Over the past several years, the word tolerance has inched its way into my personal consciousness. The narrative of tolerance has been a driving factor in American culture for decades. But for me as a 28 year old the cry of tolerance has only been in the forefront for maybe the past 5 years. And, as I hear the dialogue in the public square between different people groups and the church about so many vast and complex issues, I hear over and over how we must learn to tolerate one another.
The definition for the word Tolerate is: allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.
With this definition in mind, the core narrative of our culture in America is that at our best as a country and as a planet, we need to learn to live in a space where others do not share our beliefs. I love that. I love that we created a nation where people can believe different things and still be together. However, I am troubled by the idea that the end goal for our humanity is to learn to tolerate one another, because I have become convinced that tolerance, when it is the highest form of our humanity, creates space for us to hate each other. If the best human relationships are defined by tolerance, then we still get to hate each other. We still get to put up dividing walls between each other and live our lives with very clear distinctions about who is our enemy, but as long as we tolerate one another, it’s all good. We can declare, “I am republican and you are a democrat,” and as long as we don’t try and stop the other person from doing what they want or believing what they believe we have reached the pinnacle of society, right?
I can hate everything about your beliefs and practices, but as long as I can tolerate you in the same space as me we are good. Is this working for us?
As a person informed by Jesus this inevitably leads me to Jesus. The life of Jesus is the exact opposite of tolerance. He told his Disciples in John 33: 34-35: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Tolerance is only useful when it is submitted to love. Jesus was able to tolerate death on a cross, at the hands of those who days before bowed to him while most of his followers fled, because he was driven by love.
Our “why” as a church must be love, not tolerance.
For Jesus and for the Church, the end goal of our humanity is to love one another. I have never heard anyone say to a loved one, “Hey, I tolerate you.” No, we say to our loved ones, “Hey, I love you.” We don’t want people to tolerate us! We want them to love us! There are no songs blaring over our speakers about tolerance, they are all about love! We don’t watch movies where people tolerate each other. We watch movies where people fall in love with each other. We may not feel loved, or we may hate love, but love has us wrapped around its finger. With its intoxicating scent we can be pulled in so many different directions, because we were made to love. Tolerance by itself does not work, because we can only tolerate so much. Within any system, there are tolerances in place, and once those limits for tolerance are reached, that system begins to break down.
And so it is with us. Since we are disconnected from the source of love, our tolerance for one another has been minimized. In love, however, there is an endless amount of tolerance. As I have followed the way of love, as modeled in perfection by Jesus, I have erased numerous dividing walls and learned to love so many people I would not otherwise have been able to tolerate, because I reconnected the wires that were unplugged. When the teacher of the law asked Jesus what is the most important thing to God, Jesus gave two answers. Love God, and love your neighbor. Is it possible that the solution to our problems are not vast and complex, but simple? Is it possible that only two wires were unplugged in the human soul? Just two! One, our love for God was disconnected, and as a result, two, our love for each other was destroyed.
As the people of Jesus we have entered the new creation wherein Jesus has torn down the dividing wall of hostility and there is no longer jew or gentile, slave or free. We are all one in Christ. So as the church, we must always enter the conversation (with those who we are told are our enemies by the labels we carry) with a posture of love (Matthew 5:44). The world will declare “we must learn to tolerate one another,” but the Church should declare “we must learn to love one another.” In Christ (the fullest expression of true love and true love Itself), we are reconnected to God and each other.
Jesus came to reconcile all humanity to each other and to God, and the path to that new world is paved with love.
I love how pastors like Erwin McManus call the Church to create the future that God imagines. If the church dedicates itself to loving God and loving people, and nothing else, I believe we will create a future without racism, hatred, or violence. The church must lead the way. So, the question stands for you and me as followers of Christ. Will we learn to love our enemies, or tolerate them? In the end, love is the highest intention of all human action. Tolerance, by itself, will never bring the unity we desire for all humankind. Only love can do that. Only love.