Tolerance is the Language of Oppression

I just received an announcement for an upcoming event in Dallas. Here it is in part.

“If you support tolerance, you should be part of this event. Period. It is isn’t about being Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Atheist, etc – it is about being unified under the concept that everyone has a right to exist, to practice their religion as they see fit, and the fact, the small miracle, that different groups with different beliefs, can work and live together in this great country.”

It is hard to imagine anyone being against such an event. And I’m all for it. But one word really has me worried. Tolerance. Tolerance isn’t good enough. I refuse to be unified with anybody around this concept.

Because underlying the concept of tolerance is the idea that I and my community are complete in themselves, but that we recognize that we are not alone in this world. Thus we are willing to tolerate others who are different for the sake of keeping peace and even working together. And note, this is all the event mentioned above promises: A right to exist, a right to practice religion, and working together. This isn’t good enough.

The United States wasn’t founded on the idea of tolerance. It was founded on the idea that every citizen was a critical partner in the creating of the society as a whole. That is why it was never good enough that women were tolerated, or that African Americans were tolerated, or that Catholics would be tolerated, or Mormons, or Jews.

Every citizen should demand that he or she be a full partner in the shaping of a democratic society. Not just a chance chance to work with others (meaning work for others). That isn’t good enough. To be a full partner, to have an equal vote, and to have an equal chance to be elected to any office. No one should be satisfied with being tolerated, including the Muslim organizers of this event.

If I am suspicious of the language of tolerance, it is because throughout history it has been the language of oppression. When Christians “tolerated” Jews (not often) it meant that they marginalized them while allowing them “A right to exist, a right to practice religion, and working together.” When modern Muslim thinkers in Egypt, or Iran, or Malaysia, or Pakistan speak the language of tolerance they simply mean marginalizing all non-Mulimss while allowing them “A right to exist, a right to practice religion, and working together.” That was the tolerance of North Ireland Protestants for Catholics, and the tolerance of Austrian Catholics for Protestants. Find any political or religious system, including our own, speaking the language of tolerance and you’ll find marginalization and oppression.

But tolerance remains the language of most of the world’s major religions simply because they have not accepted that they are not complete without people and ideas from outside themselves. All the major religions have believed that a plurality of other religions is in fact the situation in which they live. And to some degree in some times and places all have been tolerant. But they haven’t accepted that those outside themselves are actually necessary for their own completeness. They/We tolerate and even out of hospitality invite, but we don’t ask others to complete us, to make us as humans whole, because we think we already possess that wholeness without others.

And this is why our secular democracy, founded by “we the people” is actually a step forward from the traditional teaching of any religion. It recognizes that we actually do need each other to be complete, to form a whole society, to enjoy the blessings of God.

I would argue, and will, that in fact the US constitution is a better representation of the teaching of Christ and his apostles than the teaching found in most churches. (Which is not the same as arguing that it is a Christian document. It isn’t.) And I know Muslims who would argue that it is likewise a truer representation of the Qur’an than most Islamic teaching. And there are also Jews who would say this. But our religious reflex is to merely tolerate, and thus to marginalize. Not good enough.

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