On Wednesday I had just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Israel. With increasing reports of violence between Muslims and Jews I had been a little nervous about going. Even while traveling in Israel I saw daily reports about knifings and shootings. It was such a blessing to see places that the Bible talks about and to walk where Jesus walked but we could also see concrete walls and barbed wire dividing Palestinian and Jewish areas. So after returning, it felt good to be home; good to be safe. Then two days later came reports of more than one hundred people killed in Paris and others injured or held hostage. Details of this most recent terrorist attack are still being reported as they become available. The thought again comes to mind: why can’t we all just get along? Why of all people, is it those of deep religious conviction that are killing one another?
Tolerance may be defined as “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”
Tolerance doesn’t mean wishy-washy. It doesn’t mean that our deeply held convictions don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a right or a wrong answer in matters of religion. It doesn’t mean that the Bible is so difficult to understand that we don’t know what it says. It doesn’t mean that the infinite almighty God doesn’t know how to communicate clearly in the Bible. It doesn’t mean that every road leads to heaven or that the differences in belief between religions are trivial. It does mean that religious people – especially religious people – should be able to sit down peacefully and discuss points of agreement and disagreement.
Over the years I’ve had discussions with clergy of various persuasions: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, various kinds of Protestants, Muslim Imams, Jewish Rabbis, Mormon Missionaries and others. We have been able to sit down over a cup of tea or coffee (except with Mormons, who are not supposed to consume hot drinks) and talk. These were opportunities to clarify what they believe and correct misconceptions where they or I may have misunderstood. These were opportunities to be reminded that these and others who do not believe exactly what I believe are not my enemy. Some became dear friends.
Jesus taught that people will know we are his followers because we love one another. St. Paul in the thirteenth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth wrote a detailed description of how love behaves. Among other things, love keeps no records of wrongs done by another. Instead, love keeps hoping for better things. A particularly Christian kind of love is “agape” love. Agape is unconditional love. It is not treating others as they have treated us, but treating others as God has treated us, with unconditional acceptance and mercy. Our sins sent Jesus to the cross but by his suffering and death he has absolved us of our sin. As Jesus taught in the “Golden Rule” (something shared by virtually all religions) we are to treat others as we would have them treat us. True religion, according to the first chapter of the epistle (letter) of James is to help widows and orphans in their distress. This doesn’t mean only helping those who hold our own Christian convictions, but also those we disagree with, whether they may be Muslim or Mormon, Republican or Democrat, non-religious or devout.
Jesus was never wishy-washy in his teaching but neither was he unmerciful or unloving. In the Gospel of John chapter 8, he was able to speak up for a woman caught in adultery – to prevent religious leaders from stoning her to death, to tell her that he didn’t condemn her and yet also to admonisher her to not continue in her life of sin. According to ancient Christian tradition, she became a devoted follower of Christ. Imagine how the world might be different if we adopted Jesus’ kind of tolerance.