The Real Meaning of Tolerance

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of tolerance, a virtue that I believe in very deeply. I’m not quite sure I have this figured out correctly, and it’s very sensitive subject matter. Bear with me and correct me (tolerantly) where I’m off.

I’m troubled by the expansion of tolerance into a demand for celebration. The obvious occasion comes when a friend or relative comes out as LGBT. This news may come as quite a shock, especially to people who cling to traditional sexual mores. They may struggle to react with kindness, to accept the person and to accommodate his or her new sexual identity. From what I’ve observed, though, kindness, acceptance and accommodation are often not enough. What is required is affirmation, genuine celebration of the LGBT self. And if the relative or friend can’t truly celebrate? That is felt as a deep offense.

Hardly anyone would insist that all must celebrate their political opinions, tastes in food, and choices in child rearing. But sexual and gender identity is a matter of discovery, not choice, say those who come to a new understanding of themselves. This is who I am–and you must embrace who I am.

No doubt this insistence is also based on the experience of being discriminated against. LGBT people often feel battered. Someone who has painfully found the way to a new self-understanding may say: if you can’t rejoice with me in my new-found freedom, I want nothing to do with you. It’s too painful.

I’m focusing on LGBT, but the demand for affirmation extends to others. Oddly, I think people of orthodox faith often have similar feelings. When they encounter those who think they are fanatics and nuts, some cry foul and complain that they are persecuted. It’s hard to be part of a misunderstood minority, especially when identity in that minority means life to you.

We want to be loved, and in some sense we deserve to be loved.

I think, however, that the insistence on affirmation demands too much. For one thing, you’re insisting that your new self-understanding is the only way to interpret your identity. Yet it’s far from unknown for people to declare a sexual identity and later change their mind. (It’s the same with religious identity.) LGBT identity requires interpretation of feeling and experience. Someone else can question the interpretation–particularly someone who knows the person well, such as a parent. And those doubts will make that person less than celebrative. That’s not necessarily intolerance.

There’s also the extension of identity into lifestyle–as in, I’m LGBT, therefore I must live an LGBT life and you must affirm it. (Or, I’m Catholic and don’t believe in birth control, so you must treat my beliefs as inviolable in public policy.) But one may disagree about what lifestyle should accompany a certain identity. In an entirely different realm, some deaf activists insist that signing, not lip reading or speech, is at the core of true deaf identity. They revile those who teach deaf children to lip read or to speak. Others consider them wrong, though, because (among other reasons) they prevent deaf children from communicating with their own parents and siblings. One can acknowledge that there are good arguments for the signing-only point of view, without accepting that it’s necessarily part of deaf identity.

Most fundamentally, however, no one is required to celebrate every aspect of another person’s core identity. It’s possible to regard a state of life as irreversible, and yet unfortunate. One may love the amputee but regret the amputation. One may celebrate the life of an autistic child, rejoicing in unusual gifts, and yet still wish for a cure. Some may find my white skin and blue eyes creepy and off-putting. I regret that, but I cannot insist that they learn to love white skin before I will have anything to do with them. If they will treat me respectfully, I will do the same to them.

Tolerance, that essential virtue for civility and civilization, is not a virtue for the New Creation. It is for this messy, troubled and sinful creation. Tolerance doesn’t help people who see the world in the same way, it helps people who have core disagreements. Its work is not to obliterate those differences, but to enable us to live together in peace and with dignity despite those differences.

Someone who comes out as LGBT should be honored as a human being made in the image of God, should be treated fairly and without discrimination, should be, in fact, loved. And vice versa. Those who hold the wrong ideas about LGBT should be honored as human beings made in the image of God, should be treated fairly and without discrimination, should be loved, difficult as that may be. Tolerance speaks to our relationships with people whose views we abhor and whose nature we cannot appreciate.

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6 Responses to “The Real Meaning of Tolerance”

  1. Bill Reichert Says:


    As a Christian I don’t insist that those who fail to adhere to my faith should nevertheless celebrate it. That would be bizarre. Why should they celebrate something they don’t believe in, or which they actively oppose? My ego doesn’t demand such. At a minimum I would regard such people as insincere. The drive to have the sins in our lives affirmed or even celebrated arises from a deep uncertainty as to their worth. There is good reason for this uncertainty.

    I don’t demand that non-Christians celebrate my faith because, in part, I am certain in my fait (or at least reasonably certain) and I don’t insist that non-believers affirm me in order that any remaining uncertainty may be overcome.

    It is not an issue of tolerance, but simply one of common sense. Or at least of what used to pass as common sense.

  2. timhensley Says:

    Seems to me that the best thing to do, on hearing that someone has “come out,” is to grieve over the thing, and let the criticisms fall where they may.

  3. Vern Peterson Says:

    I appreciate your blogs, Tim. I tolerate 🙂 any differences we may have, although I don´t think we are very far apart. You make me think about issues, which is a good thing.

  4. John Powell Says:

    What I find most disturbing about Christians (I am one myself), is a very cold and pious attitude towards the LGBT community, citing this verse or that verse as to why it is an abomination.

    Yet, the Christian church’s biggest celebrations of their faith, Christmas and Easter, have no validity according to the Bible. Simple tradition of man steeped in pagan history.

    The progressive will charge Christians with being out dated, old fashioned and believing in the writings of mere men. The response is that God’s Word is breathed into existence. And then the church embraces pagan idolatry and practice and rebranding it as Christmas and Easter.

    Doctrines of faith should be scrutinized and perhaps the church should worry about her own house and not the house of others.

  5. James Swenson Says:

    Tim, you say tolerance is a virtue, but if so, it sounds like a purely negative one — a decision not to abuse the Other. I’d say there’s a continuum that starts with hatred, then proceeds beyond oppression to tolerance, and then on to neutrality, respect, advocacy, and maybe at last to celebration.

    When we tolerate something, we judge that it’s wrong, but opt not to resist it. In the case of race, gender, or sexual orientation, this is the minimum standard required of the citizens of a republic. John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration lays out a case for this, and the necessary exceptions. [For example, we are not obligated to tolerate intolerance, for the same reason that we need not eat poison.] Tolerance is more a civic obligation than a moral virtue.

    It is my opinion that more than tolerance should be expected of a Christian — but let’s not dismiss the importance of at least getting to that point!

    • timstafford Says:

      Yes, I agree with what you say. This is what I mean when I say that this is not a virtue for the kingdom of Heaven.

      As to the continuum you mention, extending to celebration, it depends on the virtues of both sides! That is to say, we are not wanting to celebrate racism, sexism, violence, etc. etc. As long as we live in a very flawed world, we need this virtue of tolerance. I would not call it purely negative. I would just say it is limited. It’s not our great aspiration for the end of days. But in the interim, it is extremely valuable.

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