About Tolerance and Faithfulness

My friend Barry is a Jew. We connected almost by accident many years ago, and he has taught me a number of lessons about relating to someone different from me.

In the early 1970s Barry–a native of Southern California–took it upon himself to see the Deep South. I’m not sure of the details, but believe he flew into Mississippi and rented a car. He drove to Oxford just to see for himself the university where James Meredith had been forcibly installed as the first black student, an incident much in the news back then.

In Jackson, Barry drove around, found the Capitol, and walked into the governor’s office. Everyone was gracious–he had not been sure what to expect–and next thing you know, he showed up in the office of the First Baptist Church across the street. The receptionist, Mickey Brunson, stepped across the hall to my cubbyhole of an office, and said, “Joe, we have a gentleman here who would like a brief tour of the church. Can you do it?”

That’s how we met. And started corresponding. In 1981, when the Southern Baptist Convention met in Los Angeles, Barry picked me up at the hotel and gave me the grand tour. We attended a baseball game in Anaheim and checked out the campuses of UCLA and USC. And I embarrassed him.

In a restaurant, we ran into some of Barry’s friends, all Jewish. I was the odd man of the group, being Baptist and the lone Southerner. At some point, they started telling Jewish jokes. We all laughed and then–anyone who knows me will shake his head “yes,” because I know a lot of jokes and stories and am irrepressible once I find an audience–I told one. Yep. I told a Jewish joke to some Jewish men.

I have long forgotten the joke and have no memory of how it was received. What I will never forget in a lifetime is what happened when we got back to the car. “Joe, you embarrassed me back there.” I said, “Then tell me what I did, because I don’t have a clue.”

“You told an ethnic joke to my Jewish friends.” I was incredulous. I said, “Barry, they were telling them. Theirs were worse than mine. Mine was pretty tame.” He said, “No matter. You had no right to do that. It was humiliating.”

I thought then and still think it was a rather unfair standard he had erected, and I quickly decided my friend was thinner-skinned than I had known. I apologized, and I learned something.

It’s one thing for a minority group to tell their own jokes and even use put-downs to one another. But don’t you try it as an outsider. It’s a vastly different thing.

Barry continues to have these quirks that seem a little unfair. For instance, I used to try to witness to him about the Christian faith. One day he told me pointedly that he did not appreciate it, that he was Jewish, always had been, always would be, and was fiercely proud of his religion. I protested, “Barry, you don’t even practice it! You don’t go to the synagogue. You’re critical of your faith and have nothing good to say about the rabbis.”

I wanted to go further and say that he did not have a faith–at least nothing he was practicing– that he simply had a religious identity, but it was clear he was shutting down any further discussion on this topic. So, we changed the subject and I went away scratching my head about this enigmatic fellow.

The funny thing is after that he began sending me materials on Judaism. I wanted to reply, “I know about Judaism–I’ve read the Old Testament, remember?” But the subject was off-limits. He wanted me to do what he refused to do–read up on his religion–so I thanked him for the books and scanned them and made some comment on them to which he never responded.

These days–some 35 years after our first contact–Barry is semi-retired, still living in Southern California. He calls me every six months or so, out of the blue. No one sounds like him on the phone. I answer and he begins talking without identifying himself, making comments on what some college football team has done or some coach is doing. He sends me stuff in the mail. When Marlin and Mike McKeever died–legendary USC football stars of the 1960s but no relation to our clan–he sent me the clippings.

Last week, he sent the quarterly magazine, “Teaching Tolerance,” a publication for schoolteachers. The cover article deals with the integration of Central High School in Little Rock fifty years after the event. Inside, teachers share their stories of teaching respect and tolerance for “those different from us” in their classrooms. It seems to be a good magazine. Emphasis on “seems”.

Evangelical Christians know about tolerance. We get blasted with reminders to be tolerant from every side. In almost every case, the speaker or teacher or critic urges us not to share our faith in Jesus Christ with others, since everyone has their own religious identity and to witness to them is to disrespect that.

We’ve come to distrust a lot of teaching on tolerance. The last thing we want taught to our children in schools is that all religious differences are superficial, that all faiths are equally good and equally right, and thus to be accepted and honored. Listen to some tolerance-advocates and you would come away with the impression that the only difference between the religious faiths of an Osama Bin Laden and Billy Graham is that the former isn’t practicing what he believes.

