Nick Clegg said in his April LBC Radio phone-in that he was grateful for the great Christian value of tolerance. And it got me thinking – which value is that?
Blessed are the peacemakers. Love your neighbour. Love your enemy too for that matter, and pray for those who persecute you. Just some of the things that Jesus had to say about being nice. None of them, so far as I can tell, include anything about tolerance.
I don’t want to berate the guy for saying something complimentary about Christianity. That would just be silly. But I do want to think about what we take from the way that our culture sees the role of the Church in society.
What Clegg actually said in his interview on LBC radio was: “I’m not a man of faith, but I think it’s stating the flamingly obvious that we as a country are underpinned, informed, infused by Christian values. Christian heritage, Christian history, Christian culture, Christian values and I think that is something that is obvious about our identity as a nation.
“We are also a very tolerant nation, in fact one of the great Christian values is tolerance, respect for other people, other nations, other faiths, other views so I think our Christian heritage sits very comfortably alongside our plurality, our tolerance as a people.”
It’s not that I can’t see why Clegg thinks that tolerance is a Christian value. Countries where Christianity is the prominent religion are more likely to provide freedoms for people of all faiths and none. But is this defining feature of modern, multicultural Britain really anything to do with the Christian faith?
It’s a catchall term that frequently comes to the aid of politicians, automatically distinguishing its user from those whose offensive views pose a threat to harmonious communal life. It means everything and nothing.
Really, the fact that people aren’t punished for thinking differently is more than a societal nicety; in many parts of the world it’s a matter of life and death.
And let’s face it, ‘tolerating’ people isn’t a particularly high bar to set ourselves. ‘My dear, I tolerate you’ isn’t something I’d look forward to hearing. Would you?
Of course Jesus wasn’t talking about being nice, either. He called us to love – an uncomfortable command far removed from romantic clichés and fuzzy feelings.
Tolerance, meanwhile, is the lowest common denominator. It implies a dilution of meaning while taking the path of least resistance – an acceptance of all that is palatable at the expense of hard truths.
Instead of this mediocre platitude, we should be asking how we can love others despite our differences – not just tolerate them. And clearly that isn’t just between faiths, but within the Church as well.
But there will, of course, be times when tolerance just doesn’t cut it; times when we need to take a stand. Different issues will come to mind where a tolerant approach is not the virtuous option. Modern slavery is perhaps an easy one on which most will agree – though clearly proving less than easy to remedy.
Tolerance is not a fruit of the Spirit. But love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control, are. Together they might add up to creating an environment that welcomes – and learns to live with – difference.
But tolerance for its own sake? I think we can probably find better things to celebrate about Christianity in Britain.
(images via Wikimedia pictures)