How do we learn to live together peaceably in spite of deep differences over politics, religion, sexuality and other important matters? 

John Inazu believes there are three aspirations that we need to work towards, as citizens, in understanding our differences and dialoguing across them: tolerance, humility and patience.

•Tolerance

It’s important for us to understand what the term tolerance means, and learn how to apply it to our lives today. John explains,

“Tolerance is a tricky one because although there’s no standard legal definition, there is a cultural definition that’s pretty widespread particularly on college and university campuses. This is the idea that tolerance means fully accepting me for who I am; it’s not enough just to put up with me, but you’ve got to affirm and embrace everything that I do and everything that I say I am.”

“That I think is a philosophical mistake. I’m not sure that any of us can actually live in the world that way. It’s also not really the best way to understand tolerance.”

“Tolerance, in some ways, is kind of endurance; that you tolerate another person even though you don’t agree with his or her beliefs or practices. It’s a hard thing to do because it’s very easy to tolerate the differences that don’t matter. Tolerance matters when the differences do matter. Part of that means we have to work really hard at distinguishing people from the ideas that we hold. Tolerance doesn’t mean you have to respect all ideas, because some ideas are very bad. I do think it means that we work harder to respect people.”

•Humility

John says that humility is particularly important for Christians to understand, as it relates to the way we engage in conversations with those who don’t share the same beliefs as we do.

“When people disagree with us about significant matters, we are not always going to be able to prove why we are right and why they are wrong.”

“Humility is a way to engage that says, ‘I’m not always going to be able to explain to someone why I’m right, or why this is the best way to live. I’m going to have to work through relationship and pray that over time this person will enter into my practices, my community, and understand how I see the world, but I’m not going to be able to prove it in a couple points of logic.”

•Patience

We should aspire towards tolerance and humility, but it’s also important to practice patience as we engage in important conversations. John explains how patience allows us to show respect towards others, despite our differences.

“Relating with other people, particularly across differences, is going to take time and it’s going to take a posture of listening and desire to empathize. This doesn’t mean accepting everything we hear, sometimes when we listen patiently it’s going to lead us to believe more firmly about the error of a different viewpoint.

As Christians, we ought to be leading the way in patient listening and the willingness to sit down with someone who differs from us.”

Through tolerance, patience and humility, we will be able to coexist in a world of difference and pave the way for future peacemakers.


John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion and Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. He teaches criminal law, law and religion, and various First Amendment seminars. He is author of Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference.

Finding peace amidst our differences
Also on this edition of Connecting Faith
Leith Anderson on church and culture

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