On the surface, tolerance sounds so right, and properly understood and practiced, it is indeed needed. Our family’s moving to a West Virginia mining camp in 1947 exposed us to a taste of intolerance. And believe me, one taste will last you for a lifetime.

When the coal mines in our part of Alabama laid off workers, men went north looking for work. My dad and a number of his brothers and friends found jobs at a mine outside Beckley, West Virginia, in a camp called Affinity. Suddenly, that peaceful little enclave experienced an invasion of Alabamians, hard-workers used to putting in 8 hours with a pick and a shovel, then coming home to raise a crop on the farm. Now, with nothing but coal-mining, many would double back and work two 8-hour shifts in one day. Their work ethic offended and frightened the locals who were being shown up by the southerners.

When the families of the miners arrived and moved into the company houses alongside the natives, it did not take long before hostilities erupted. I still recall women and children–our neighbors–standing in the unpaved road in front of our house throwing rocks in our direction, cursing and calling us “Alabama cotton-pickers.” Which we were, of course. As a 7-year-old, I could never figure out how that was a putdown.

Before long, they got over it. We all worshiped together in the little Methodist church and the children sat in the same three-room school together and the rock-throwing and name-calling became just a bad memory.

Since my granddaughters and I have been reading the Nancy Drew mysteries together, I began to be curious about the origin of this long-running series and decided to look into it. “Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her,” published by Harcourt, Inc., tells the story of two women in particular who wrote most of the books under the pen name of Carolyn Keene. A brief paragraph about one of the women will linger with me a long time.

Harriet Stratemeyer, the daughter of the man who originated the Nancy Drew series and wrote the first ones, was a student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Author Melanie Rehak writes, “In (the religion courses) she believed, she had learned that ‘if one strips each of the great religions down to its basic concept one will find that the philosophy is the same: reverence for deity, kindness to one’s fellowman, and a belief in life after death. It is only when man himself adds a lot of superfluous ideas and customs that misunderstandings occur, even to a point of bloodshed. The answer is tolerance.’ These were the tenets of a noble life, and she held herself to them strictly.”

On the surface, that sounds so “noble,” so educated and modern and even sophisticated. It’s pure rot, but it sounds good.

It’s as though one took a few courses in medical science and reported back that all forms of medicine in the world are equally good since they have elements in common such as sick patients, well-intending practitioners, and gunk which they rub on the offending areas. No one in his right mind–or to be tolerant, let us say, no one with an ounce of intellectual honesty or sound judgement–believes that.

Try this flawed philosophy on other areas. All sciences are good since they have elements in common. All physics are sound. All forms of mathematics are equally valid. All techniques of surgery are successful. All cooking methods produce great food. All teaching styles are ideal for children.

Only in the area of religious faith do we take out our brain and suspend our judgment and come to such foolish, fallacious conclusions that they’re all the same, they’re all equally good, and all are to be respected and honored.

Tell that to the young maiden about to be sacrified to the Incan gods in the river below. Tell it to the child being offered to the fire god of the Old Testament, Moloch. Tell it to the primitives of remote tribes even today whose god is a rag on a stick or the belch of the volcano or the polluted river flowing past their village. Tell that to the families of the victims of the terrorists of 9-11.

Respect people who practice other religions? Absolutely. Treasure these people.

Then go one step further: Give them the truth.

Jesus Christ said, “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32) Now, it might be news to editors around the land who often choose this line for their masthead, but Jesus was not talking about the latest news on Paris Hilton or even the latest doings of Congress from Washington, D.C.

He was talking about Himself.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said. (John 14:6)

Admittedly, that’s narrow. Worse, it’s exclusive, because of the article “the,” which would indicate He’s the only way, the only truth, the only life.

As if to leave no doubt on that subject, Jesus’ next words were: “No one comes to the Father except by me.”

If that’s intolerant, then so be it. But I don’t think so. The truth is the truth is the truth. It is in every field of endeavor in the universe, including this one. No matter what political correctness calls for or demands from us, since Bible-believing Christians believe we must tell others the news about Jesus Christ.

To be sure, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about sharing the Gospel, a word literally meaning “good news.” Our goal should always be to practice the very Christlikeness we so admire in the Lord Jesus Himself, whose words were gracious, whose deeds were wonderful, and whose love was on display before the world.

