Jill Segger

The Quaker, the pastor, the Pope and the tolerance question

By Jill Segger
September 15, 2010

Going outside your familiar territory can be disturbing - as perhaps Pope Benedict XVI and his entourage are discovering as they venture into the occasionally choppy waters of British public life.

Recently, during our Quaker Meeting for Worship, a Friend offered ministry which reflected on the slight dis-ease he had experienced whilst finding his way round unfamiliar estates on the boundaries of the pleasant market town where our Meeting House is situated.

The cause of his dislocation was a sponsored ‘Ride and Stride’ around local churches. The churches which serve these vast post-war estates are a long way out from the beautiful historic town centre with which our Friend was familiar.

He described parts of these satellite communities as “rather sad” and “not very pleasant”. Though well aware that in comparison with much urban dereliction, these estates would not rank high on any indices of deprivation, he had found much to provoke spiritual contemplation as he spent several hours trudging round unfamiliar territory.

His ministry (as Quakers call such contributions) spoke to my own preoccupations. I had been thinking of the disturbing behaviour of Terry Jones, the pastor of a small Florida church whose on-off threat to burn copies of the Qu'ran has caused so much distress and anger over recent days.

Jones is evidently a man who, in the words of an American friend, has “gotten in way over his head”. He may very well not have foreseen the consequences of his violent and coercive intent, but it is hard to understand how a man professing to follow Jesus could be so unaware of the command to return goodness for wrongdoing or of the blessed condition of peacemaking. It is equally difficult for a European to comprehend such cultural deafness to echoes from the Nazi state which still vibrate across eight decades.

It was the consideration of our responses to unfamiliar territory which united Sunday's ministry with my own confusion and prompted some soul-searching about comfort zones and tolerance. We all have a preference for the familiar and for surrounding ourselves with those who share our values. There is an obvious danger of allowing ourselves to become antagonistic towards whatever does not fit those categories. Awareness of the 'other' is not the same thing as engaging with it.

Most of us will describe ourselves as 'tolerant'. Leaving aside the old liberal dilemma of how tolerant one should be of intolerance, it is useful to look past the wearing of the word as a badge of reasonableness, and to consider what it means in our own lives. If it is a euphemism for indifference, apathy or begrudgery, then it is no more than an ugly state of mind masquerading as a virtue.

When we encounter attitudes or behaviours which we find alien, rebarbative or just disagreeable, we may quibble with ourselves as to the best response. To tolerate in the sense of acknowledging that different experiences are likely to produce different outcomes, and that without the experience, we should tread the paths of judgement with great care, is wise and charitable. This forbearance is perhaps better perceived as humility than as tolerance.

Like mercy and forgiveness, tolerance comes into its own when it exacts an emotional and spiritual cost. I am only truly tolerant when I respond to what George Fox called “that of God in everyone” and refuse to allow another's behaviour to lead me into a violent response or contempt for their person. I fail to do this pretty well every day and although I see it as a work in progress, I know I am deceiving myself if I confuse indifference with the authentic tolerance which strives to look beyond outrage and to build bridges with those whose actions may offend me or with whom I profoundly disagree.

John Major, when Prime Minster of the UK, famously said in response to crime and anti-social behaviour, that “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less”. That is precisely the wrong way round. Understanding is not antithetical to condemnation and condemnation must never be permitted to close down the possibility of dialogue grounded in respect and love.

Our Friend concluded his ministry with a reference to a passage in Quaker Faith and Practice which includes these words: “we find one another in 'the things that are eternal', upholding and strengthening one another”.

To meet this challenge, we may need to be more willing to venture into the less familiar parts of town. Or, in the recent case of the remarks by Cardinal Walter Kasper, to a country which can appear baffling in its diversity and plurality.


© Jill Segger is a Quaker and Ekklesia's associate editor. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is also a composer. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.