Thoughts on Tolerance 1: Religions and Politics

Monday, 9th February 2009 at 9:00 UTC 1 comment

I thought I’d do a week with a topic for once, and that topic is going to be tolerance. I want to look at some of the changes that appear to be happening with regards to what once seemed the buzzword of society, and to pick apart some recent encounters I’ve had, in areas such as religion, sexual morality and, for something completely different, geekery.

Whilst reading around the recent Gaza conflict I happened upon an article, apparently originally posted on the Jewish Chronicle website, now reposted by a supposed anti-Semitism monitoring organisation, berating the outcome of a referendum which set out to define Jewish identity as purely religious. The wording of the motion can be checked below the article.

If there is a global political situation in which tolerance needs to be invoked, it is the Israel-Palestine conflict. But what really struck me in the article was the contrasting of political and religious beliefs and how they should be tolerated. Whilst I do agree with much of the motion, I utterly disagree with the tone of “Union Believes 6”: “The Israeli-Arab conflict is, although complicated, not a religious dispute and thus it is open to controversy and debate.”

How does the categorisation of the debate affect people’s freedom of speech? What makes it OK for me to criticise the views of the Labour Party, but not the Catholic Church, or, perhaps more specifically, Judaism or Islam? What if I want to disagree with a group of Christians? J-Socs, or Jewish Societies to give them their proper name, are a mixed bunch, much like Christian Unions.

Like Christian Unions, the bigger they get, the greater the tendency there is for some of the most hard-line members to take control, to the exclusion of those who disagree with them. Whereas liberal Christians are disowned and pushed back into the immoral unbelieving masses, Jewish students can be as Orthodox as they come, and yet find themselves outside of the society and the social grouping simply for failing to endorse the party line on Israel.

So we see some interesting interactions: first, a differentiation between tolerance and respect (so similar yet so subtly different) for religious views and for political views. Second, students who define in certain ways cannot automatically expect the welcome, support and representation of a group which claims to exist for their identity.

It appears in the case of the former that what such an argument might really say is that religious views deal with things that don’t exist and have no bearing on the real world, so we should just accept these as the vagaries of human imagination. I, and most other religious adherents, would find this utterly insulting. Either this, or our intention to tolerate has become a smoke-screen against real argument, and it is now assumed that debate within religion and around religious issues is for some reason to be frowned upon. In a sense, this is just an endorsing of the kind of unthinking faith society can do with less of. I have always supported the intense debate such things as Atheist Buses, Jerry Springer the Opera and so forth have caused, and am always open to a genuine discussion about what these scripture we assign authority to actually mean.

But within the individual student societies, and within community groups at large, there are some interesting dynamics between acceptable members and those who are pushed to the margins of what are already marginalised groups. My freshest example of this involves as its backdrop, Cambridge University, and the recent student occupation in solidarity with Gaza that occurred there. A Jewish friend (or, as I prefer, a friend who’s Jewish) ran into some considerable trouble trying to organise open and frank discussion between proponents of Israel and of Palestine. She later complained, in a note on Facebook, that she was facing pressure from within her ‘own’ community for trying to create a dialogue.

In her words I could sense a familiar frustration; I’ve met the nearest equivalent source of tension in Christian Unions on many occasions, and indeed, seen just how immature Christian students can be around the Gay debate. I also recognise it from the experiences of another Jewish student I knew who received threats and insults because she actively opposed Zionism. In the case of the Cambridge student, her ‘crime’ is one of questioning from within. As she asked on Facebook, if Israel has nothing to hide, what’s the harm of a debate? There is a huge difference between blind tolerance, which is dangerous, and a genuine concern to listen to and accept the presence of those with differing world outlooks.

Whether on campus, or in the wider-world it prepares us for, and whether internally or externally from our various communities, just because something involves religious views doesn’t mean we should react any differently or shut down genuine debate. If we’re to reach a real level of tolerance, we must understand and be able to question everything around us.


Entry filed under: Community, Faith, Freedom, Middle East, Politics, Religion.

Making the poor pay Thoughts on Tolerance 2: Sexuality

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Steve  |  Monday, 16th February 2009 at 3:51 UTC

    My favourite comment on tolerance is from Fr Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox theologian:

    Tolerance is always in order when it means that we coexist peacefully with people whose ideas and manners differ from our own, even when to do so is to risk the impression that truth is relative and all customs and mores are equally acceptable (as happens in North America).

    Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God’s creation.

    To be tolerant is to be neither indifferent nor relativistic. Neither is it to sanction injustice or to be permissive of evil. Injustice is intolerable and evil has no rights. But the only weapons which Christians may use against injustice and evil are personal persuasion and political legislation, both of which are to be enacted in an atmosphere of respect. While Christians are permitted under certain conditions to participate in police and military actions to enforce civil laws and to oppose criminality, we may not obey evil laws nor resort to evil actions in defence of the good. This means that Christians are inevitably called to suffer in this age, and perhaps even to die. This is our gospel, our witness and our defence


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