A lot of words are being tossed around by my generation. Love. Tolerance. Respect. As in, respect others’ beliefs, tolerate everyone, and love everyone. We say these things easily enough. They’re looked up to as noble ideals—but what do they actually mean? How do most people understand them? If I disagree with someone else’s beliefs, is that disrespectful? Is it intolerant to try to change others’ beliefs? If I believe someone else’s actions are morally wrong, is that hateful?
I sense a deep divide between what these words mean to the popular culture and what they mean to Christians. I’m going to propose that these words should have meanings or applications other than what they are now.
Can you define this? We all know intuitively what it is, but might struggle to articulate it precisely. We might say it’s being polite and considerate in our words and actions, or giving due consideration to others’ thoughts, feelings, and opinions — but that doesn’t seem to quite fit the bill, not entirely.
I think that to respect someone is to behave towards them in a manner befitting their status. Different levels of respect are appropriate to different positions: for example, I hope you’d respect the President more than your boss, and your boss more than your neighbor. At the same time, your neighbor’s status as a human being created in the image of God merits a grave measure of respect. That’s why I try to respect everyone.
However, I sense a disturbing trend in popular thought. More and more, it seems to be considered disrespectful to suggest or say that another person’s beliefs are wrong, even if that suggestion comes through explaining what you believe is right.
We say it’s arrogant (and certainly disrespectful) to suggest that anyone else’s most dearly-held convictions are in error—whether morally, factually, metaphysically, or philosophically. However, to call this arrogant is nonsensical, because error is precisely what we suggest when we claim to believe anything. To claim that anything is right is to claim that something else is wrong.
For example, to claim that this is right — that a woman has the right to have an abortion because she has the right do as she pleases with her body — is to claim that this is wrong: that an embryo or fetus is a separate individual with individual rights, not just a lump of tissue that can be disposed of like a cancer.
All truth-claims are exclusive by their very nature (which, by the way, also casts a pale light on our love of “inclusiveness”). Therefore, if it’s arrogant and disrespectful to say that someone else’s beliefs are wrong, then it’s arrogant and disrespectful to claim to know any truth about anything — because no matter what you claim to know about spirituality or ethics, it’s (almost) always going to contradict what someone else believes.
Of course, this isn’t so much a widespread issue yet: it’s still possible in many people’s minds to say “I respectfully disagree.” The next two, though, present more difficulty.
Currently, we see this most often in the contexts of religion and homosexual rights, yet we seem to have a hard time defining it, preferring instead to focus on “intolerance” and its effects. For example, the Institute for Religious Tolerance, Peace, and Justice gave no clear definition that I could find after 10 minutes of browsing their website; on the other hand, they make statements such as, “religious intolerance…is often the cause and underlying root of oppression and warfare” and “religious intolerance as the root problem of many of our modern difficulties.”1
Maybe we can get a clue by looking at something that’s considered “intolerant.” Voting “No” on legalizing gay unions is a current example. This is seen as hateful, mean, and intolerant, because — why? Because you refuse to endorse something that you morally object to? Because you’re not falling in line with what the (ever-increasing) majority thinks is right?
On the other hand, if you legitimize something that you believe is wrong, does that make you tolerant, open-minded, progressive, and loving? No: it makes you a hypocrite who can’t stand by their values in the face of social pressure. A big problem that I see is where the culture demands, “Agree with what the crowd says is right, regardless of whether you believe it’s wrong” and defines compliance as tolerance.
Properly, tolerance is saying, “I think you’re dead wrong, but I can respect you and live with you peacefully anyway.” Maybe a lot of you would agree with that definition, and this isn’t aimed at you: it’s aimed at what I perceive to be the prevailing mode of thought, particularly in my generation.
This is our most difficult term. It’s hard to tell what most people mean by it. Mostly it seems synonymous with “being nice and courteous.” It might even extend to showing compassion, sympathy, and mercy to people who deserve it and aren’t offensive or mean.
With this one most of all, we seem to be better at defining what it isn’t than what it is. We can think of a whole spectrum of things that are clearly unloving and hateful, from throwing trash on your neighbor’s lawn to (again) murdering someone because they’re different from you.
Perhaps we’ll move towards a definition of love by defining its opposite. What is hate? It is wishing or doing harm to someone else out of enmity. Lopping the heads off your neighbor’s roses out of spite is hateful; abusing someone because of their religion or sexual orientation is hateful; rejoicing that someone else is going to hell is extremely hateful (as well us unbiblical).
What then is love? Perhaps it is wishing and doing good to others regardless of personal feelings, regardless of how they treat you, and even (dare I say it) regardless of what it costs you or whether they hate you. However, as far as I can see, most people would stop that definition at “others,” giving a definition of love that goes something like this: do good to people when they deserve it (or at least haven’t done anything to not deserve it), if you feel like it, if it’s not too inconvenient for you, and when it doesn’t harm you or make you feel bad. Do that, and you’re officially a loving person.
The new ethic
Don’t hate, tolerate; teach (it doesn’t matter what, as long as it makes people feel good), love (those who love you, whatever love is), pray (to whatever deity, world-soul, or unknown force makes you comfortable, but don’t expect too much out of it); respect everyone, and don’t preach hate. Obviously, I’m painting in broad strokes, as I must when describing a widespread trend, but this is the core of our generation’s ethic as far as I can reckon it.
I find this ethic hardly worth following. It is tepid and timid, and its greatest objectives seem to be to A) not offend anyone and B) get everyone to be nice to each other. Now, I’m all in favor of being nice to each other and avoiding giving offense where possible, but these aims alone are too small—unworthy to be compared to the radical love that comes to us and from us when we are established in Christ and the power of His spirit. Many of us Christians do such a poor job of showing what kind of love is possible through God, but this is what we’re called to do and what we must strive to do: we are to love our God and our neighbor with a love that is patient and kind, that is not arrogant or rude, that is humble and gentle, and the counts others as more important than ourselves.
My fellow Christians, I pray we take this call seriously. To my unbelieving friends, I pray you come to know a Christian who does so.
No blog entry next week, on account of I’m going to be in the mountains. Nathan the Paul will resume its regularly-scheduled programming on Friday, June 28th, with an entry on what to do about unloving Christians.
P.S. For those who want to know, on the issue of whether or not to legalize gay marriage, I suppose I’m indifferent. What is it to me if this country doesn’t forbid what the Bible forbids? After all, we are not a “Christian nation,” and the government is not an arm of the church.
So while I’m certainly not going to fight (or vote) for legalizing gay marriage, I don’t see that it much matters whether it passes or not. People are going to keep doing what they do, and all I can do is to continue to do my best to live as a representative of Christ, depending on His grace to enable me to do so, and do my best to communicate the Gospel in my words and actions.