What does it mean to be tolerant? Or perhaps the better question is, how do we practice appropriate tolerance in today’s world? On the one extreme some might answer that tolerance means anything goes, to simply live and let live. At the other end of the spectrum are those who believe tolerance should not be tolerated at all, that doing so is simply sending society to hell in a handbag. The problem with the two extremes is that one lends itself to a world of chaos with no common value system and sense of order, while the other leads to exclusivity and isolationism, thus perpetuating the divisions and adversities that already exist in this increasingly global society.
My friends who periodically volunteer to work inside prisons – and there are a number of them who do this – have taught me more about practicing tolerance than anyone I know. What I’ve observed about them is twofold: (1) Upon returning from a weekend on the “inside” they always refer to the men they encounter by their first names, that is as fellow human beings and never as prisoners, inmates or criminals; yet (2) neither do they ever excuse them for their offenses. Instead, by spending time with these incarcerated individuals they come to understand them as real people with real feelings, real desires and real needs to be loved and to love, to forgive and be forgiven. My friends often times reflect on the fact that they – indeed all of us – are only one bad decision away from being in the same circumstance. There but by the grace of God am I.
There is a marvelous scene in the movie “Invictus” in which Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) is being scolded for his acts of forgiveness and peacefulness toward those who had imprisoned for almost three decades. In his response he said something to the effect that he had gotten to know his enemies, the promoters of apartheid. He had read their poetry, studied their writings, and engaged them in conversation. And while not condoning their actions and beliefs, he had nonetheless learned to understand them as human beings, thus proving the point that practicing tolerance in today’s world does not require us to relinquish or compromise our values. Yet, neither can we hide from the culture by isolating ourselves. Rather, tolerance begins with understanding of our fellow human beings. Then, and only then, can we earnestly extend forgiveness, establish harmony and respect, and position ourselves to effect positive change.