I’m indebted to my friend Barry for lessons in tolerance and respect for those different from us. I am committed to never again tell a minority person a joke about his people.

But we must not let this stop us from sharing the message of the Lord Jesus Christ.

That message is the truth, and people all over the planet are desperately in need of it.

15 thoughts on “About Tolerance and Faithfulness

  1. Joe,

    You hit this one clear out of the ballpark!

    Excellent post and a message our whole culture needs to hear.


  2. Every student minister and Christian teacher in our schools today needs to read and have in their personal library Josh McDowell and Bob Hostetler’s “The New Tolerance”. If you will let me know, I will personally purchase a copy for any student minister in the greater N.O. area that would like to read it.

  3. Bro Joe,

    Your story of your Jewish friend reminded me of the Jew I ran into in jail.

    I was handing out Bibles and having prayer with individual inmates one night and ran across a Jewish fellow. I asked him if he would like a Bible. He said no, he was a Jew. I told him I didn’t care what he was and asked him again. Each time I asked, he said, “I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew.” I told him, I don’t care, I don’t care. Do you want a Bible?”

    As I drove off the compound that night reality slapped me in the face, and it dawned on me why he would not receive a Bible, with a New Testament. HE WAS A JEW!!

    The next week I went back to him, apologized, and asked if we could start over. He agreed, asked if I could contact a rabbi, and obtain for him a copy of the Torah and a prayer book. I tried. The rabbi told me they didn’t have those things just lying around like our churches had Bibles lying around. Besides, this man didn’t deserve one since he was in jail. When I related this to the Jewish inmate, he asked if he could have a Bible. I don’t know what ever happened to him. I only talked to him for 3 or 4 weeks, I shared Christ, he never received Him. But the seed was planted.

    Thanks for reminding of that memeory. Sorry I got so long winded.


  4. Thanks for the article. It reinforces a message I gave a few weeks ago. I believe that an “Open Mind” is find as long as you don’t let the truth get washed out. God bless!

  5. Wonderful article — I’m printing it out for my kids to read! The preaching of tolerance today seems so “in your face” to those of us over 40 — but for our kids, who have never known anything else, it is subtle and dangerous.

    My daughter didn’t put away her Nancy Drew books until we came home after the storm — and even then, it was only because I showed her a drawer she could put them in, where she would still have access to them. They are a piece of her childhood that somehow comforts her. They were a piece of my childhood, too — and I found myself rereading them when she started the series. I sort of “got” the whole comfort thing then. Now I want to reread a couple — just to see if I catch a hint of Ms. Stratemeyer’s “noble thinking” in her writing.

    One more thought — your examples of our lack of tolerance in medicine, science, cooking, etc. made me wonder… Is part of the problem our erroneous thinking that things of the Spirit are less concrete than things of the flesh? Do we think that we must be more tolerant in spiritual matters because they are abstract? Somehow we must find a way to teach believers that the Spiritual realm is as real — no, MORE real — than the physical realm.

    Another long winded posting — but since I enjoyed the others, I thought it might not hurt! I hope you took Yogi up on the offer of the books — I’d love to borrow the one my children’s student minister gets!

  6. Your sermon (oops, blog) is right on target. I believe I can find a good place to use this as an illustration in a sermon. I always enjoy reading your blogs.

  7. Great article Joe.

    Our pastor said a while back that ‘we should not feel compelled to tolerate anyone but we should remember that we are commanded to love them.’

    On ‘equality’ of religions. From Gibbons “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” this quote: “The people had begun to believe that all religions were equal, the philosophers were sure that all religions were equally false and the POLITICIANS believed that all religions were equally USEFUL.”

  8. We’re all intolerant, and we’re all judgemental — just about different things and to different degrees. The “tolerant and non-judgemental” crowd are some of the most judgemental and intolerant folks you’ll ever meet. But their’s is a “good” intolerance while ours is bad…

    Personally, I think intolerance and judgement often signal the depth of your love for someone. The more I love you, the more intolerant I am of things that I judge harmful to you.

    The godless are the worst of all, because they do not recognize the “harm” of eternal damnation. So they have no reason to protect you or anyone else from it, and they look with scorn on your concern for something they do not value themselves.

  9. As a Southerner, now living in Western New York, I understand your friend Barry’s reaction to your joke. I find that when my son, who also lives here in the Rochester area, and I get together we freely criticize our former state, but when New Yorkers do the same thing or tell us redneck jokes we get very defensive.

