Thoughts for Ash Wednesday and Lent: Let’s Repent of Tolerance

Repent of ‘tolerance’? But tolerance is a good thing. Why should we repent of tolerance?

Perhaps we need to be challenged in our thinking about the ramifications of ‘tolerance’ as part of our theological language and as a natural way of acting toward others in our personal and corporate actions as part of the Body of Christ. I challenge you to think about ‘tolerance’ during this lenten season. Perhaps we will all repent as we move beyond ‘tolerance’; as God calls us to something greater and more significant.

I was stirred to thoughtful reconsideration of the notion of ‘tolerance’ as a Christian virtue by the words of Cody J. Sanders, a Baptist minister south of the border. I share Sanders’ words with the hope that they might challenge each of us during this lenten period of self examination, a holy time that should lead us to renewed positive action as Christians.

Writes Sanders in the context of well meaning, but hurtful attitudes and actions we often inflict on minorities around us, such as the gay, lesbian and transgendered in our midst:

Practicing tolerance seems like a virtuous striving in our quest to “get along.” But talk about “tolerance” sounds different based on one’s position in the conversation. The talk takes on particular meaning depending on whether one is doing the tolerating or being tolerated, To queer ears, tolerance doesn’t seem like such a gift.

What exactly does it mean to be tolerated? Those who were once persecuted are later tolerated. Those who were once treated with violence are now allowed to exist in an atmosphere of “beneficent” tolerance. Tolerance says, “You shouldn’t be here, but I’ll allow you to exist.” We commit ourselves to overlooking the offense, the annoyance, the violation to our senses caused by the things and people we merely tolerate. Indeed, toleration is no gift to the tolerated.

Further, tolerance is a poor excuse for a theological notion. We should practice intolerance toward any notion of “tolerance” that creeps into our theological imagination and vocabulary. The only way in which we can practice tolerance is if we have constructed our theological understanding of the world in a hierarchical fashion. And depending on your position in the hierarchy (straight white men presumably near the top) determines whether you get to do the tolerating or are simply the object of someone’s toleration. Tolerance only works one way on the hierarchy.

(As an aside, it doesn’t help one’s case for tolerance to place the word “biblical” in front of it. My immediate question upon reading Chambers’ statement (reference to Alan Chambers, president of the ‘ex-gay’ Christian organization Exodus who is presently advocating ‘tolerance’ toward gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals) is, “Just what part of the biblical canon is one appealing to when making a case for ‘biblical’ tolerance?” Potential answers could be categorized according to gradations of frightening.)

Above all, the trouble with tolerance is that it presumes an acquiescence to, even an acceptance of, an oppressive status quo. There is no prophetic imagination or dream of justice embodied in a resolve to tolerate. If our goal is to practice tolerance, then we have given up on a quest for a more radical acceptance and embrace of difference and Otherness. Tolerance assumes that the hierarchical theological constructions we hold are “natural” and that the binary ways that we construct the group we call “us” and the groups we call “them” have some basis in reality. Tolerance allows our unearned privilege (whether racial privilege, class privilege, heterosexist privilege, etc.) to go unquestioned and unchallenged….

The fear of letting go of “tolerance” as an ideal may rest in the assumption that the opposite of tolerance is radical hatred and violence. Yet, radical hatred and violence — like that of Westboro (an American congregation that vilifies gay and lesbian people) and perpetrators of hate crimes — is never countered by tolerance but instead by radical acceptance and embrace.

In order for tolerance to no longer make sense to us as an appropriate theological category, we must question our hierarchical theologies that position some above others and bestow upon a small group the ability to hold tolerance, rather than radical acceptance and embrace, for the masses beneath. We must rupture our theological notions that uphold hierarchies and binary divisions between the group we call “us” and all the rest we call “them”.

excerpted from “After Westboro: The Trouble with ‘tolerance’ ” by Cody J. Sanders, Baptist minister and PhD student in Fort Worth, TX, participant in the Beyond Apologetics Symposium of Sexual Identity, Pastoral Theology, and Pastoral Practice.

Reprinted with the permission of Religion Dispatches Magazine, Original article in its entirety can be found at

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And therein, just might be one of our Ash Wednesday and lenten challenges.

Rev. Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam and one of the administrators  of nwanglicanblog. Your comments and stories are welcome.

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One Response to Thoughts for Ash Wednesday and Lent: Let’s Repent of Tolerance

  1. Craig Spence says:

    Hello Deacon Steve. I agree with everything you have said about tolerance, but believe there are some categories left unsaid when you speak of radical acceptance. I am not familiar with the term, and thank you for introducing it to me. The image evoked is one of actively embracing those we are reacting to negatively – that is, loving through an act of will. That is an incredibly noble concept, and surely one central to enlightened Christianity. Alas, I do not think most of us are emotionally evolved enough to practice that kind of love. So is there a stepping stone between ‘radical acceptance’ and mere ‘tolerance’?

    I would point to the act of ‘letting go’ as that intermediate step. Letting go of the anger and often fear-based superiority that separates us from others. The distinction between this phase of spiritual evolution, and mere tolerance on the one hand, and radical acceptance on the other, is quite clear to me. Tolerance, which is better than outright hatred on the emotional spectrum, is hanging on to our prejudices even as we restrain them. Letting go is, ironically, the opposite of a willful act. As soon as you will to let go, you are not letting go. Rather it is the utter acceptance of the world as it is. From there the distance to radical acceptance might seem bridgeable. Letting go is working on ourselves; radical acceptance is willfully expressing love for other living beings, even beings that are seemingly antithetical to ourselves.

    Radical acceptance, it seems to me, goes beyond the clearly identified boundaries of racial, sexual and cultural bigotry. Would it not be fair to say that someone who has achieved radical acceptance would love thieves, ruffians, even murderers? I’m not saying they would condone criminal behaviour, or let it to go unrestrained. I am saying they would not allow their response – in thought or deed – to stray into the realms of retribution and punishment. They would take necessary action, but ‘remain in relationship’, to borrow a term from the practitioners of Restorative Justice.

    If you’ve got this far, thank you for your perseverance. I would say that, in its own right, is an act of radical acceptance.

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