In Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the detective-ghost-horror-who-dunnit-time-travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic by the British comedy writer Douglas Adams, the eponymous private investigator, Dirk Gently had a major falling out with his secretary, Janice. She was preparing to storm out of the office in a rage:
She retrieved her last pot of nail varnish and tried to slam the drawer shut. A fat dictionary sitting upright in the drawer prevented it from closing. She tried to slam the drawer again, without success. She picked up the book, ripped out a clump of pages and replaced it. This time she was able to slam the drawer with ease.
A few days later, faced with a client to whom some events have occurred that are, quite literally, completely and utterly impossible, Dirk happily remarks:
“Luckily, you have come to exactly the right place with your interesting problem, for there is no such word as ‘impossible’ in my dictionary. In fact,” he added, brandishing the abused book, “everything between ‘herring’ and ‘marmalade’ appears to be missing.”
If I could remove just one word from the dictionary it wouldn’t be ‘impossible’, nor ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis’ and especially not ‘marmalade’, living as I do in Dundee. No, if I could remove just one word from the dictionary, it would be the word ‘tolerance’.
I dislike the word ‘tolerance’, dislike it with a vengeance, in fact. Why? Well, quite simply, tolerance has become the virtue of our age, the last virtue standing in fact, as the classical virtues have fallen more quickly than a row of dominos on a massage chair. Prudence, temperance, courage and justice—apart from the last one, which we’ve redefined to mean using the appropriately woke hashtags on Twitter—our culture wouldn’t recognise these if it bumped into them in the street.
But tolerance. Tolerance is everywhere: we must tolerate other people, tolerate those who are different to us, never criticise, never question, never disagree, and certainly never—absolutely never—tell somebody else that we think we’re right and they’re wrong. Tolerance, all hail tolerance.
Well, I’ve had enough. I can no longer (pardon the pun) tolerate tolerance. Why? Well, my first issue with the word ‘tolerance’ is that it’s a deeply disrespectful word. Think about the kind of things we usually tolerate. We tolerate the cat, when it deposits half a dead mouse on the front door mat and claws the sofa for the third time in a week. I tolerate my three-year-old son when, acting on his latent (although rapidly emerging) artistic tendencies, decides to emulate Banksy on the lounge wall using, bless him, a permanent marker he somehow found, even though my wife and I were convinced we’d locked those down with the same kind of security protocols usually reserved for nuclear warheads or Roquefort. In other words, we tolerate things that are misbehaving, things that don’t measure up, things that are a little bit beneath us: animals, young children, TV celebrities.
On the other hand, when you encounter an adult who thinks differently to you, who sees the world in a different way, who—heaven forbid!—disagrees with you, I’d suggest ‘tolerance’ should be your Verb of Last Resort. What about instead listening, talking, or dialoguing with them? In short, treating them as an equal, rather than as your inferior.
But there’s a further problem with ‘tolerance’, in that it’s a ready made license to ignore those who are different to us. Rather than talk to people, engage people, listen to them, we just dismiss them with an offhand, “Oh, that’s just the Muslims …” And whilst we pat ourselves on the back with warm thoughts of how tolerant we are, we are all the while deeply dehumanising people. Sure, we may not have thrown a half brick at somebody, or said angry things about them on Twitter: but we have ignored them, airbrushed them out of our circle of concern, and we’ve done it with a sneer of superiority.
Tolerance? None of us want to be tolerated. If you’re still not convinced, I put it to you that you don’t want other people to tolerate you. Rather you want to be listened to. You want to be taken seriously. To be heard. You want other people to consider your views, even if they disagree, to treat you like an adult, to understand you. Nobody just wants to be tolerated.
The Christian basis for treating people as truly human, as loving and listening even to those who are radically different to us, who are even disagreeable or unlikeable, lies at the heart of the gospel. For the good news about Jesus tells us that God didn’t just tolerate us. He could have done: he could have looked at the mess we’ve made of our lives, our world—His world, given to us as a good and wonderful gift—God could have looked at what we’ve done, shrugged, tolerated us, and walked away.
But God didn’t step away. Rather, in the person of Jesus, he stepped in. In Jesus, God gave everything for us, even while we were his enemies, even whilst we deserved nothing better than condemnation, let alone toleration. God demonstrated his love for us in that we were still rebels, bullies, and oppressors, Jesus Christ died for us.
You see, a final problem with tolerance is it’s cheap. Dirt cheap. It costs nothing to look down on people, to sigh with a sneer, or to walk on by and not give people a second glance. Tolerance is cheap. But by contrast, love is expense, love is pricy, love always costs the one who gives it.
I’m incredibly grateful that God didn’t tolerate us but instead he loved us and did so in a way that was costly. And Christians—those who’ve realised that they’ve no grounds to be superior and to look down on others, but need the forgiveness and help that God offers through Jesus—Christians are called to show the same love to others that Jesus showed to us. Especially to those who are difficult, different or disagreeable. As the New Testament, in Ephesians 5:1 puts it:
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.