Sunday, February 5, 2017

Tolerance, respect, the Gospel, and civil society

I continue blogging catch-as-catch-can. It will be at least another week before I can return to doing so regularly. In light of the new administration and the seemingly endless vituperation, which, I think, is a direct result of last year's presidential election campaign, which was generally not worthy of the U.S.A. as a nation, I found myself reflecting not only on the importance of tolerance and respect, but the necessity of both for a civil society. Let's face it, a republic such as we have in the United States relies on a civil society. Given that we have become a nation divided, being civil is increasingly difficult. As Christians, being civil in a society that is increasingly indifferent towards, often suspicious of, and sometimes even a bit hostile towards our faith (it's important we do not exaggerate the latter), our current state-of-affairs provides us with the opportunity to be what Jesus calls His followers to be in today's Gospel reading: salt and light.

In this regard, tolerance means the willingness to put up with views and opinions with which you do not necessarily agree or even with which you strongly disagree. Respect, on the other hand, means always holding the other person in esteem, granting the other her/his inherent dignity. Failing to do either is disgraceful, that is, lacking in grace. Acting disgracefully causes you to lose favor with the other, hardening them towards you. A truly Christian understanding of the human person (i.e., seeing every human being as a bearer of the divine image, the imago Dei) is the basis for according everyone due respect. Neither tolerance nor respect imply, let alone require, acceptance of someone else's viewpoint. When it comes to politics, to the "liberal/conservative" divide, it seems to me that both sides talk about how important tolerance and respect are when they're in power, but out of power, generally speaking, they engage in intolerant and disrespectful behavior.

What prompted this reflection are the levels of intolerance we are now experiencing. In particular the violence brought to bear in Berkeley, a city that regards itself as a bastion of free speech, to keep alt-right Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking. This turned Berkeley into a bastion of restricted speech, a place of repression, maybe even oppression. These violent actions seem to be aroused by some imagined fascist takeover of the United States. Keep in mind that I write this as someone who did not vote for President Trump (I didn't vote for Secretary Clinton either). Yiannopoulos holds many views with which I disagree. As applied to the current president and his administration, the reductio ad hitleram fallacy is a gross exaggeration, just as were claims that President Obama was a communist or some sort of Islamist Manchurian candidate. It is faulty reasoning because it is not rooted in reality. No matter what you think or how you feel about Donald Trump, he was elected constitutionally (his election, in my view, was a great vindication of the Electoral College). I believe he will leave office constitutionally either when he is defeated for re-election, decides not to seek re-election, or serves two four year terms as president.

I encourage you to read a fairly short article by Sean Blanda: "The 'Other Side' Is Not Dumb."
This is not a “political correctness” issue. It’s a fundamental rejection of the possibility to consider that the people who don’t feel the same way you do might be right. It’s a preference to see the Other Side as a cardboard cut out, and not the complicated individual human beings that they actually are
When I called for tolerance and respect, one friend observed: "Tolerance just means putting up with the other guy. Our faith requires us to love one another. That's a far greater task, and it is the only way that true healing and community can occur." To which I can only respond, Amen! Thinking about this and trying to make a connection, it occurred to me that when it comes to, say, another person's political views, or perhaps her/his sexuality, to use two prevalent examples, these aren't the most important or even the most interesting thing about the other person, especially when these things are taken in and of themselves and not seen as part of the greater whole of who that person is. I can love someone with whom I disagree, even someone with whom I disagree on fundamental matters, only by tolerating the views they hold with which I disagree. Such tolerance, admittedly, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for loving both my neighbor and my enemy. Without tolerance the other is a person "on other side," my opponent, or maybe even my enemy. Catholics need to heed Pope Francis' call to create a culture of encounter. Encounter is where evangelization and conversion happen. Yes, it requires you to take certain risks. Let's not forget that bearing joyful witness is absolutely essential. How can you convince someone that living according to what you understand to be the Truth is the way to happiness if you are not discernibly happy?

Who knows, maybe by loving a person with whom I disagree, I will listen to them and by listening to them find out how they came to hold the views they hold. Maybe- hold onto your hat- your view might be moderated or even changed. Tolerance can move us to respect, even if not all the way to agreement. It's a starting point. But even if we can only ever bring ourselves to tolerate and respect people who hold different views we're doing better than a lot of people and by so doing we help foster a civil society. It was pointed out by another friend that in his famous Letter Concerning Toleration, the only thing John Locke felt could not be tolerated was Catholicism. I don't think tolerance need not be handicapped by Locke's myopia. But even so, bearing wrongs patiently is not only virtuous, but a work of mercy, a way of imitating the One we claim to follow. If I follow Jesus, loving not only my neighbor, but my enemy, is an imperative, not an option.

All of this reminded of something I read awhile ago: "This new city [the heavenly city] will not emerge from any of our human projects. It is not the culmination of an ideology or program or ideal. It is a pure gift of God, taking what we have broken and bloodied, and transforming it into wholeness, where Christ himself will be our unity" (Tyler Wigg-Stevenson).

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