Defeating the intolerance within

by Annette Bridges. © 2006. All rights reserved.

How could he say that? Why is she being that way? What were they thinking? When is he going to change? Who does she think she is? Whether these or similar sentiments were voiced about a coworker, political leader, family member or neighbor, I suspect all of us have been guilty of being intolerant of the actions, behavior or viewpoints of others.

Intolerance can take many forms. But it begins as a disapproving attitude. It grows into an inability or unwillingness to recognize and respect differences in opinions and beliefs. On a more extreme level, intolerance can lead to violence and in its most severe form — genocide.

As my husband says, “Intolerance (lack of love) causes all the ills of mankind.” And he says that often those who are intolerant seem totally blind to their intolerance.

Moving into the political season with the race toward the White House in 2008, I find myself dreading the possibility that political campaigns and family dinner conversations will be monopolized by intolerance.

My problem is that I’m intolerant of people who are intolerant.

It would seem that there is no peaceful and harmonious solution for combating the intolerance we see in others and find in ourselves. In taking my own dilemma to God in prayer recently, eight words spoken by Christ Jesus have inspired my thought: “… what is that to thee? Follow thou me.” (John 21:22) I’ve been pondering how this question and command can aid me in confronting intolerance in a couple of my own life battles.

A friend who professed to be a Christian hurt my feelings, treating me rudely and with contempt regarding a difference of opinion. I left the encounter in tears. But the memory of it kept me disturbed and sad for months. Those words of Christ Jesus came to mind as an answer to my prayer. It has become very clear that I can’t follow Christ Jesus’ teachings and example and harbor ill feelings toward anyone. So, with my spirit refreshed, I’m moving forward, free from sadness, regret and condemnation.

Some family members consider themselves associated with one political party and are quite intolerant of anyone associated with the other party. It is impossible for them to show respect toward the president, whoever he or she may be, if the president is not of their party persuasion. As I’ve written before, my daughter calls me an “extreme non-partisan,” and she’s right. Consequently, my intolerance is extreme toward people who express political intolerance. Even when I manage to “hold my tongue,” my emotions take hours to calm down. Then, it’s tempting to want to avoid being around these dear loved ones, or anyone else for that matter, if I think politics is on their minds. But again, these words of Christ Jesus are helping me stay focused on our higher calling and spiritual duty that is not dependent on or impacted by the behavior of others. I may have to silently recite those words of the Master during future family dinners to remind myself to follow the teachings of Christ, even when faced with disturbing or hostile viewpoints.

I decided that in order to help fight my own internal struggle against intolerance, I needed a refresher course on what it means to follow Christ. And it came to me that perhaps his greatest of all sermons is where I need to look — often called the “Sermon on the Mount.” Who could have known centuries upon centuries ago, that on a gentle slope of land rising above the Sea of Galilee, an incredibly calm, deeply inspired man would walk to the edge of the hill and set forth the code of conduct, which if followed, would assure peace and happiness for humanity for all time?

The Sermon begins with what are now often referred to as the “Beatitudes.” Jesus continues with explanations of law and religious practices, pointing out the spirit of each law and practice, which goes well beyond the letter. And he concludes with three final portrayals, offering the wisest of counsel on human behavior. (Matthew, Chapters 5 – 7)

Oh, what wisdom is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount! But be prepared, my friend, to examine your own heart and be transformed. Find the peace and joy within that nothing can take away. Learn to hold no grudges and harbor no anger. Discover what it means to walk the extra mile and walk it in love. Perceive a universal, all-pervasive love. Humble yourself to be teachable, and you will be taught how to see and conquer intolerance in your own heart — the first step toward conquering intolerance in the world around you.