‘London is intolerant of intolerance.’
So said the Mayor of London as he stepped in to ban adverts which drew attention to the existence of people who identify as ‘post gay’. It is difficult to deny that our culture is increasingly confused about the meaning of tolerance. Should women playing football be banned from wearing the burkha? In 2007 FIFA outlawed the headscarf (on grounds of health and safety). That ban has just been lifted.
On the same day as London’s Mayor declared that, ‘London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world,’ the Vice-Chancellor of London Metropolitan University revealed that he is hoping to ban alcohol on university grounds since some groups view it as ‘evil’ and ‘immoral.’ Muslim groups and the Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church welcomed the move. Tolerant or intolerant?
Can banning things lead to tolerance? Many in our culture think so, and the consensus in support of such an approach is trending upwards, rapidly.
Toleration built upon banning people’s actions, habits, lifestyles, self-identification or thoughts falls far short of the ideal of toleration promoted by the politician who framed so much of the legislation that bequeathed English culture its concepts of toleration – Edmund Burke (1729-97). Burke thought that toleration ought to be promoted, but he was eager to put up with things he disagreed with in others. Burke said, ‘I would not, through a violence of toleration, run into the greatest of intolerance. I bear with infirmities, until they fester into crimes.’
For Burke, tolerance had its limits. It also had to bear with dissent. Otherwise repression masquerading as tolerance would be birthed.
Nevertheless, the hunger for banning beliefs, public symbols and behaviours which some group deems offensive appears insatiable. Further bans are on the menu. Given that, how should Christians respond if they receive unjust bans?
Perhaps we should vote for the right political party? But it seems there is now no credible political party which will represent Christian beliefs.
Perhaps we should argue our view in the media? But, as Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in his classic book, After Virtue, the culture’s media narrative has spiralled into an endless trading of punches which can never land a knockout blow.
Perhaps we should prosecute and sue our way to justice? But the laws seem to be used against Christians at least as much as in their defence.
Perhaps Christians should give up?
Or perhaps Christians might sometimes refrain from the above responses to unfair bans – not out of despair, but principle? Perhaps all the above proactive responses to lack of toleration involve fighting the world with its own weapons (2 Corinthians 10:3)? Jesus knew that the ‘so-called rulers of the Gentiles lord it over’ people (Mark 10:42). Nevertheless, when Jesus had the opportunity to bring threats against a powerful politician, he refrained, declaring, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36).
Suffering injustice and misrepresentation in the name of toleration is unpleasant. Jesus has showed us how to do it: ‘When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly’ (1 Peter 2:23).