Tolerance, Society, and the Individual

This week we heard of the death of Rev. Peter J. Gomes, and the firing of Dior fashion house designer John Galliano. The latter of these events would get the bulk of the press. The outlandish ranting of a celebrity tends to overshadow the newsworthiness of the death of a preacher of tolerance in what Arthur Miller called “a culture of entertainment that absorbs whatever is dropped on it like a sponge.”

Rev. Gomes was a black Baptist preacher and scholar. He was a professor of Christian morals at Harvard’s School of Divinity, and a well respected Republican conservative who hobnobbed with U.S. Presidents and the political elite. However, twenty years ago, his response to an act of intolerance was to announce that he would “devote the rest of (his) life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.” His prolific writing on the subject questioned religious fundamentalism as  “dangerous because it cannot accept ambiguity and diversity and is therefore inherently intolerant.”

Coming from the right, Rev. Gomes was in a position to be heard by those less likely to otherwise note his message. Our leaders often happen to be those who ignore the fear of being ostracized when presenting a point of view. However, Mr. Galliano found this not to be the case when it came to his hate speech. The reaction of advocates of ‘positive peace’ to his anti-Semitic tirade would be swift, with Natalie Portman demonstrating that one well-positioned person can force the issue—and a resignation.

So, with the announcement that the French intend to put Galliano on trial for his racial insults, are we seeing an end to the tolerance of the intolerable. Not so fast. All this comes from a continent that has practiced intermittent persecution of its Jewish population for centuries, despite long periods of calm and seeming solidarity. Laws offer temporary protection, but hate has a way of surfacing when circumstances allow. Only when each individual finds a way to banish it from his heart will intolerance cease to ebb and flow in our societies as it has throughout human history.


by William Repicci

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