I’m traveling in India these days, which means that I’m enjoying a lovely respite from going to church. There’s no denying it. At least, denying it would only be another act of inauthenticity by which many of us church-goers live.
Church is largely a chore, aggravating and exhausting, which I undertake once a week because I have received from my parents a religious tradition, elements of which I have come to own for myself, as parts of myself, and dear to me. To some extent, church comes in the package. So I go, week to week, though I’m only there sufficient to meet a duty that demands presence.
These jaunts away from church provide a relief from the oppressive tolerance that is a feature of church.
A community that lives and dies by normativity almost necessarily engages the non-normative as a threat. Some communities can protect their conventional norms simply by eliminating or excluding threats to their conventions. Segregation, prisons, police brutality, deportation, and capital punishment emerge as exclusionary tools by which an empowered norm presents and protects itself as the ideal to which everyone must aspire.
A Christian community’s—or, in my case, a Christian-oid community’s—means of circumscribing and defending conventional norms are hamstrung by all of Jesus’s talk of loving neighbors, Samaritans, the least of these, the last being first, and so forth. Even though churches have figured out how to wield exclusionary tools like excommunication, for the most part a would-be Christian community’s ability to eliminate directly the arbitrarily undesirable is limited by an interest in appearing as much as possible to be following its eponymous founder.Instead, church communities earnestly, warmly, tolerate. Come, they say with firm handshakes, welcoming pats on the back, and well-wishing. Come, you who are heavy-laden. There is room for you here, because we who occupy the seats will scooch, a bit, to allow you to sit among us. And never mind your foibles, your quirks, your amusing difference. We can overlook the things about you that struggle against the norms upon which we, who sit in the seats, have agreed. We can even overlook what you are and what you do if you don’t want to join us. We are that tolerant.
The language, certainly, but even the concept of tolerance speaks of privilege. Toleration presumes an authority or power that gives one the choice not to tolerate, if so disposed, so that tolerance is never a manifestation of genuine grace, but of spite. When one tolerates—whatever one tolerates—one says to some element of creation, “I will allow you to exist, because I can.” Tolerance, it is clear, is a function of decidedly un-Christian pride.
I will step a little further out on the limb. No one wants to be tolerated. Because no one wants to experience himself or herself as another’s condescending gift. Indeed, no one ought to. We sense, darkly, the divine identity in creation that whispers that all is beloved, in all parts and passions, and we so sense, darkly, that every move to own and to control some sphere, to approve some pieces, is an assault on creation. Church can be exhausting, because so much of the friendly tolerance only thinly muffles a distinct hostility to difference.
In any case, when we strip away the bells and whistles of Christianity—not to get rid of them, since bells are lovely, but to see what informs them—we must conclude that those who follow Jesus do not tolerate anyone. Jesus loved, and there can be no reconciliation of love and tolerance, since the latter reinforces and extends the hierarchical—and entirely artificial—distance between people that the former tries gently and desperately to close.
The message of Jesus cannot be heaven and hell, or rites, or authority, or even god—nothing that can give excuse to develop conventions that privilege some over others. The Jesus message must be, must only be, “Each is loved, so love.” All else are bells and whistles.
If one’s watchword is tolerance, rest assured that one does not love. The moment at which one tolerates is the moment at which one puts oneself on a pedestal and makes an enemy of a neighbor.