Tolerance: Extremists Need Not Apply?

I was recently invited by a Facebook friend to read A Manifesto by John Shelby Spong.
In it the retired Episcopalian Bishop makes some pretty outrageous statements.. like..
  • "I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility."
  • "I will no longer act as if the Papal office is to be respected if the present occupant of that office is either not willing or not able to inform and educate himself on public issues on which he dares to speak with embarrassing ineptitude."
  • "My country and my church have both already spent too much time, energy and money trying to accommodate these backward points of view when they are no longer even tolerable."
Bishop Spong uses the word tolerate several times saying that he will no longer tolerate the views of people who do not agree with him on homosexuality. It got me to thinking and trading comments with my blogging buddy Joe around the idea of tolerance. I decided to check my friend the dictionary and found these definitions of tolerance:
  1. a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own. 
  2. interest in and concern for ideas, opinions, practices, etc., foreign to one's own; a liberal, undogmatic viewpoint.
I like to think of myself as someone who has grown in this area of tolerance.. that said I think that we all have areas of intolerance.. even so.. I wonder why folks like Spong do not come across to some as intolerant like right-wing squawk radio hosts do?

I have often said that Fundamentalism is not limited to the right side of our culture. Many who embrace liberal and left-leaning ideologies (like Spong) are just as fundamentally narrow and intolerant of other's views. So I have to wonder if tolerance is an idea that can only be found amongst folks that have a moderate ideology?

What do you think? Can one be a tolerant person and hold extreme positions?

And please be nice.. I do not moderate comments but I do not tolerate incivility :)


  1. Bob, I think you misrepresented Spong when you said, "Bishop Spong uses the word tolerate several times saying that he will no longer tolerate the views of people who do not agree with him."

    Spong did NOT state that he will not tolerate any view that he does not agree with. He said only that he will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality since he feels that it has been more than adequately researched and debated and in his and many expert opinions homosexuality is not a choice and neither the government nor the Christian religion should limit their civil rights nor their participation in the Christian religion and specially, Spong's Episcopal church. He likened debating the human rights of a homosexual to the debate of slavery in the 19th century when both the government and the some Christian churches tolerated, even justified, slavery.

    Spong's intolerance was limited to the debate of the human rights of homosexuals. To represent it otherwise is remarkably unfair.

  2. Bob, I can understand why Spong comes across as being intolerant with his own views. I think Joe's distinction on the matter is valid...and...would add that context is important. Spong has been fighting various social issues which go as far back as the days of Martin Luther King where he fought and argued with his fellow Christian brethren on segregation. Then he fought again over women's rights and position in the church...etc. etc. I think Spong has reached a point where he is just tired of arguing and trying to persuade his fellow Christians of issues dealing with what he considers basic human rights. Perhaps Spong could have been more gracious in bowing out of the various debates but that has never been his style. Spong is a lightening rod and always has been. Personally, I often feel uncomfortable with his style and polemics but I also think he has more often than not been on the right side of many issues at a time when it was unpopular to do so. Just my take on Spong.

  3. "Can one be a tolerant person and hold extreme positions?"

    Bob, that is the question of the day, huh? I've simply been working on holding to a MODERATE position and remaining tolerant. I think I often balance it well, but that's not always the perception of others. For me, it boils down to working out my own thoughts and convictions without judging where others are in their walk. Then it's another challenge when you arrive at that point to not become intolerable of those who remain intolerable.

    I keep this scripture in mind, Galatians 6:1-5;

    "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load."

  4. Great point Joe! I thought the quotes I provided gave the context of the intolerance but in hindsight I see that they were insufficient. I added a bit of clarification saying "he will no longer tolerate the views of people who do not agree with him on homosexuality."

    That said I also agree with Bill that Spong is a lightening rod and I think that he, like right-wing squawk radio hosts, enjoys the spotlight and fame that intolerance provides him.

  5. I don't know Mr. Spong, so I won't address his seeming intolerance. You did stir some irritation at the whole idea of tolerance, though.

    In your tolerance quotes in the next post, someone says we should hold a tradition and respect all other traditions. That kind of sentiment is utterly foreign to me. If heat leaks into our realm from small rifts in the ether, then anyone who believes heat comes from molecular agitation is simply wrong - and vice versa.

