One would think that religious college, seminary and years of ministry would have brought an awareness of the diversity of faith traditions that exists in our world. Sadly, that wasn’t the case for me until a decade or so ago. Early years in the Deep South as a Catholic convert who became a Protestant (read that as Baptist), never prepared me for a much bigger world that lay just outside my realm of church experiences. Simply put, I was dumb as a stump about the many faith traditions I have come to know and appreciate.
My conservative professors taught that Catholics and Mormons were cults to be feared. Anyone not a Christian could not possibly have a valid faith. Doubting such obscure thoughts never seemed to cross my mind. These were learned men (remember, Baptist and no female theology professors) who should be believed without reservation, and I did. The thought that I might be close-minded or ignorant about religions and faiths other than my own never crossed my mind. To consider myself intolerant would have been a self-imposed criticism that surely came undeserved. But intolerant I was.
Through my current ministry, my mind has been opened and my life blessed by exposure to some of the most incredible faith communities and leaders. How I would love to see the face of any of my seminary professors if I told them that I now have friends who are Jewish, Christians from a variety of traditions, Unitarian, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheists, Humanists, Sikh, Wicken and more. As they would say in the South of my past, “Who’d a’ thunk it?” But the richness this complexity brings to my life and ministry is priceless. Surely I am blessed beyond measure by knowing and honoring all of them.
I suppose that is one of the reasons I am saddened to often hear of individuals who express their intolerance in such incredibly unkind ways. Recently a Presbyterian colleague wrote a beautiful message on his blog site about life, resurrection and the right of a women to make reproductive health choices. It was his opinion based on his interpretation of the Scriptures that he holds tight in his faith. Yet the outpouring of hateful vitriol for hundreds who identified themselves as “Evangelical Christian” shocked me and left my friend hurt and confused. “How can people who profess to follow Christ behave like that?” he asked me. There is no answer to that question without falling into the realm of judgment oneself. It’s best not to go there.
Intolerance is a strange creature. When it raises its head, it is often not even recognized. We see it every day, but often look past it as if it were some invisible force. Watch as people avert their eyes and walk out of the way to avoid a homeless person with a sign asking for help. Look at the faces of some who walk past a group of young black men gathered on a corner. Read the account of politicians who will not enter the legislative chamber because an Eastern mystic is praying. Catch a glimpse of the way observers scowl at Muslim women who wear head scarves. The list is long and could go on for hours, but these few illustrations are the tip of the iceberg of intolerance. We see it. We even practice it at times. But we are not guilty of it. Or so we think.
Human history has witnessed this reality since the beginning of time. Sadly, it continues to this day evidenced by the things we read and the things we see. Perhaps we should take our Dr. Seuss books down from the shelves and re-read a few of them. Begin with that deep-messaged story “The Star-bellied Sneeches.” Would that more people had paid better attention to the message so evident in that work that is unwisely called a children’s book. But then again, isn’t there a teaching somewhere that says, “A little child shall lead them”?
Finger-pointing of others profits no one. Judgment only brings its own judgment. The simple truth is this: we are all in need of working on our intolerance, particularly as it relates to our chosen belief structure. As a Christian myself, I know that I cannot follow the teachings of the master if I am practicing the very opposite of that message. The bottom line is this: we cannot have peace in a loving world if we do not learn to tolerate those who are not carbon copies of ourselves. It’s a difficult life lesson to learn, but the sheer joy it brings is a richly blessed reward to be cherished. Practice tolerance.
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