Two Kinds of Tolerance

Guest post by Dr. Craig L. Blomberg

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. (Romans 14:1–7)

From the Gloria Hotel just inside the Jaffa Gate to the old city of Jerusalem, you can walk a block and be at the beautiful and inspiring Christ Church for Sunday morning evangelical Anglican worship. On Saturday morning, a group of Messianic Jews celebrate Shabbat there, in Hebrew, but with English translation for visitors. Don’t be surprised if you see a small group of non-Messianic Jews in the street outside the church at either time, singing their own liturgy. Head toward the Wailing Wall and you can pass by a couple of small mosques and an Arabic-speaking Christian Missionary and Alliance Church. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you’re likely to find someone worshipping—Roman Catholics and various branches of Orthodoxy—Armenian, Greek, Ethiopic, Coptic, and Syriac all take turns. At the Wailing Wall itself, you’ll find orthodox, even Hasidic, Jews dressed in traditional black garb, praying almost any time of the day or night, while above and beyond them Muslims revere the Dome of the Rock and worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And there are still other small, old houses of worship dotting the old city, as well as a quite new, large, and ornate Evangelical Lutheran Church in what was an empty plaza not many years ago.

“Tolerance” might not be one of the first twenty adjectives that would come to mind when someone said “Jerusalem.” Perhaps it should.

D. A. Carson’s recent book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, explains in frightening detail how a concept central to American history has morphed into something that could destroy us. Historically, tolerance, especially in religious matters, meant that every person or group was free to express themselves, even in the public square, so long as they did not try to impose their beliefs on others. Evangelism through rational and courteous forms of persuasion was expected, but coercive attempts to establish a state religion were forbidden. In the last generation, however, too often tolerance has been redefined as not allowing any expression of religion in the public square for fear that it might offend someone. But the people promoting such a definition of tolerance don’t abide by their own rules. They aggressively, even coercively, impose their restrictions on others no matter who it offends!

Paul in Romans 14 gives a good biblical example of Christian tolerance. Some people believed they were free to eat all foods; others still felt bound by various dietary restrictions, whether the Jewish kosher laws or various Greco-Roman religious taboos. Some did not believe the Sabbath command carried over to the Christian era; others still kept it. Paul asks each group to respect the right of the others to worship differently. No one is being asked to give up their own convictions, but they are to treat those who disagree with them courteously and with respect. They may well try to explain their own approach and convince someone else they are right, but it must be done in a spirit of kindness for the other.

For the most part, that is what one sees in old Jerusalem today. Oh, there are exceptions, to be sure. The extreme right wings of any religious movement seldom show either kind of tolerance and sadly make the news for their occasional violent action of intolerance. But many, many people of good will in all the major religious traditions in Israel recognize that if they want to be free to express themselves religiously, including in public, they must grant this right to the other groups in town.

This is largely also the America I grew up in. No one ever thought of banning religion from the curriculum of the public schools; it was just important to give all the major faiths coverage, and instruction was to be descriptive and not prescriptive. Now not only the public sector but many private companies as well violate their employees’ constitutional rights (and occasionally, though not typically, some lesser courts even uphold those violations when litigation is brought), because people are either too uneducated or too cowardly to distinguish “freedom of religion” from “freedom from religion.”

Jerusalem still struggles at times with “freedom of religion.” But it would be ludicrous to ever imagine Jews, Christians, and Muslims here ever imagining a state with “freedom from religion.”

America actually has freedom of religion enshrined as a constitutional right. And Jefferson’s famous wall of separation is all about no religion having the right to become a religion established by government or law. Nothing was ever implied by that about not establishing moral principles in the legislation of the land. It was always assumed the electorate would use their understanding of morality as they promoted laws for the country.

What’s frightening is how widely this revisionist definition of tolerance has spread. Freedom from religion is itself in violation of the American constitution—not that every person must have an institutional religion; far from it. But the attempt to impose freedom from religion within the public square is itself one of the most intolerant movements masquerading under the guise of tolerance.

It’s time to reread Paul. It’s time perhaps to visit Jerusalem, from where I’m writing this blog!

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