A friend recently reminded me that I’d given this talk at the National Interfaith Forum over 11 years ago. Oddly, the subject has come up a number of times for me over the last few weeks, in the context of how we should develop and celebrate tolerance.
But is tolerance enough? Read on…
“Beyond Tolerance” was the theme of this week’s [March 2008] New Zealand National Interfaith Forum held at Parliament Buildings in Wellington, supported by the Human Rights Commission’s Diversity Action Programme. The meeting brought together people from many religious groups committed to working together toward better understanding.
The theme arose from the need to move beyond the language of tolerance to forge meaningful relationships with each other and with the greater society. To tolerate is to merely put up with, and we all desire to be understood and accepted.
In New Zealand, religious and ethnic groups have reached a state of tolerance, but so much more is possible. Although not without challenges, achieving a state of tolerance has been relatively easy, in that hasn’t required deep engagement between religious communities and has been intentionally low risk. We can enjoy talking about our commonalities over a somosa, falafel, and hot cross bun, but the really crunchy issues lay well beyond this hail-fellow-well-met superficial interaction.
Beyond tolerance, we can build trust, respect, friendship, and ultimately love. But trust is a huge ask from groups whose adherents are literally killing each other at the moment in different parts of the world, and have been doing so for centuries. So how can we break the trust barrier, and achieve love and acceptance?
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or magic solution for building trust. It will take a long time, working hard together, but is possible to achieve if we have the will. I believe there are three strategies we can use to move beyond tolerance: Learn, Engage and Transform; and these can be applied to ourselves, our own communities, and greater society.
I believe there are three strategies we can use to move beyond tolerance: Learn, Engage and Transform; and these can be applied to ourselves, our own communities, and greater society.
To start the journey, we must learn about and fully understand ourselves, our whakapapa or ancestry, and what makes ourselves tick. Knowing ourselves individually, we can move onto learning about our own communities, their rich histories, the wisdom of our sages, our communal vision for what it means to be a good person living a good life. If we don’t have a strong and secure sense and knowledge of our own identity and traditions, we can feel threatened by other religions; conversely with a strong sense of identity we are enriched by different perspectives, and we can learn about others and our greater society with confidence.
But learning isn’t enough. We must engage with ourselves, involved in a constant inner conversation about right versus wrong, good versus bad, helpful versus harmful to the common wellbeing, sacred versus profane. If our society is the sum of the decisions made by its members, then we are personally responsible for each decision we make as we go through life, and we can only do this if we are self-aware and self-engaged.
Before we can move on to engage with other groups and greater society, we must first build trust and respect within our own communities by engaging fully within them. People within our own communities judge us by our intentions, our willingness work hard and take on unpopular tasks, our ability to get along with others and get the job done. With the trust and respect of our communal peers, we can go on to representing ourselves and our communities to other groups and society as a whole.
A great way to start is to develop personal one-to-one relationships with people of different beliefs, getting to know them as individuals, and how their belief system affects the way they live. Trust develops from personal friendship. However it’s much harder to build trust between groups. But why is this?
Each of our religions has elements within based on what can only be described as prejudice.
This prejudice takes the form of supremacy (“my religion is better than your religion”, “you can only find God by traveling our path”), exclusion (“we treat others differently than we do ourselves”, “you’re not welcome in our club”), repression (controlling the thoughts and behaviour of our members), misogyny (limiting power in the religion on the basis of gender), and individual or collective violence. Would you be eager to sit down and forge a deep relationship with a group you suspected of harbouring bigots? Of course not, but if we are honest with ourselves, all of our religions tolerate such bigotry, to a greater or lesser extent, within our own ranks.
If we want to move beyond tolerance, we need to sort out our own houses first, by transforming ourselves and our own communities. We cannot tolerate intolerance or let our religions be used to enable, justify, or support supremacy, exclusion, repression, misogyny or violence.
If we want to move beyond tolerance, we need to sort out our own houses first, by transforming ourselves and our own communities. We cannot tolerate intolerance or let our religions be used to enable, justify, or support supremacy, exclusion, repression, misogyny or violence. We must revolt against and change those structures in our own religions which promote or abide intolerance. This intolerance may have been acceptable many centuries ago when our religions were being formed, but it has no place in the 21st century where we must live together in a shrinking world. It’s very hard to build trust when our coreligionists are doing terrible things in our religion’s name.
Religions that can make this transformation will go forward to earn the trust of others, respect, friendship and love, confident that the nice person you met at the interfaith conference holds the same commitment to peace as their colleagues both locally and worldwide.
Those religions that can’t make the transformation will be merely tolerated, and only as long as they are useful in some way to the society in which they operate.
It will be a long, hard road to achieve this transformation, and we may not finish it in our own lifetimes. In the words of the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 2.15): “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it.”
Let’s work together in our own communities and throughout society, being diligent and trustworthy, supporting each other to bring about positive change, and ensure that our religions are used as instruments of peace.