Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Respect | Tolerance | Grace

This post follows on from recent posts on what I have called the graceless society.

The two most prominent words at play in the public debate on social ills in the UK are ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’:
young people need to be shown respect by the generation who currently hold public office, and need, in turn, to show respect towards their elders;
while tolerance of beliefs – and actions arising from beliefs – other than our own is held out as the key to harmony in a culturally diverse context.
But both ideas are compromised by fatal flaws.

The problem with respect is that it can be given grudgingly. To give grudging respect does not in any way undermine the integrity of the respect given; but it does undermine the usefulness of respect as a virtue for building society. Grudging respect ultimately fosters resentment, not only towards the one respected but also for all that is identified with them, all they are seen to stand for.

In contrast, it is impossible to extend grace grudgingly.

The problem with tolerance is that it does not allow us to make value judgements, whether pragmatic (this option is better than that option) or ultimate (this option is morally wrong). Tolerance insists that every view has equal validity – with the unique exception of being intolerant of any suggestion otherwise. Identifying tolerance as a virtue – indeed, as the primary virtue – acts to deny intolerance of any positive value, such as it rightly ought to have in, for example, intolerance of social injustice. The resulting internal conflict for a society that wants to be tolerant of lifestyle choices but intolerant of the catastrophic impact of free trade (which supports particular lifestyle choices) on the developing world, for example, deconstructs the usefulness of tolerance as a virtue for building society.

Grace is not dependent on tolerance. Millions of Anglicans worldwide, and Christians of many other traditions, part with the words of ‘the grace’: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you…” The original context of these words – perhaps far less familiar – is the very end of the New Testament letter 2 Corinthians, and come at the close of several chapters where the writer, Paul, displays quite spectacular intolerance for certain attitudes prevalent within the community he is addressing, and for those who have propagated those attitudes. Grace allows us to challenge beliefs, even vigorously oppose individuals, without devaluing the individuals in question.

Ultimately deriving from God’s free self-giving to us, grace is an expression of the gift economy. It works on the basis of receiving what I have not earned – what I am not legally entitled to – and giving away to another that which they have not legally earned from me. Rather than attempting to impose my views on others, through intellectual or physical aggression, grace seeks to serve them for their good, regardless of how they will choose to respond. Willingness to serve someone who does not ‘look like’ me or my community – along with willingness to be served by someone who does not ‘look like’ me, not because I have enslaved them, but because they have freely offered – are the acid tests of whether or not I have understood grace. Such a choice, replicated out across individuals and communities, has a potential to transform society that respect and tolerance cannot imagine…

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