    Reality does not "tolerate" anything. Neither does God. He is or He is not. If He is, then He is Who He says He is.

    Which brings us to things like slavery, on which a portion of Christianity was wrong for a long and very determined struggle. God shows Himself reasonably non-commital on the whole idea. He sets boundaries around the implementation of slavery (including mandatory release of certain slaves) and seems to be happy for Paul to drive a stake in the ground about slavery in the church. I would say feminism finds itself in about the same boat. Genesis 1-3 are reasonably pro-feminist, then everything changes until Matthew. Jesus and Paul drove stakes in the ground about the place of women in the church, but God is pretty non-commital on the subject.

    Society learned to value people more appropriately, and Christians learned to respect the anti-slavery and pro-feminist outlooks Paul and Jesus initiated.

    Tolerance did not make that happen. Tolerance is a craven little substitute for truth, mercy, and love. Tolerance allows evil to thrive and good to wither. Neither slavery nor chauvinism would have been overcome with pleas to tolerance. Tolerance is lukewarm and useless.

    Do you believe prohibition of homosexuality is next on the hitlist of Christian errors to be corrected? Then please believe it and work to change the world. You'll have an uphill struggle because the proposition always bears the burden of proof. That's not intolerance. That's societal survival. You don't throw away things that work until it's proven that the new thing is better.

    And allowing those with whom we disagree to speak freely is not tolerance, either. Allowing earnest struggle is honesty.

    I'm sorry, I was up against a deadline on this one, and that's muddled up this comment. It's too long and needs a good edit, but the time is up now and I must run. I apologize, and thank you for the subject, Bob.

  6. If Kevin's comment is "muddled" then my comments are far worse than muddled (no surprise to me).

    I agree with Kevin and I think he made his point very well.

  7. I hear you Kevin and I understand that tolerance of evil is never a good thing.. but I wonder what the end of intolerance looks like?

    A civil war did end slavery in this country but it took 100 years of tolerance for African American's to garner civil rights. Women gained the right to vote almost a hundred years ago but to this day tolerate inequities in the workplace. I submit that tolerance and peacefully fighting for change in these situations was necessary for progress to be made.

    But possibly the Evangelical Christian's intolerance of abortion will one day mean something? Maybe, like slavery, the end of abortion will come via a civil war because people will no longer tolerate the status quo.

    Of course the reverse could be countered.. that illegal abortions were no longer tolerated and the laws of our country were changed.

    Possibly the intolerance of activist groups like "Act Up" will one day win the gay debate? Maybe violence will escalate around these issues because, like Bishop Spong, each side will no longer talk to or listen to the other side claiming to hold the moral high ground?

    Maybe, like Chesterton said, “Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions.” Maybe we all need to have the convictions of leaders who prefer war to diplomacy? Maybe we are not called to peace but to war against those who disagree with us?

    For me I do not see tolerance as something evil or the values of weak people.. in truth intolerant people are weak. For me tolerance represents the idea of working with people who disagree with you.. bearing with them.. learning from them.. and sometimes respectfully disagreeing with them. I agree with Katherine Paterson:

    “Peace is not won by those who fiercely guard their differences, but by those who with open minds and hearts seek out connections.”

    Of course maybe I am just too tolerant :)

  8. No offense to you, Bob, but I have nothing positive to say about John Shelby Spong. This former bishop of the Episcopal Church has openly expressed his conviction that Christ was not divine and did not raise from the dead. Spong is also at least in part responsible for the growing shism in the Episcopal Church. That he should make such disparaging comments about "tolerance" concerning the Pope and others is indeed laughable.

  9. No offense taken crownring but my issue is not with Spong's theology.. just his intolerance of people who have different views than he on the topic of homosexuality.

  10. Bob, who wrote the history book that you are reading? The Blacks in America did not use tolerance to win their civil rights; they eventually used passive resistance to demonstrate their intolerance of White oppression (sit-ins at eateries, Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the rear of the bus). They were docile as slaves for the same reason that they tolerated their oppression by Whites for as long as they did. Fear. Fear of being lynched.