    On the tolerance issue, I think that people tend to naturally come down on either the tolerant (any thing goes side) or the intolerant (my way or the highway) side. Our tendencyies take us to extremes if we are not disciplined and mindful. My natural tendency is to come down on the tolerance side. My gospel sharing model is Paul preaching in at Areopagus. He does not begin by drawing lines of difference but begin by making room for the true God, revealed by the Lord Jesus.

    Also, living in a place of greater religious diversity. I am able to step back and see the colateral damage done by intolerant “Christian” people. In many of our witnessing attempts we have been poor diplomats, poor ambassadors for Christ.

  10. Hi Brother Joe,

    I am using Ginger’s email as lately your site rejects submissions from mine (very warm mail?). Something about questional content. Talk about intolerant! Just wanted you to know I still check in here daily.

    Thanks for another timely entry! When I consider tolerance, it’s not like, “Hey, whatever you do is fine by me!” It’s more about understanding. Maybe we should be stressing understanding rather than blind tolerance for each other.

    Politicians finding religion useful? Imagine that! What will they use next? Fear? Wait. I think they have that covered, too.

    Keep on telling it Brother Joe.

    Ginger sends her love, too.


  11. Joe: I tried to reply to your response but every time I did it was rejected.

    Can you send me my your email?


  12. Joe: can you send all of this to my friend Lenwood who is presently working for Rep. Roger Wicker-(R)Miss? He is a graduate of Ole Miss and was very active in the Sigma Nu fraternity there. Sigma Nu puts on the annual Charity Bowl in honor of the late chucky Mullins, former Ole Miss football player who sustained severe injuries while playing football there. He was a quadraplegic and subsequently passed away. Sigma Nu raises money by playing a football game with other fraternities there.

    I have not heard from Lenwood lately. Lenwood’s email is: lenwood@gmail.com

    Also if you could forward all of this to Ryan Pratt who is a past president of the Epsilon Xi chapter of Sigma Nu at Ole Miss. He just graduated from Ole Miss law School in May, 2007 and recently sat for the Mississippi Bar Exam and is awaiting his results. Ryan first encouraged me to donate to the Charity Bowl about five years ago when he was Eminent Commander (President) of the Sigma Nu chapter at Ole Miss. I have been donating to the Charity Bowl event ever since.

    Last is T. Carol Carpenter who has been in charge of the National Charity Bowl Foundation. It is a Sec. 501(c)(3) charitable foundation which promotes the annual charity bowl event and seeks national participation by Greek organizations around the country to participate in fundraising for paraplegic and quadraplegic causes. Carol’s email is: tcarolcarpenter@aol.com

    Thank you for your time. You have a strong following and perhaps a few will donate to these outstanding organizations.


  13. Joe: why do you emphasize that I am Jewish? It is no big deal. Am I the only person not a Baptist that is interested in your website?

    You know you cannot judge a book by looking at its cover. Neither can you judge a religion by what it is supposed to teach. You have not heard me mention anything about your being a Southern Baptitst reverend. Makes no difference to me. Besides Jewish friends, I had in growing up many Christian friends including one who is a practicing Presbyterian minister in Colorado. We still keep in touch.

    More important than where I went to college was the high school I went to: Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, CA which graduated Sally Fields, Cindy Williams, a few NFL football players, Mike Milken, and Dwight Chapin of Watergate fame. Many of my friends today our from the Class of June, 1961–the Elysians and just remember our alma mater:

    Nestled in the Valley green

    Where the mountains stand serene

    Here we pledge our loyalty

    Birmingham we sing of thee

    Mighty Braves with spirits bold

    Proud to wear your Blue and Gold

    Now we raise our voices true

    Birmingham we sing to you


  14. I read your article on tolerance. It was well said. In this day, an accusation of “Intolerance” is the red herring for any subject someone does not want to address and the number 1 excuse not to deal with Truth.

    Several years ago I came to understand that whenever someone is confronted with Truth” they must :

    (1) acknowledge the truth and align with it or

    (2) reject the Truth and meet the Truth with some degree of anger or violence [kinda like the crowd and Stephen]

    Several years ago I saw a man on television hold an aborted child up to during a rally of abortion activists. Some people in the crowd went wild, attacked the man and tore the child

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