Moving Beyond Tolerance

"We are all children of God. I hope that you will spread my prayer request this month: that sincere dialogue among men and women of different faiths may produce the fruits of justice and peace."

Words from Pope Francis' January 2016 video message

This week is World Interfaith Harmony Week, established in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly recognizing "the imperative need for dialogue among different faiths and religions to enhance mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among all people." UN Declaration 65-5-EN reaffirms that mutual understanding and interreligious dialogue constitute important dimensions of a culture of peace.

When people speak about interfaith harmony, they often talk about the importance of tolerance. But I am not a big fan of tolerance, at least not as the ultimate path to sustainable peace.

Tolerance is conflict arrested. It is a great harness applied to the destructive forces of ignorance, fear and prejudice. It provides a wall between warring parties: a glass wall, at best, where protected people can see one another going about their parallel lives, safe behind walls of tolerance. When I agree to tolerate you or laws compel me to do so, I agree only to acknowledge your existence and not to injure you. I make no commitment to get to know you, to learn about you, and to see our lives as interdependent. As such, tolerance is not a basis for healthy human relationships. It will never lead to true community, for tolerance does not allow for learning, growth or transformation. Rather, tolerance keeps people in a state of suspended conflict and ignorance.

In many societies, tolerance has historically been either democratically legislated or forced upon people by less democratic means. In both of these situations, the result has fallen far short of achieving any sense of healthy, interdependent community. In the cases of the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, as in many other cases, walls of tolerance were erected under the guise of a new nationalistic common identity. But, as we have now learned, the conflict did not go away. Rather it stayed festering beneath the surface until the walls of tolerance were taken down, unleashing the fear, frustration and rage that had grown beneath the seemingly calm surface.

In the United States, tolerance -- particularly religious tolerance -- was an ideal articulated by the authors of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights (at least in the limited scope provided by their experience). They believed that it was the role of government to enact laws that would guarantee the rights of individuals (which then referred only to propertied, white men) to exercise personal freedom. This freedom was to be protected under the principle of legislated tolerance.

An expanded understanding of this legislated tolerance forms the basis of our civil rights laws today, institutionalizing in our society the principle that particular expressions of gender, race, religion, physical ability and sexual orientation should be protected as individual freedoms. However, even with these democratically chosen principles of social tolerance in place, acts of prejudice and hate continue to plague American society.

The current unraveling of social policies regarding racial justice in our society is a stunning reminder of the limits of tolerance. After nearly 35 years of legislated tolerance, it has become clear that very little has fundamentally changed in terms of our society's understanding of racial identity and prejudice. The racial Balkanization of America holds the same lessons as the ethnic fragmentation of the Balkans: tolerance forced or legislated does not lead to mutual understanding, societal transformation or community. Tolerance has not led to the formation of a healthy, interdependent community, but rather a country divided by walls of tolerance that are too often crossed for destructive purposes. Tolerance has not protected us from acts of hate, but rather cast us in a frozen state of societal fragmentation. But what choices do we have? How can we move beyond tolerance in the face of such conflict?

For us to begin to understand the creative possibilities that are held within the diversity of human experience, we must move beyond the tendency to settle for tolerance as the goal for human encounter. We must risk the possibility that our lives are necessarily and inextricably connected one to another. In the context of World Interfaith Harmony Week, we must admit that as people of different religions, spiritual expressions, Indigenous traditions and humanistic beliefs, we are too often segregated from each other, often by tolerance, which leaves us ignorant of the values and practices that are significant to our lives. Ignorance is the enemy of peace. Tolerance does not dispel ignorance. Education and experience do. Only by embracing our diversity and claiming our interdependence will we learn about each other, form true relationships, and build communities of respect that are essential for establishing "mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among all people." Only then will interfaith harmony fill every week of every year for everyone.

The Rev. Victor H. Kazanjian, Jr. is the Executive Director of the United Religions Initiative. Visit URI's website to find out more about World Interfaith Harmony Week.