    Likewise, the Women's Suffrage Movement did not succeed because its leaders were tolerant. Women haven't gained more in the workplace because the laws that protect them were and are inadequate and they are continually fighting for equal protection under the law. When Lily Ledbetter sought justice for 20 years of unequal pay but the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the EEOC and the Republicans refused to pass the bill that would have protected women in the future until the Democrats took the majority and the White House.

    Intolerance of others to the extent that it violates their human and civil rights is WRONG and whoever ignores or tolerates such intolerance is equally guilty of human and civil rights violations. But do not equate an intolerance for one's oppressor with the intolerance of the oppressor. One is just. The other is a human rights violation.

    “Peace is not won by those who fiercely guard their differences, but by those who with open minds and hearts seek out connections.” This is the approach that Obama is using with the Muslim world, to the dismay of his conservative opposition, and I believe it is a better choice than intolerance and warring that John McCain pledged to use. However, the American Blacks would still be waiting for civil rights legislation if they had approached their White Oppressors with "open minds and hearts," only.

  11. Great perspective as always Joe. I agree with you about the peaceful passive resistance of the civil rights movement. ML King Jr said "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." My comments were not meant to say that oppression should ever be tolerated.

    In hindsight I retract what I said. African Americans were forced to tolerate their circumstances.. tolerance in that situation was not by choice. I think that the same could be said in the past about the women's movement.

    I guess the tolerance I am trying to speak to is a tolerance of differing views not of tolerating injustice. Of course some feel that homosexuals are being treated with injustice.. others feel that unborn babies are treated with that same injustice. The question is how do you move forward on issues like these?

    I agree with you that winning peace through tolerance is a good strategy for relations with other countries. Do you feel it is also possible on domestic issues? Given the history of those issues what do you suggest? How should we move forward?

    Thanks for the dialog.. I have been enjoying it.

  12. I don't agree with abortion except when the pregnant woman's life is in danger if the preganancy is continued and the fetus is too young to survive delivery. Personally, I see no reason to surrender a woman's life for the unborn. Just my opinion. That said I think a woman has a right to decide whether to continue a preganancy. I wouldn't oppose it and because it is not my decision I won't judge the woman. However, I think life is very important. I disapprove of capital punishment and always will, first because I don't believe in taking a life and secondly because our justice system makes too many mistakes. That sounds like a contradiction to my opinion about abortion, except that I cannot demand that a woman continue a pregnancy, whereas I feel that I do have a voice as a citizen about whether the government kills somebody in my name.

    Regarding the rights of homosexuals, I feel that no church has the right to impose its beliefs on any person. Every person has the right to decide whether to be a member of a church and whether to abide by the doctrine of that church and the church has the right to require of its voluntary members that they abide by its doctrine or be subject to expulsion. If a church does not want to extend membership to homosexuals or offer the rite of marriage to same-sex members, I believe that is the right of the church. I don't believe that homosexuality is a choice, I have friends and relatives that are homosexual and there is no doubt in my mind that they were born homosexual. So I consider homosexuality to be as natural as heterosexuality. That said, if a heterosexual person chooses to live as a homosexual, I feel it is that individual's right to make that decision. Therefore, I believe that all citizens should have the same rights regardless of sexual orientation.

    I don't think that "marriage" should be legally limited to opposite sex couples or same race couples as challenged by Justice of the Peace Bartwell in LA. I don't think that "marriage" and the family will be destroyed by same-sex marriages. I don't think that homosexuals are trying to convert heterosexuals to homosexuality. I don't think that children raised by same sex couples will be confused by their same-sex parents although they may be confused by the ignorance of a society that condemns his or her parents.

    The warnings that same-sex marriage will destroy society are as unfounded as the warnings about death panels resulting from health care reform.

    With regard to Bishop Spong, I agree with him about the rights of homosexuals. I believe that Spong has the right as a member of his church to disagree with his church about the rights within the church of homosexuals AND I believe that his church has the right to relieve Spong of his membership. Whether he wants to debate with his church or not, whether his church wants to permit him to continue being a member are, in my opinion, matters of the church and Spong, not me, not you and certainly not the government.

  13. ... and I believe in Love.

