Friday, November 2, 2012

Reflections on Intolerance vs. Freedom

The attitudes that fueled fascism in the early Twentieth Century never really died out. They just receded. Even in places like Germany, where the awareness of and fight against prejudice is hypersensitive, there are still pockets of incredible intolerance. When you happen upon their public demonstrations, the speeches reverberating out of their bullhorns and PA systems are a surreal experience. The cadence, the content and the hatred seem like something that should be accompanied by grainy, black and white news footage.

Now as a person from an American, Baptist background, what is most disturbing is the content. Because, even though everything I am seeing and hearing triggers alarms and screams “Nazi!” what I am hearing is just a variation from what I occasionally hear from my Evangelical compatriots. It is your basic fear mongering. Lump all people into groups and then projecting evil on some, due not to their individual beliefs or actions, but simply because they are in the group.

The greatest disappointment for me in all of this is that it goes against a very foundational distinctive that defines(d) my variety of Christianity. Baptists were born out of convictions that led to persecution. We know what it is to belong to a group that is singled out and targeted. We held from our very beginnings the conviction that people should be free to believe as they saw fit; even when it meant believing something wrong or false.

It is one thing to hold a conviction. It is quite another to think you can force that upon others, even out of a sense of compassion or decency. For a Baptist, at least in our early days, the government should not concern itself with faith. Even worse would be a government that tried to dictate what faiths were acceptable and which were forbidden. Unfortunately, this understanding has changed. The “Moral Majority” was founded by people determined to institute a new theocracy in America, if one believes the accounts of many who were a part of its beginnings.

In Europe, Baptists still hold to this conviction with an extremity that most American believers would find intolerable. Baptists in Italy back the position of homosexuals, not because they support their lifestyle or think it is right, but because they understand the principle of government not regulating people’s lives or beliefs. And Baptists in Germany stand in solidarity with Muslims against the neo-Nazi parties that would have them deported for their beliefs and race.

Will it come back to haunt them that they are essentially demonstrating tolerance for a group that may stand for intolerance of another stripe? Time will tell. However, if you are going to stand on conviction you can’t suspend your principles on a case by case basis. Integrity dictates consistency.

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