By Josh McDowell.
“Josh McDowell describes the definition of tolerance today, as well as the implications it has on Christianity and society.
My son Sean was a high school senior when I asked, “Son, in 12 years of public school, were you ever taught that anything is absolutely true?”
“Sure,” he said.
Surprised, I asked him what absolute truth he had learned.
He shrugged. “Tolerance.”
I have since discovered that Sean’s experience is common. Tolerance has become the cardinal virtue, the sole absolute of our society, and our children hear it preached every day in school and from government and the media. Yet few of us understand what society really means by tolerance, nor do we realize that it is the central doctrine of an entire cultural movement. As a result, few of us recognize the threat it poses to us, our children, our churches and our very faith.
One word, two meanings
The traditional definition of tolerance means simply to recognize and respect others’ beliefs, practices, and so forth without necessarily agreeing or sympathizing with them. This attitude, that everyone has a right to his own opinion, is what tolerance means to most of us.
But today’s definition is vastly different. This new tolerance means to consider every individual’s beliefs, values, lifestyle and truth claims as equally valid. So not only does everyone have an equal right to his beliefs, but all beliefs are equal. The new tolerance goes beyond respecting a person’s rights; it demands praise and endorsement of that person’s beliefs, values and lifestyle.
I believe that fundamental change in meaning — and thinking — represents one of the greatest shifts in history, and most people are missing it.
This new tolerance has many dangerous implications, and unless Christian churches and families recognize and respond to it, the beginning of the next millennium is likely to be marked by:
The repression of public discourse. For decades, I have addressed millions of high school and college students about Jesus Christ and the historical evidence for His life and resurrection. As might be expected, I would often be heckled by people saying such things as, “Prove it!” and “I don’t believe you.” But recently I have witnessed a startling shift. Now my attacker invariably says, “How dare you say that?” or “Who do you think you are?” The issue is no longer the truth of the message, but the right to proclaim it. In the new cultural climate, any unpopular message can be labeled “intolerant” and therefore be repressed.
The privatization of convictions. Because the new tolerance declares all beliefs equally valid, Christians will face increasing pressure to be silent about their convictions — in school, at work, in the public square — because to speak out will be seen as an intolerant judgment of others’ beliefs and lifestyles.
Such pressure will pose severe problems not only for us, but for our families and children as well, as illustrated in the case of Shannon Berry, a first grader at Bayshore Elementary School in Bradenton, Fla. Shannon and a classmate began talking at recess one day about their mutual faith in Christ. A teacher, overhearing the conversation, drew aside both of them and reprimanded the two first-graders, telling them that they were not allowed to talk about Jesus at school. The rise of the new tolerance makes the sharing of our faith an increasingly dangerous proposition.
A new wave of religious persecution. For years I puzzled over why a crucifix, a Christian symbol, suspended in a jar of urine is considered art, yet displaying a homosexual symbol in a jar of urine would be decried as a hate crime. That paradox reflects our society’s shift from a Judeo-Christian culture to an increasingly and aggressively anti-Judeo-Christian culture. As the new tolerance permeates our culture, a new wave of unpopularity — and even persecution — is likely to be encountered, not only by Christians, by also by observant Jews and possibly Muslims, because these faiths profess to be based on divine revelation.
In fact, just last April President Clinton announced a public-private partnership with companies such as AT&T, known for its aggressive support of homosexual rights, to teach “tolerance” to middle school children. The President linked so-called “hate crimes” to intolerance and said, “The No. 1 security threat to [our nation] is the persistence of old, even primitive hatreds.”
What does the Lord require?
It is not too late to avoid such scenarios, but I believe doing so will require effort in three areas:
We must humbly pursue truth. It may be difficult to speak the truth in today’s climate, but Jesus said, “The truth will set you free.” Pursuing truth in this context means countering the new doctrine of tolerance. It means teaching our children to embrace all people, but not all beliefs. It means showing them how to listen to and learn from all people without necessarily agreeing with them. It means helping them courageously but humbly speak the truth, even if it makes them the object of scorn or hatred.
We must always remember, however, that when the apostle Peter told us, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” he added, “But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
We must aggressively practice love. Everyone loves love, it seems, but few recognize how incompatible love is with the new tolerance. Tolerance simply avoids offending someone; we must help our children live in love, which actively seeks to promote the good of another person.
Tolerance says, “You must approve of what I do.” Love responds, “I must do something harder; I will love you, even when your behavior offends me.”
Tolerance says, “You must agree with me.” Love responds, “I must do something harder; I will tell you the truth, because I am convinced ‘the truth will set you free.’ ”
Tolerance says, “You must allow me to have my way.” Love responds, “I must do something harder; I will plead with you to follow the right way, because I believe you are worth the risk.”
Tolerance seeks to be inoffensive; love takes risks. Tolerance glorifies division; love seeks unity. Tolerance costs nothing; love costs everything.
I believe the dreadful potential of the new tolerance can be averted, but only with a renewed commitment to truth, justice and love. And, as it happens, that powerful trio of virtues can do more than prevent disaster; it can bring about true community and culture in the midst of diversity and disagreement.”