    Sorry, Joe, I was singing this as I read your last comment. I agree with almost everything you said, and I say almost simply because I don't have the time to double check. :)

  14. "Tolerence" has led to organizations such as NAMBLA, which destroys the lives of children, because of the thinking that these perverts are just different than us, they have that right. "Tolerence" of the misbahaving child has led to the inability of parents to discipline their child, out of fear of being prosecuted for scolding their children in public (I do not mean to suggest that parents beat their children). This tolerence has led to a generation of children thinking they can do whatever makes them feel good with no fear of consequences, which in part has contributed to our growing crime rate since the 60's.

    "Tolerence" of an oppressive regime (in the name and for the sake of the almighty dollar), has led the U.S. to declare China a preferred trading partner while virtually ignoring the human rights violations of it's government.

    "Tolerence" of the free love movement led to huge increases in STD's, the beginning of the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic, and rampant drug abuse.

    "Tolerence" of the career criminal (they can after all be rehabilitated) has led to lax sentencing guildlines and the release of dangerous men and women back into the law abiding neighborhoods we all live in. It wasn't their fault they killed someone, they were on drugs (see free love comment above).

    "Tolerence" of the society of greed led us into the economic turmoil we now face.

    To much tolerence can lead to just as many problems as to much intolerence, it may be time we use the term "common sense" as opposed to the terms tolerence and intolerence.

  15. This comment thread has been very helpful to me in my understanding of how people react to the word "tolerance". My thinking was that tolerance is helpful on a personal level as we try to relate to people of different viewpoints, cultures and religions. The example I gave was of a religious person who would no longer tolerate people who had a different view on homosexuality.

    The preponderance of feedback leads me to believe that the word "tolerance" is a lightening rod term. It causes people to think only of tolerating evil and sinful behaviors like slavery and pedophilia.

    I wonder why so many went right to the negative on the term? Maybe conservatives and liberals are simply wired to be intolerant of each other? Maybe only moderates have the ability to tolerate other views. Maybe I was right after all. Maybe folks with an extreme views cannot be tolerant of folks with differing views?

  16. For me, there needs to be a distinction.

    You can tolerate an "oposing point of view"... however when that view trasmutes into injustice, we are called to tolerate no more.

    Personally, I know that my thinking toward gay marriage has changed a lot in recent years, and I credit that to 1) a closer relatipship with God and 2) a willingness to "tolerate" and listen to oposing points of view.

    This 86-year WWII vet from Maine, for example, has something worth listening to.

  17. I agree with Ed G. A difference in opinion is and should be tolerable but injustice should never be tolerated.

    I think liberals and conservatives should tolerate the other's view even when they do not agreet as long as the other's view does not advocate a violation of a person's "legal" rights (the rights sought by NAMBLA are not legal and NAMBLA need not be tolerated; torture for any reason is a violation of human rigts and should not be tolerated) and each person is acting in Good Faith (claiming that health care reform will create a death panel is not acting in Good Faith and is not a tolerable argument).

  18. I agree, Bob. You've hosted a great discussion here. There are some individual points up there with which I strongly disagree, but that's cool. The insights are valuable, as are all the people.

    > I wonder why so many went right to the negative on the term? [tolerance]

    This is a great direction for the conversation. It's a poison question (like, "Have you quit beating your wife yet?") but it's interesting to wonder whether there's any fair way to ask it. One does not tolerate chocolate ice cream, but spinach and brussel sprouts. So when you ask about things I am to tolerate it's natural, even proper, for me to think of those things I'm demanded to tolerate and won't. Don't you think?

  19. Good point Kevin. Perhaps the words causes us to think of things we are forced to tolerate instead of things we willingly tolerate.

  20. Spong here sounds quite intolerant himself but I've never read anything but what was presented here of him.

    As someone who has many friends, in fact most of the people I associate with, who have different political and religious views than my own, I would say I am actually not just tolerant but accepting. I love diversity. People all the same is sooo boring. So then with that, I have to say that as a whole the MOST intolerant people are the very ones who claim to be the most tolerant, pro diversity-that is, liberals! When I ask my liberal freinds if they have any conservative or religious friends other than me, the answer is invariably almost always no. The same can;t e said and is not seen to such a large extent on the other side, inspite of how society likes to stereotype it.


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