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Is Tolerance a Christian Virture? (Part 2)

Is tolerance a Christian virtue? Part Two: A Brief Tour of Tolerance

Michael Jinkins


The taste for toleration has deep roots, but it is not necessarily from one’s ancestors that one acquires it.” Theodore Zeldin


This week, let’s go on a brief* tour of toleration. To get our tour started we will hear from the English moral philosopher, Sir Bernard Williams, who writes: “The difficulty with toleration is that it seems to be at once necessary and impossible.” This is especially true, Sir Bernard explains, when it comes to matters of religious faith and morality, where some people are likely to find the beliefs and ways of life of some others to be completely unacceptable. The problem with toleration, he concludes, is this: “We need to tolerate other people and their ways of life only in situations that make it very difficult to do so.”


To gain some perspective on this thorny issue, take the case of Niccolo Machiavelli. His last name is used as an adjective for cynical cruelty in the political realm. His first name has come to be a nickname for the Devil himself (Old Nick). Machiavelli in real life was a senior official in Renaissance Florence, a diplomat, politician, philosopher, poet, dramatist, and leading figure in Italian society in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Most famous for fathering “real politik” with the publication of his book “The Prince,” a guide to holding and exercising autocratic power, Machiavelli was also the author of work of fundamental importance in the evolution of Western liberal democracies.


What makes Machiavelli such a perplexing figure is this: He appears to be immoral when, in fact, he consistently holds to a complex moral system. It just isn’t a Christian moral system. This is ironic because of his context. He lived and worked in a “Christian” state, under the full glare of the Renaissance Papacy (admittedly not the best examples of Christian morality).


Machiavelli is aware of the irony, and the moral contradictions, of his position. He believed that a person in private life may live according to Christian ethics as taught in the Sermon on the Mount. But a public leader, according to Machiavelli, does not have this luxury. For Machiavelli, the highest and most appropriate moral system for public leaders is that of the early Roman Republic.


Machiavelli, himself, is fairly consistent in his own private as well as public life in favoring the morality of Ancient Rome over Christianity. When one reads Machiavelli one encounters the classical origins of the concept of “virtue” (which comes from the root word, vir, meaning strength or power, especially stereotypical forms of masculine strength). But, for Machiavelli, the most highly praised virtues are not likely to be those prized by other Renaissance Christian thinkers such as Erasmus.


Machiavelli’s concern is with the exercise of political power. In his writings on the early Roman Republic, you can see the basis for his belief that a group of people can exercise power for the common good. This would be the ideal political arrangement, and worth working toward. But, it was not the political arrangement that typified the often brutal world of Italian politics in which he lived. Thus, he also provides in “The Prince” the blueprints for ruling as an absolute tyrant.


In other words, Machiavelli exhibits a certain moral flexibility that frankly makes him untrustworthy at a personal level, but which perfectly fits his own concept of virtue.


One of my former colleagues, Professor Ismael Garcia, once observed that Machiavelli developed not so much a system of ethics, as a system of prudence. Machiavelli, in other words, explained how a ruler navigates the choppy and unpredictable waters of power. I would agree with Ismael, understanding that in the morality of the early Roman Republic, “prudence” was a characteristic virtue.


The wise leader, according to Machiavelli, may upon occasion do a number of things that a private citizen would find repellent. But to lead an entire society and to assure its security and prosperity, the wise leader may have to engage in acts of public virtue that are considered privately immoral. However, Machiavelli, even in The Prince, recognizes that if a leader develops a reputation of untrustworthiness, unfaithfulness, cruelty and dishonesty, his effectiveness as a public leader in time will be undercut and he may find himself a prince without a people.


The Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr diligently worked “to square this circle” in his landmark study, Moral Man, Immoral Society (1932). Even the most idealistic and committed Christians, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, have struggled with this ethical conundrum.


