THE END OF TOLERANCE
Faced with the needs of many and the evil of some, can we hold on to the values which stem from the character of God?
Some words are simply over-used and under-inspected, the more so when they act as a kind of password to acceptability. Tripping the word tolerance off our tongues makes us sound right-on and creedal in secular orthodoxy, but what exactly do we mean? As a lodestar for public life, it is ephemeral. There is a sense of accepting other people under sufferance; a lurking resentment consistent with our passive-aggressive nature. GK Chesterton said that tolerance is all that is left when love runs out and so the enthronement of tolerance as the supreme public virtue may only betray the paucity of our care for others.
At its best, tolerance allows space in life for other people’s beliefs and behaviour. It is the lack of debate around its limits which is surprising and which has exposed us to some anti-democratic rhetoric. There are boundaries to what we tolerate lest people are hurt. A rapidly evolving rule of law shows we have a very finely calibrated understanding of what we will and will not tolerate and this is creeping from the control of public life into the private sphere without much critique. There is an ad hoc feel to this, as if we are making it up as we go along without a sense of principle to guide us. In this setting, voices are emerging which are shrill at best and hostile at their darkest.
Across Europe there is a growing intolerance of the stranger, mixed by a lethal cocktail of the sheer numbers of refugees escaping state violence and the spread of extremist Islam. The refugees are largely fleeing these sadistic forces but the presence of just a few of the latter among the former is allowing a nasty and implacable discourse to emerge. The language of the far right in Poland, Hungary and even in the France, the home of republican democracy itself, is mixing its traditional antisemitism with contempt for Muslims too.
Until recently, the appeal of Donald Trump as a US Republican candidate was a source of amusement and irritation to his opponents. The call to ban Muslims from entering America set its citizens an extreme test of what they value. What happens next? Even if Trump is soundly defeated, the chances are that his xenophobic rhetoric will result in a more strident norm for future Republican candidates, as happened when Richard Nixon replaced Barry Goldwater in 1968. Writing in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman posited a ‘nightmare vision’ of ‘President Trump, President Le Pen, President Putin’ in 2017. It remains an unlikely trinity, but the speculation itself shows how far we have come in a short space of time.
If those who are tolerant cannot adequately define what this means and where it begins and ends, then harsh, populist voices will wrest control of the debate and set new terms for it.
Christian teaching provides a rich seam of wisdom for tackling the challenges that lie in front of us, with its stress on three characteristics: care for the stranger; love for the neighbour; resistance of evil. Each of these are examined in depth in the Bible and the traditions of the Church, describing for us something of the character of God and what he looks for in a just and wise society; what we should tolerate and what we should not. Without these references we slide slowly into contempt for the stranger, fear of the neighbour and a perplexity in the face of evil.
The working out of policy and practice is a painstaking process of negotiation and compromise in a democratic setting. There are no quick solutions and outcomes may look cumbersome at times, but there should always be an underlying sense of the values that inform them. In the face of the needs of many and the evil of some, are we capable of holding on to these values?
A low-intensity fight is happening in the UK over the role of Christianity in the public realm at just the point when we need its scriptural teaching and historic tradition to help inform our reasoning. Meanwhile, those who show they despise this heritage by their words are being listened to.
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