Truth, justice and the torturing of tolerance

Too many in the church have tolerated too much for too long.

A Jesus Saves sign in Los Angeles. Photo by Joel Muniz/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — The people in the region of my birth were characterized by stoic independence or secular liberalism — or both. On Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, I gathered with fellow believers in church. But outside those walls — at school or work — very few Christians could be found.

A defining virtue of these communities was tolerance. Tolerance was expected, modeled and taught. Tolerance is a value rooted in both a democratic society and a Christian worldview — so in theory, I had nothing to worry about.

But in practice, as an evangelical Christian and a minority, I had to learn to ask for tolerance for my beliefs, too. 

In junior high, my math teacher affixed a bumper sticker on his chalkboard that said, “The Moral Majority is Neither.” I didn’t know then what the Moral Majority was. But I knew that this teacher was prone to getting handsy with the girls when he asked them to erase the chalkboard after class, something we just tolerated, avenging ourselves by snickering at him behind his back.

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In graduate school, my officemate decorated the office we shared with pro-LGBT posters, making me feel free to put pro-life flyers on the wall above my desk and on my half of the office door. The officemate was appalled, however, saying my signs embarrassed her when students or colleagues came to the office. I told her I wasn’t embarrassed by her signs even though they didn’t reflect my views.

The only resolution she would accept was for us both to take all the posters down. So, we did. This was one of my first of many lessons in intolerance, and how tolerance unmoored from justice leads to oppression.

Later, in an honest-to-goodness “God’s Not Dead” moment, one of my professors made fun of Christians during class. I spoke up. “That’s not very tolerant,” I said — and everything got quiet. When the class was over, the professor asked me to stay after, and he apologized for what he’d said. Some years later, he became a Christian.

Upon finishing my Ph.D. and relocating to the Bible Belt to take my first full-time teaching appointment, at a Christian university, I brought the tolerance I’d been schooled in my whole life with me. When certain things seemed strange to me, or even off, that tolerance came in handy.

When I learned about the number of esteemed senior faculty and administrators who’d had egregious moral or ethical lapses only to be placed back in positions of power, I thought, “Well, these folks aren’t any different from my secular professors. Christians aren’t perfect — just forgiven, right?”

When, within the first hour of student tabling week, the administration shut down the display of a student club I advised — because the message, unbeknownst to me, undermined the business of one of the university’s most valued donors — I rationalized, “Well, I’m not the one who has to worry about paying the bills.”

When my students complained to me about a professor who routinely let class out early or gave extra credit to the class for loudly shouting “Jesus is awesome” in unison, I said to myself, a bit uneasily, “Well, some people are just more passionate than academic. Everybody is different.”

When professors who taught multiple large sections of classes would create niche texts and use them as required textbooks, textbooks that no academic anywhere else would ever use, I told myself, “Well, I guess there aren’t a lot of explicitly Christian textbooks out there.” I’d never gone to a Christian school, after all, so what did I know?

(When the requirement came that all classroom texts be in digital format, making it impossible for students to buy used editions, the role author royalties played in these decisions became clear. By some calculations, these professors were likely making six figures a year in textbook royalties alone.)

When I learned about numerous instances of ghostwriting, plagiarism and use of academic titles derived from honorary degrees, my tolerance was really tested.

When the platform for thrice-weekly convocations became increasingly filled by celebrities and ne’er-do-wells, I had trouble tolerating it, so I stopped attending to avoid what was becoming a stumbling block.

When a colleague was exposed for “embellishing” his life story beyond anything that could be reconciled with the facts, my tolerance began to run out.

Then, even before the world knew the worst sins of our institution’s leaders, when I spoke up about his smaller public ones, and my complaints were simply received with a pat on the head, I understood that tolerance without accountability is corruption.

Finally, when I learned that the men who led the movement to return the centrality and authority of Scripture to our denomination were accused of sex abuse and sex abuse cover-up, I could tolerate no more. I spoke up. Loudly.

Conservative evangelicals often call out the hypocrisy of progressives whose tolerance goes only one way. But some conservatives have also made tolerance a one-way street, failing to support the religious and personal freedoms of those who believe differently than we do.

Instead of offering rigorous and compelling arguments in defense of what we understand to be true, some simply take up the other side of the rope in a tug-of-war game of intolerance, making each side no different from the other side.

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I have a lot to process and even confess about what I have tolerated in Christian institutions and among fellow believers. A lot of us do. Too many in the church have tolerated too much for too long.

To be sure, situations can be complicated. Motives and actions can be mixed. Facts can be disputed. Perspectives can differ. Pictures can be incomplete.

Nevertheless, some things are clearly and simply wrong. It takes wisdom to discern what should be tolerated and what should not. It also takes wisdom to know when to speak up and when to wait. It takes wisdom to understand when institutions are set up to perpetuate wrong rather than prevent it, to recognize when corruption is a feature, not a bug.

And it takes courage to tolerate no more what is wrong — and to speak up and act for what is right.

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