This reflection is part of a collection of responses to the theme: “On Civility and Tolerance: What does theological education entail when worlds collide?”
by Mike Mennonno
“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves, he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’” (John 2:13-16 NIV)
I can hear it now, can’t you? “What has happened to civility?” “Couldn’t he have just asked nicely?” “Here’s this guy who hangs out with publicans and prostitutes, and all the sudden he can’t handle a few money-changers in the Temple?” “What a hypocrite!” “Yeah, where’s the tolerance?” Pretty sure that’s how this would go down on Meet the Press.
It is probably no coincidence that the “civility movement” always seems to gain steam when the marginalized have been pushed so far they must raise a ruckus simply to be heard. But we know as well from recent events that even silent protests, like “taking a knee,” can provoke charges of incivility when the message is one that threatens privilege. As Vann Newkirk wrote in the Atlantic last year when the immigration and family-separation crisis sparked outrage: “Civility is … wielded as a cudgel against those already facing obliteration that dictates to them how they must face it” by “a majority inclined to ignore the violence done in its name—because in the end, they will be alright.”
Like the language of civility, that of tolerance can be a kind of cudgel as well, an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” Tolerance speaks even more frankly than civility of inequality in the social order. Think of the profound asymmetry of the active and passive of the verb: while we may feel pride at our ability to tolerate others, how does it feel to “be tolerated”? Tolerance remains a pillar of the political life of a secular society, but like the language of civility, it is inadequate — I would argue inappropriate even — for communities of faith and coalitions of conscience.
Whether in our own communities or in interfaith conversations, tolerance, aside from indicating entrenched (if implicit) bias, is the language of spiritual scarcity. And if you doubt this, think again of a verb in the active and passive that communicates true abundance: to love and be loved. The language of tolerance is too often used in religious settings to begrudge admittance to those whose whole humanity we are unwilling to engage with our own. It often substitutes without our even realizing it for the language of abundance that truly opens up possibilities of transformation.
The language of tolerance and civility not only glosses over the difficult work of justice and equality, of radical love and hospitality to which our transformative communities really owe their existence and to which they must continually and explicitly recommit themselves, it also makes the work itself harder to conceive. Our uncritical use of language that continually reinforces power and privilege can actually silence the language of abundance out of which flows the courage and conviction to live in abundance with one another.
Language matters. In the beginning was the Word. Relying on the language of tolerance and civility limits what we can expect from encounters across difference and makes us complicit in the world of scarcity that this language depicts. That the language and life of abundance can embrace difference, encourage us to work together through difficulty and discord, and provide us with tools to navigate conflict in the pursuit of transformation is, for me, a fundamental article of faith. It may be what faith itself is for.
Mike Mennonno is currently a first-year Masters of Divinity student with a focus on global and community engagement. He also works with LGBTQ youth, community housing, and food security as Church Street Ministry Coordinator at First Parish Cambridge Unitarian Universalist.