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Tolerance is all well and good, but…

1700 years ago, Emperors Constantine and Licinius met in Milan and agreed that they would ‘tolerate’ all religions equally. The resulting Edict of Milan (which, for the record was not in fact an edict and wasn’t declared in Milan!) changed the religious landscape of the Roman Empire and the western world forever. Christians were now free to worship their God, “without any let or hindrance, and are not to be in any way troubled or molested”. This made a pleasant change from the decades of persecution and slaughter that had preceded it!

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It is a good thing that the Edict of Milan will be remembered this year, because religious tolerance is a hot topic today all over the world, and it is heating up in Australia.

Recently, there has been public debate around the rights of religious organisations to ‘discriminate’ concerning whom they employ. Since the events of September 11, 2001, there has been a great deal of public confusion and concern over how public life and religion fit together. From disagreements over whether religious symbols can be worn around your neck or head, to deep divisions over whether religious texts can be taught in public schools, it seems that God is back on the front page of the papers (or, more accurately, the home page of the websites).

The concept of tolerance is a fine one. It represents an aspect of human thinking and behaviour that should be encouraged: the view that not everyone is going to agree with me on everything. It’s a concept that can be abused and twisted to say something like “no-one is right, so everyone’s wrong view should be equally welcomed”.  But this risk shouldn’t stop us from supporting what is ultimately a fine Christian sentiment: that religious belief is not a matter of coercion, but free surrender to God.

But Christians need to add to the idea of tolerance. We have some other, very valuable, qualities and perspectives to contribute. One of them is our lack of fear. This is perhaps an unexpected theme in the New Testament letters: Christians have nothing to fear except God himself. When we are persecuted, we need not fear because nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8). When society ignores Christianity at its own peril, we need not fear because the gates of Hell cannot stand against the church (Matthew 16:18).

In her book, The New Religious Intolerance philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that fear is narcissistic: it results from focusing too intently on ourselves and our own
survival. “Unlike grief and sympathy,” she writes, “it has not yet conceded the full reality of other people”1.  Fear, she adds, threatens or prevents love.

The ancient Christians—the ones undergoing intense persecution—had already identified this truth. In 1 John 4, we are taught that there is no fear in love, and that “perfect love drives our fear”. Fear makes people intolerant, but love draws us towards each other, even when our beliefs are poles apart. It is this love of God, this divine love that we have experienced in Christ, that should take us beyond tolerance. Christianity adds to the world a selfless, eternally-fearless love, exemplified in Jesus Christ.

The current tough political and social debates about religion in the public square are nothing new: they are the same kinds of questions tackled by the old Roman emperors. As the heat rises, let us remember to add this love, skip the narcissism, and remain fearlessly safe in the hands of our God.

Greg Clarke is CEO of Bible Society Australia

1 Martha C. Nussbaum, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, Belknap Harvard, 2012, p.56.

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