At a congregational board retreat at the beginning of a church year one year, we began to ask questions about mission.
To spark answers to the question of what our purpose is, we considered the question, “What is this congregation’s saving message?”
A number of themes emerged consistently, one of them being the notion that we model a way of holding together in unity a diversity of theological and philosophical perspectives. Our historic testimony – part of our saving message to the world – has been religious toleration, creating understanding and respect in civil society for a variety of religious beliefs and for none. The language that many Unitarians grew up with, including some on this board, was of religious tolerance.
But before I could write down, “Tolerance” with my marker onto the page in front of the group, a participant spoke up.
“You know, I don’t want to be tolerated.”
Tolerance, indeed, implies that there is something distasteful about another and we are holding our noses and allowing them to remain in our presence. Like tolerating loud noise or a foul smell because it can’t be avoided.
The historian Earl Morse Wilbur identified the three foundational principles of Unitarianism as being freedom, reason and tolerance. This describes our history, but not our present moment and in these opening decades of the twenty-first century, these basic principles of religious liberalism are, without really being superseded, transforming.
Tolerance, for example, is no longer adequate for our increasingly multicultural and interfaith context. It is not helping our divided body politic. What is needed today is not simply tolerance for difference, but rather authentic engagement across our differences.
No longer holding our nose and allowing you to stay here, but rather, curiosity and conversation with those who are different from us. Who are you and how do you see the world? Asking and discovering, in an attitude of openness, does not mean acceptance necessarily of another’s views. But it builds a bridge, and makes connection and communication possible.
There have been times when I, and other LGBT people I know, have “come out” to others in our faith communities and were told, “It doesn’t matter that you’re gay” (or lesbian or bi or trans).
Well… it matters to me!
I’ve also been told by well meaning people that it makes no difference that I’m Arab. “You can hardly tell,” they say, thinking they’ve complimented me.
Well…it makes a difference to me!
It is a well-meaning, liberal response that actually closes down dialogue. By saying, You’re no different from me, the real and actual difference is not acknowledged, the fullness of that person’s rich experience and humanity remains shut off.
The same happens across differences of ability and disability, language, culture, race, theology, class, nationality, gender.
Pretending those differences aren’t there isn’t helpful. To actually engage one another, we’d need to give up the well-intended but pernicious fictions of “colour blindness” and “aren’t we all the same.”
A video going round on my social media recently exhorts viewers to give up “labels” saying that our “true” identities are some kind of interior quintessence and not our outward appearances, including our bodies. This laudable plea to see the humanity in one another, rather than the material conditions that separate us, falls into this same sort of thinking.
Those material conditions are real and have real consequences in our real lives. And those identities are real and meaningful, even if socially constructed. It’s delusional to pretend otherwise. Erasing people’s identities is, to say the least, problematic.
I suggest that hospitality is what is needed today, the willingness to engage with one different from or strange to us, the practice of active engagement across the divisions and barriers that separate us. Hospitality involves acknowledging and affirming differences in another as we commit to understanding and accepting them fully as they are.
Hospitality is the practice of curiosity and openness, a spirit of inquiry into another’s life and experience. Hospitality is the practice of taking a risk—of asking a question, for example, even if it might be insensitive.
We need more than ever to open our door and welcome in the one who we consider one of “them.” Because in the transformational guest-host conversation that is the heart of hospitality, there is mutual exchange of distrust and trust, sincerity and reticence, giving and receiving out of which is born new understanding, new insight and new relationship.
I don’t want to be tolerated. I refuse to be erased. I want to be listened to, understood, taken seriously, affirmed and maybe even accepted – for who I actually am. These are the fruits of hospitality, a virtue that I daresay needs to become more central to who we are and what we do.