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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

When 'tolerance' is intolerable

Many of the folks who seek out our church/movement/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, do so because we used to pitch ourselves with a handy 3-word slogan: "Freedom, Reason, Tolerance." This slogan, I claim, has done us as much harm as good, and should be consigned to our history.


To many, this looked like heaven-sent succour from the dark side of conventional religious affiliation--control, dogma, judgment. And indeed it is a wonderful gift, or it can be. Though individual congregations may have their own theological 'flavour', we do have certain principles to gently hold us together. For instance, we encourage each member to undertake a 'free and responsible search for truth and meaning'. We largely refrain from the language of 'sin' and suspend judgement on matters of lifestyle in free societies. For example, UU churches have been the place people came when the faith of their forebears prevents them from engaging rites of passage--for example, getting married after divorce or to someone of another faith, demanding oaths to a particular faith when welcoming children into the world, or enforcing a fairytale cosmology into the burial of a loved one. A UU congregation gave them the space to accept and make their own peace with how difficult and uncertain living this life can be.

But to some, that 3-word slogan looks like everything is permitted. A UU church will give them space to nurture and declaim intolerant bigotries. A UU church will give them room to exercise long-pent-up feelings of powerlessness by pushing others around without fear of push-back, because...freedom, man. A UU church will provide an endless and ready supply of easy-going folk for the narcissist's appetite for attention. A UU church will provide an open platform to construct and furnish the house they want to live in. No one will judge you, because we're free and tolerant. So, if you want to, you can get away with every damn thing you want. As with the current Trumpian governmental crisis in America, once the judiciary in rendered impotent, everything becomes possible.


We say we welcome all comers, and we do. But one of the more difficult aspects of UU ministry is having to confront and challenge those few who are so damaged, or whose maturity is so arrested, that they see our openness as a place to finally indulge themselves. In short, to draw perceptible limits to what tolerable, to remind them the free exercise of truth MUST be a responsible one, or everything's okay. And when you confront and challenge, our unhandy, archaic, 3-word slogan gets thrown in your face. "So much for tolerance! You're all hypocrites!" Tolerance is the serpent that eats its own tail.

My esteemed colleague, Rev. Peter Boullatta, put this better than I ever could in this seminal article some little while ago: https://peterboullata.com/2011/12/29/the-liberal-church-finding-its-mission-its-not-about-you/

If you haven't read that before, you really should.

Any parent of a nascent teenager will know that how you challenge and confront those who are simply not equipped to handle sudden, new-found freedom is a subtle art, and hard to get right. Largely, it's a matter of pastoral judgement--matching tone to content and matching those to what you know of the person's self-image, background, way of thinking. My experience is that, just as people who are mad don't think they're mad, people who use a UU church the way a baby uses a diaper likewise don't think they're doing anything amiss. Nine times out of ten, it's a no-win, and they stalk off somewhere else, a living bad PR-generating machine for the beloved community we try to build. Hey ho.

I have to say to any prospective ministers who may be reading--this is part of the job. In fact, this IS the job, the whole job. To see people's brokenness, to love them anyway since we are all broken, to teach and admonish when needed because you're the Minister, dammit, and to let go of controlling the result, even if it means losing them entirely.

Look at it this way, too: most of the faces you see before you in the church probably weren't there 20 years ago, and may not be in another 20. People come and go for many reasons, and none of it is entirely due to what ministers do or don't do.

So stick to your principles, and cut yourself a break.



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