Sometimes what is moral must be determined by its ultimate outcome, even when the means are mixed or worse. But this does not mean, simplistically, that “the end justifies the means.” In fact, there are some acts that nothing can “justify” even if these actions are necessary to prevent a greater evil. Therefore, Bonhoeffer, for example, refused to “justify” his participation in a plot to murder Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis. Bonhoeffer fully recognized that the act of murdering the head of state and the violation of civil norms (which some would see as treasonous) were sinful, but he was sure that he had an obligation to do what he did.


How does all of this relate to toleration?


There is no single pattern of ethics or values or beliefs common to all humanity for all time. This is historically true. Timeless, universal moral absolutism is historically groundless. In fact, all the examples most often cited to “prove” that moral absolutes are divine and/or natural and timeless, are in fact grounded in the work of human societies. And this is precisely my point.


I still remember the day I took my father deep into the lower floor of the Louvre Museum in Paris to see the stele on which is carved Hammurabi’s Code. My father’s question to me was, “What’s the big deal about this?”

My reply to him, “You’ve heard of the Ten Commandments?”

“Of course,” he said. Indeed, my father, a Baptist deacon, knew a lot about the Ten Commandments.

“Well,” I answered, “On this stone are written the laws that are the basis for the Ten Commandments.”


To say that Dad was surprised would be an understatement. But not even the Ten Commandments dropped right out of heaven (with apologies to Charlton Heston and my second grade Sunday School teacher). These fundamental rules of behavior, routinely honored and just as routinely violated throughout Western civilization, originated in Middle Eastern civilizations, some of which have long disappeared. They were further adapted by the Hebrew people in time, and revised as religious and cultural laws. One might well argue this is the reason they have proven so durable over the centuries; they grew organically through the histories of several successive cultures over thousands of years.


We have always struggled to make sense of what to do in concrete moral situations, appealing sometimes to what “we” consider absolutes while conscious that these rules are not really universal (i.e., that not all humanity, everywhere and for all time, shares these rules or standards).


We also often privilege these rules as binding, even while recognizing that under certain circumstances they may legitimately be amended or violated. This is particularly true in military codes in which killing an enemy in combat is clearly differentiated from committing war crimes.


However, none of this means that ethics or values or beliefs are simply matters of individual preference. We recognize this reality in our daily lives all the time. (We will return to this subject in a later blog.)


Whole societies over long periods of time develop complex ways of being human together, of being good, and of being true and faithful. None of us “has a ladder” (as Ludwig Wittgenstein once put it) allowing us to climb up out of history and above all cultures and societies to look at all the various ways of being human and to render an eternal judgment upon them. However, neither are we permitted as human beings to blindly follow the cultural standards of our time and place without question. There are real tensions between moral authorities within our historical and social situation.


If, for example, some Homeric hero came swaggering into a room glorying in his brutal pride, his thirst for vengeance, the people who were from his own ancient Greece would doubtless find him to be the epitome of moral uprightness. But I doubt if many of us could stand to be in his company. Can we really imagine risking lunch with Agamemnon or a beer with Ulysses?


The biblical King David is praised in the Old Testament for having killed his tens of thousands while King Saul only killed his thousands. Even though Jesus stood in the earthly lineage of David, he doesn’t seem to think that ruthless killing and blood vengeance are good things. To the contrary Jesus teaches that strength might just lie in unexpected acts of undeserved mercy rather than belligerence.


None of history’s moral codes coincides exactly with our own. And, indeed, I can imagine us opposing, even going to war, to prevent the success of some of moral codes over our own. Each of the various ways of morality is somewhat discrete, though many overlap, and each is grounded in historical and social and cultural realities as well as religious commitments. And there are dozens and dozens of different moral codes. Truly.


The question isn’t whether we can be tolerant. The question is “what are the boundaries of tolerance in a particular circumstance?” And, perhaps, even more important, at least from a purely practical standpoint, “how do we operate our lives along the various ethical boundaries as Christians and as people living in a particular culture, some aspects of which fit and other aspects of which do not fit the ethics of Jesus as exemplified in his Sermon on the Mount”?


Next week, we’ll pursue these questions too.



*It really is about as brief as I can make it.


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