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05 June 2013

A tolerant society?

A tolerant society?

In the latest in our series of articles by pupils from Thames Christian College, Alfie Mumby-Cook explores the idea of tolerance...

Our increasingly humanist society is becoming more accepting of different people and has enabled us to be more open and develop our views and beliefs in a creative and sometimes controversial way.

Should Christians accept this move towards tolerance? Tolerance is an acceptance of differences in people's gender, sexuality, colour, race, sub-cultures and religion. Some people are more tolerant than others about certain things. For example, Palestinians might be intolerant of Jews, homophobes would be intolerant of homosexuals, racists would be intolerant of ethnic minorities. Within each group there are degrees of intolerance and the level of intolerance can vary according to past experience, group support and peer pressure.

Why are some people intolerant? What makes them angry? Someone might be raised by homophobic or racist parents who have passed down these attitudes from previous generations. In Shane Meadows' film This is England, set in 1983, a troubled boy comes across a few skinheads on his way home from school after a fight. They become his new best friends, even like family. The film is based on the true experiences of director Shane Meadows growing up in the 1980s in deprived Sheffield, possibly after the closure of the steel works. Has the level of intolerance grown due to social deprivation? Should we therefore be more tolerant of groups of skinheads?

In Matthew's gospel, we are told "love thy enemies" and "do not resist the evil person". "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Jesus chose to mix with social outcasts such as lepers, money lenders and prostitutes. Jesus taught people to be tolerant of others and to make peace with their enemies; as it says in Matthew 5:9: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." There has been recent speculation that the law on hate crimes should include harsher sentences on discrimination against subculture. This speculation was sparked by the death of Sophie Lancaster, who was attacked for being a goth in Bacup Park, Lancashire, on 24 August 2007 because of the way she dressed. By Matthew's example, should we tolerate the violent actions of skinheads or gangs such as the one who attacked Sophie Lancaster? No. God gave us the Ten Commandments which clearly say that murder and violent behaviour is not to be tolerated. Certainly, there is no need to be intolerant of non-violent groups such as goths who are mostly interested in fashion.

Christians are taught to be tolerant of differences in people and that people should accept we are not all the same and the rights of each individual are very important. Jesus says: "Suffer little children to come unto me." He shocks religious people by choosing to help outcasts, people living on the fringes of society such as lepers, the lame, the blind and prostitutes. He says: "It is harder for a rich man to pass into heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle." Jesus was not always tolerant where a principle was concerned; he rebuked the money lenders and the Sanhedrin over their interpretation of the use of the Sabbath. As society changes, so we need to change. We can keep our values but need to move our attitudes with changing times.

The attack on Sophie Lancaster goes against all Christian teachings about equality: God made everyone equal but some people feel the need to kill someone purely because of the clothes they are wearing or because they are just perceived as different. It also says in Matthew 7:1: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged."

Although the police may not totally be able to stop hate crimes, it is not a good thing to just tolerate them. Toleration of events such as Sophie Lancaster's stabbing would send a message that it was ok to be violent purely based on an instant judgment of a person based on race, sexuality or just the way that someone dresses.

As Christians in this changing society we should lead the way, setting an example of tolerance. We can welcome every individual, even if we cannot condone their lifestyle or accept their points of view. For tolerance does not demand that we regard all views as equally valid or acceptable and indeed the law supports this position. We should tolerate all people so long as they do no harm to others, in thoughts, in words or in deeds.

by Alfie Mumby-Cook, aged 15, a pupil from Thames Christian College