Different regions of the world have different histories and also different traditions about freedom, especially freedom of religion. Some areas of the world have never known freedom, or very little of it, so society’s disapproval of people who turn to Christ or witness for Christ is somewhat expected. The idea of “tolerance” is not in their thinking. In Western thought, however, the idea of tolerance is well known, and it sometimes evokes emotion in Christians who believe it indicates turning one’s back on biblical truth.
Let’s look at how the idea of tolerance developed in Western thought and, later, how the understanding of tolerance today can lead to forms of persecution.
Although the Enlightenment (or Age of Reason, 17th and 18th centuries) is seen as a rebellion against the dominance of the church, the Western world continued to enjoy freedom within a pluralistic culture led by Christian values. The rebellion was against the abuses of church and state (often because they were fused together). Therefore, the Enlightenment was an attempt to establish reason as the basis of truth and knowledge, rather than tradition or faith. Faith was tolerated as long as it was not intrusive and was practiced mostly as a private affair.
Tolerance meant that people of diverse viewpoints (including religious) could express their reasoned beliefs (religious or political) and would defend those rights with reason. So the ideal was civil conversation, with the expectation that reasonable people would come to reasonable conclusions in an atmosphere of fair public debate. It was freedom experienced under the umbrella of Christianity.
Recently, however, there has been a radical change in the meaning of tolerance, with the potential of creating hostility toward the Christian faith and Christians. What is being lost is the ongoing and free public debate based on differing viewpoints, and it is being replaced by the public articulation of only what is “politically correct.” It means that society is free to express publicly only what the dominant cultural spokespersons of our culture allow. Much of what is considered politically correct is in opposition to Christian values and morality. This, in effect, restricts freedom of
religion. And the umbrella of freedom is closing.
Postmodernism is somewhat responsible for this shift. Modernism, which came out of and defines the Enlightenment, put forth the idea that we could come to a rational conclusion based on reason and, for the most part, that which is factually based on science. Modernists believed that anyone anywhere who used reason could come to the same conclusion. Modernist thought was intended to supplement faith and superstition as the universal cultural explanation. The Christian faith believes in the universal conclusion and absolute truth of salvation through Christ alone (John 14:6).
Postmodernism, however, rejects the idea of absolute truth, proposing that truth is relative—determined by whatever individuals or communities determine is truth for them. The only way to maintain harmony within such diversity is through tolerance. The problem is that tolerance in this case means no one can make a statement about universal truth. So we are faced with the idea that everyone’s “truth” is equally valid and that we should not try to persuade others that our truth is absolute and theirs is wrong.
When we followers of Christ articulate that Jesus is Lord of all creation and that he is the only way to salvation for all people, we are immediately labeled as intolerant, bigoted, narrow-minded, ignorant and (worst of all in their minds) offensive to postmodern thought. They would tell us that everyone should be able to hold their religious beliefs unchallenged, as long as they don’t assert them. While postmodern thinkers challenge Christian belief, we are not allowed to be offended!
In the Western world, we may not be subject to public scourging or physical persecution. But we will be subject to other forms of persecution that fit our culture—censorship, ridicule and lawsuits that result in fines and other forms of harassment. In the Introductory Class in Persecution Studies on the VOM Classroom website (www.vomclassroom.com), we talk about the various levels of persecution. The first level is disinformation, the second is harassment and the next one is discrimination. It is possible for society to move along through these various levels and escalate into the final one, which is outright persecution.
The questions for us in the Western world are the same ones faced by believers in other parts of the world: How willing are we to fulfill Christ’s mandate as we see our society moving through these levels? How much are we willing to suffer and sacrifice? Are we willing to be obedient to Christ no matter the cost? We may be required to decide sooner than we think. What do you think?
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.