnecessary, and sometimes reprehensible, to tolerate opinions, but it is necessary to tolerate people, even when they hold opinions we emphatically reject.
Our generation could learn about tolerance from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley, who lived in an age when upper-class men often wore powdered wigs, once wrote: “I have no more right to object to a man for holding a different opinion than mine than I have to differ with a man because he wears a wig and I wear my own hair; but if he takes his wig off and shakes the powder in my face, I shall consider it my duty to get quit of him as soon as possible.”
When the Methodist movement began, Wesley was determined it would be characterized by tolerance. “I resolved to use every possible method of preventing … a narrowness of spirit, a party zeal … that miserable bigotry which makes many so unready to believe that there is any work of God but among themselves.”
The maxim among the early Methodists was, “We think and let think.” Intolerance does just the opposite. It doesn’t think and it doesn’t want anyone else to think either.
What Wesley taught the Methodists, he also practiced. According to William Barclay, John’s brother Charles had a son who left the Church of England, of which his father and uncle were ordained clergymen, and became a Roman Catholic. This came at a time of strong anti-Catholic sentiment in England, yet John wrote his nephew, “Whether in this Church or that I care not. You maybe saved in either or damned in either; but I fear you are not born again.”
When tolerance is directed to the wrong object – to opinions and practices, rather than to people – society suffers. Opinions and practices that don’t merit acceptance are received while people for whom tolerance could provide a path for change are rejected. Ideas should stand or fall on their merit but people can only stand on grace.
A misplaced object is not the only, nor the most critical, place tolerance can go wrong. A misplaced motive is even more detrimental. Barclay writes: “Our tolerance must not be based on indifference but on love. We ought to be tolerant not because we could care less but because we look at the other person with eyes of love.”
Barclay has uncovered the one foundation that can support authentic tolerance: love. Jesus taught his followers to love people, including those whose opinions and practices were morally deficient or socially harmful. He even commanded them to love their enemies. Only in this way is it possible to resolutely reject a person’s views and at the same time genuinely accept the person.
And that’s something that can change the world.