Can’t We All Just Get Along?

September 17, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


From CBS News: “An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11, 2012.”

Libya.  Yemen.  Egypt.  Last week was a rough one on the other side of the world.  First, in an attack deliberately timed to correspond to the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, Libyan Islamists staged a military-style assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, along with three other Americans.  On Thursday, Islamist protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.  Riots also erupted in Egypt, with people climbing into the embassy compound in central Cairo and ripping down the American flag.

One of the inciting factors of these protests is an obscure movie with a less than positive portrayal of the Muslim prophet Muhammad titled, “The Innocence of Muslims.”  Clips from the low-budget film have been making their rounds in cyberspace for weeks.  In the movie, Muhammad is portrayed a womanizing, homosexual, child-abuser.  For many Muslims, any depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous – hence, the reason for these violent protests.

As I have watched these protests unfold, two things have struck me.  First, I have been struck by the fact that our Constitutional right to free speech does not carry with it a guarantee that such speech will be charitable or even accurate.  As Christians, we are called speak charitably and accurately to and about others not because our Constitution legislates it, but because Holy Scripture commands it.  As the apostle Peter reminds us, “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).  Patently offensive and inflammatory caricatures of other religions, though not civically illegal, are certainly theologically sinful.  After all, we, as Christians, do not appreciate having our faith lambasted by flimsy straw-men half-truths.  So we ought never do the same thing to other faiths nor should we encourage others who do.

Second, I have been struck by the intolerance – in fact, the violent intolerance – of these Islamist protesters.  These protestors breach embassies and kill ambassadors who have no relation whatsoever to those who made this outlandish film except that they all happen to be citizens of the same country.  This makes no sense to me.  And yet, for a few too many people, it seems to make all too much sense.  The headlines tell the story.

In the face of such intolerance, it is important to remember that Christians uphold the value of tolerance and its significance in public life.  Granted, the Christian conception of tolerance is not that same as its secular counter-conception.  Christians consistently do and have accepted the existence of different points of view.  We know that not everyone believes as we do.  Moreover, in general, we do not support the suppression – especially the violent suppression – of different points of view.  In this sense, then, we believe in “free speech.”  What is troublesome for Christians is not tolerance in this sense, but the secular conception of tolerance which not only advocates for acceptance of the existence of different views, but demands the acceptance of the truthfulness of these different views.  D.A. Carson explains this tolerance well:

The new [secular] tolerance suggests that actually accepting another’s position means believing that position to be true, or at least as true as your own.  We move from allowing the free expression of contrary opinions to the acceptance of all opinions; we leap from permitting the articulation of beliefs and claims with which we do not agree to asserting that all beliefs and claims are equally valid.[1]

Of course, the great irony of this tolerance is that if one refuses to accept this definition of tolerance or play by its rules, that person will not be tolerated!  As Leslie Armour, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Ottawa, wryly noted, “Our idea is that to be a virtuous citizen is to be one who tolerates everything except intolerance.”[2]

One of the most striking lessons in true tolerance comes from Jesus in His Parable of the Weeds.  Jesus tells of a master who plants some wheat.  But while everyone is sleeping, the master’s enemy sneaks in and sows weeds with the wheat.  When the master’s servants see what has happened, they ask, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?”  But the master replies, “Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:28, 30).  The master in this parable, of course, is Jesus.  The wheat are those who trust in Him while the weeds are those who reject Him.  But rather than immediately destroying those who reject Him, Jesus is tolerant:  He allows the weeds to grow with the wheat.  Martin Luther comments on this parable:

Observe what raging and furious people we have been these many years, in that we desired to force others to believe; the Turks with the sword, heretics with fire, the Jews with death, and thus outroot the tares by our own power, as if we were the ones who could reign over hearts and spirits, and make them pious and right, which God’s Word alone must do.[3]

Violent oppression of those with whom we disagree is not an option for the Christian, Luther asserts.  He goes on to state that if we violently deal with someone who is not a Christian and kill him or her, we take away that person’s chance to trust Christ and be saved by Him.  We thus work against the gospel rather than for it.  This echoes Paul’s sentiment in Romans where he speaks of God’s tolerance as kindness which leads to repentance (cf. Romans 2:4).

Finally, Christianity teaches an even higher virtue than just tolerance – it teaches love.  And after a week that has seen so much hatred, perhaps that is what we need to share with our world.


[1] D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012), 3-4.

[2] Cited in D.A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance, 12.

[3] Martin Luther, The Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House 1906), 100-106.

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