Earlier this year, my friend J.B. and I started a new podcast called Bruce Springsteen Sings the Alphabet. It’s a podcast where we talk about every Bruce Springsteen song, one by one, in alphabetical order. We started it for fun, and I personally did not think anybody would ever listen.
I was wrong.
Over the past nine months, our listenership has continued to climb into the thousands. I have also discovered that the kinds of people who will listen to a podcast about Bruce Springsteen music are very passionate people. After one particular episode in which we presented a slightly less-than-glowing review of one particular song, a listener sent us a long message about how angry he was at how we had missed the point of that song; the listener went so far as to say, “I don’t think J.B. is really even a fan of Bruce at all!”
This is the thing about fandom; we feel so passionate about the thing that we love that we feel empowered to determine whether or not other people are even worthy to consider themselves “fans” of that same thing. It’s not enough to say, “I disagree”; we have to say, “You aren’t a true part of this tribe of ours.”
As it turns out, this is exactly how religion tends to work a lot of the time: Someone holds a different opinion than us; someone joins a different denomination than we belong to; someone grows up in a different culture than us, and we don’t understand it, therefore they must not “get it” like we do. We decide—in one way or another—that the other person is not part of the same tribe as us.
When I was in college, one of the words I often heard regarding disagreements and varying points-of-view was the word “tolerance.” There were some people calling for tolerance toward those who held a non-traditional view of certain aspects of faith, and there were others who decried “tolerance” as the great sin of our time. One well-known evangelical preacher wrote an article called “The Sin of Tolerance”; another famous Christian author wrote a book inexplicably titled The Intolerance of Tolerance.
So while some people in the cultural conversation were calling for greater tolerance, those in the more traditional Christian camp claimed that tolerance was merely a way of betraying one’s principled convictions. Tolerance was the “slippery slope” on which our righteous integrity precariously sat, gradually sliding down toward moral decay. Countless sermons were preached in churches about how tolerance was the gateway drug toward sinful, depraved destruction.
In other words, intolerance became the posture of many churches, determining who truly belonged to the tribe and who was not really “one of us.”
Here’s the problem with that posture: The movement of Jesus and the early church in the Bible doesn’t seem interested in keeping things limited to the people who think and look just the way we expect them to. In fact, the New Testament seems interested in pushing things in the exact opposite direction from that.
In the book of Luke (6:12-16), when it mentions Jesus’ twelve disciples, the writer takes a minute to point out the fact that one of Jesus’ followers was Matthew—a tax collector, a stooge for the oppressive Roman Empire—and another of his followers was a guy named Simon the Zealot—a guy who might have been inclined to kill the local stooges of the Roman Empire. These two guys were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and yet they are part of this same redemptive movement of Jesus.
In the book of Acts, an early church leader named Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch by the side of the road. According to the ancient customs and religious laws, eunuchs were perpetually unclean. And yet, Philip not only talks to the man, he has a long conversation with him and even baptizes him. In fact, after talking to Philip, the eunuch’s exact words are, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”
You mean other than religious custom, social acceptability, and the opinions of lots of other people who feel very uncomfortable with eunuchs?
And what does Philip do? He baptizes the eunuch.
Philip encounters a man who has a non-traditional sexual identity, he welcomes him; he baptizes him—he treats him like a neighbor and a brother.
Intolerance is a posture that keeps Ethiopian eunuchs out on the margins. The way of Jesus calls us to something else.
Here’s what I think: Tolerance is no good. It’s too weak.
Tolerance is a way of saying that I barely put up with something.
There’s a barking dog in my neighborhood that will not be quiet. I tolerate that dog because I have no other choice. I can’t move, and I don’t know who the dog belongs to. I’m stuck with the dog, so I must tolerate it.
That’s what I mean when I say that tolerance is weak. It does not get us even close to the posture we are called to take towards those we don’t understand. Jesus never said, “And you will be known for how you begrudgingly tolerate one another.”
So I think we need to aim higher than tolerance.
I think the goal should be reconciliation.
Reconciliation calls us to see the humanity in the other and to see the divine spark dwelling within them.
Reconciliation says to the Ethiopian eunuch, “What can stand in the way of you being part of this tribe with us?”
Let’s go back to the guy who sent the angry email about the Springsteen podcast.
Later on, I received another email from the same guy. First, he apologized for taking such an angry tone in his previous message. Then—and this surprised me—he started talking about adoption. He had seen that my family had recently adopted a baby, and he wanted to tell me that his two oldest kids had been adopted. He told me about what a magical experience that had been for him and how he feels so passionate about adoption all these years later. We ended up exchanging emails for a couple of days, sharing stories about adoption.
As it turns out, the thing that reconciled us was way more powerful than the thing that had created tension between us.
This guy didn’t merely decide to tolerate my differing opinion on a Bruce Springsteen song—he decided to reconcile how we saw each other based on the fact that we both shared a life-changing experience.
Perhaps Jesus is the thing that reconciles us to one another.
Perhaps our impulses toward dividing the tribe and deciding who is in and who is out are muted by Jesus’ love for each of us.
Perhaps the Jesus who loves the Ethiopian eunuch calls us to love one another in the same beautiful, reconciling way.
Tolerance is way too weak.
Let’s aim higher, shall we?
How Not to Kill a Muslim by Josh Graves
Unclean by Richard Beck
Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber