Tolerance, although widely admired, has never been the strongest of human traits. At this juncture of history it seems particularly scarce. Among its many violators, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, and its affiliates stand out. The notion that Western civilization must be “purified” by the mass slaughter of nonbelievers through acts of terror is about as intolerant as humans get.
But the response from some Americans, especially after the homegrown attack in San Bernardino, Calif., earlier this month, has been disturbing, too, considering our pluralist traditions. To stigmatize a whole group for the despicable acts of a tiny few cannot be justified. Those who continue to lap up the hate speech offered by some leading politicians and commentators may find the Christmas story tough sledding as it is read to millions of Christians and acknowledged by millions of others.
Let’s review the story. A young man and woman, immigrants of a sort, have been ordered to register with the government, back in the land of his forebears. They have little choice but to leave their home and hit the road, even though the young woman — a girl, really — is heavily pregnant. Upon arrival, the town is crowded with other exiles, so they settle in a barn where she gives birth, according to the story, to an exceptional child. This child will grow up to utter astonishingly radical teachings about loving your enemies and doing good to those who hate you.
Sensing a future threat from this single child, and just to be safe, the local king orders the mass murder of all of the region’s baby boys under the age of 2. This act of terror forces the young family to hit the road once again, as refugees, leaving the carnage behind them.
Drawing specific lessons from the layers of this story is a task best left to scholars. But modern parallels are hard to ignore, especially “solutions” like registering all Muslims, banning their immigration, turning away Syrian refugees and “carpet bombing” the many in order to root out the few.
Now is hardly the first time that Americans have been drawn to large-scale fear and intolerance. Internment camps for Japanese-Americans are just one sad reminder. Seventy-five years later, it is easy to see how economic and social conditions have again laid fertile ground for politicians to play on the fears and frustrations of ordinary people.
A bifurcated economy has shrunk the middle class to the point that it no longer dominates American life. As chances melt away, many people, especially disaffected whites, find blame and distrust in the unfamiliar faces, accents and manners that they increasingly encounter. A sense of betrayal adds to the mix; the nation welcomes newcomers who then turn against their new homeland.
None of this, of course, excuses the kind of intolerance that has overtaken much of the nation, nor does it excuse the demagoguery coming from some leading politicians. Those words make a mockery of our national values and play into the hands of terrorists who want desperately to divide us by religion.
Tolerance is a difficult concept. As the philosopher Sidney Hook suggested, “Tolerance has limits — it cannot tolerate what is itself actively intolerant.” To shrug one’s shoulders in the face of terrorist atrocity takes the concept too far.
Yet in the right dosage, tolerance means freedom from bigotry, and who can argue with that? In the spirit of the Christmas story, tolerance might even be seen as a gift from a newborn baby to all of humanity — a nicely wrapped present that we, no matter our faith or lack of it, can open and share with our neighbors.