“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbors eye…”
— Mathew 7:5
New Revised Standard Version
Yesterday, driving to church, I pulled up at a stoplight behind a car with an interesting bumper sticker. It read, “Tolerating Intolerance is Cowardice.” Now, this is the kind of thing that always sets up a feedback loop in my mind. Maybe you’ve come across the term “ear worm,” which is a catchy song that get’s stuck in your head. I suppose I might call this slogan more of a brain worm. When something like it catches my attention, I can have a hard time letting it go. So, let’s just think about this for a minute. Is tolerating intolerance cowardice?
If one is a coward for tolerating intolerance, doesn’t that presume some level of intolerance of cowardice? On the other hand, if we refuse to cower before intolerance, aren’t we being intolerant of intolerance? I assume the phrase is meant to conjure up images of people who remain silent in the face of gross injustice, and I do sympathize with that image. As the old hymn put it, “Once to every [man] and nation, comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.” I would argue with the notion of “once.” Such decisions come along periodically for most of us, not merely once in a lifetime. However, the point is that our calling, as followers of Jesus, is to stand up for what is right, even if it requires an act of courage, and even if the consequences are quite serious, as they were for Jesus himself.
Obviously, there are times when tolerating intolerance can, indeed, be cowardice. But tolerance, all by itself, is not an absolute value. Some things should not be tolerated, and in some instances, regardless of how self-contradictory it may seem, intolerance can be one of them. What I’m objecting to though, is the not too subtle suggestion the bumper sticker is making. My intolerance is justified and yours is not. My intolerance is for the right reasons and yours is for the wrong reasons, and, by the way, if you don’t agree with me you’re a coward. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the truth is a bit more complicated than that.
I think most of you would agree that we are living in highly intolerant times. What is being referred to as “call-out culture” has become rampant. According to Wikipedia, “Call-out culture is a form of public shaming that aims to hold individuals and groups accountable by calling attention to behavior that is perceived to be problematic…” The challenge with this definition is that what is being “called out” and “publicly shamed” is a matter of what is “perceived to be problematic.” The perception, naturally, is in the eye of the perceiver. When I think of public shaming, I see images of people being put in stocks in public squares; a rather barbaric practice that was ill suited to its intended purpose. Call out culture can, at times, be equally barbaric.
If what is being publicly shamed all comes down to whatever a given individual believes is shameful, and if you are the one doing the shaming, presumably that excuses you from the hypocrisy of “intolerance of cowardice,” or “intolerance of intolerance.” Your cause is just, at least in your own mind. You are standing up for a self-defined righteousness, and therefore are immune to the charge of intolerance. It’s kind of a neat slight of hand when you think about it.
Part of where all this comes from, I believe, is the genuine desire for justice in a world where common definitions of what is and is not just have broken down. People are fond of rejecting traditional morality these days in favor of a rigid assertion of individual rights. But they are then left trying to fill a void when other people don’t share their assumptions of what those rights should be. They are left frustrated and angry when “those other people” don’t behave in the way they are “supposed” to; when they take advantage, lie, cheat, steal, accumulate undue wealth, misappropriate someone else’s culture, mis-gender or otherwise disrespect persons who have been traditionally on the margins … and the list goes endlessly on.
Don’t misunderstand me. These are all, indeed, issues of justice. It is vitally important that they receive a fair hearing. Fairness is one of the essential driving forces of our humanity. But what fair is, has always been a moving target. In changing social times, regardless of how frustrating it may be, it is necessary to do the often messy work of redefining justice and doing what we reasonably can to put it more fully into practice. However, excusing one’s own intolerance for the sake of calling out the intolerance or cowardice of others, does not ultimately serve the cause of justice. In standing up for those things we passionately believe in, our greatest threat is not cowardice. It is the self-righteousness and condescension we too easily fall into, that makes it impossible to reach those very people we are trying to persuade. We would be better off, I believe, taking the words of Jesus to heart. First, we must take the logs out of our own eyes.
Yours in grace,