Mutual Respect and Tolerance

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This morning in our series on British Values we come to the fourth in the Government's list of values, namely Mutual Respect and Tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs. The three we have considered so far are Democracy, The Rule of Law and Individual Liberty. And this morning it is Mutual Respect and Tolerance. And my headings are three simple questions, first, What is the Problem? Secondly, What are Respect and Tolerance? And, thirdly, What is to be Our Response? And later on we shall be looking at 1 Peter 3.8-17.

So first, What is the Problem?

The problem has come from the former Coalition Government that insisted on these four British values in our schools. But they have two basic or fundamental flaws. One, they cannot be British values without two other values which are "the pursuit of truth" and "the Christian tradition". And it should be pointed out regarding the Christian tradition that according to the Education Act 1996, schools already (I quote) have to …

"reflect the fact that the religious traditions of Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain".

The need for the Christian tradition as a British value is so essential. For it prevents democracy allowing 51 percent to enslave 49 percent of the people; the rule of law drifting into some inhuman variety of Sharia law; and individual liberty drifting into anarchy; and, then, as we shall see, the Christian tradition requires mutual respect and tolerance when defined correctly. And also truth is so essential when it comes to "respect and tolerance". The first fundamental problem, therefore, with these four British values is that they need two more - the pursuit of truth and the Christian tradition.

The second fundamental problem is as serious. It is the current context for these British values, especially for respect and tolerance. And that context is this lack of concern for the truth and particularly the truth regarding right and wrong. For there is now almost a complete breakdown of morality among many British opinion-formers following their rejection of apostolic Christianity. For example, this past Wednesday there was a morning trailer for the BBC's Radio 4 Moral Maze programme that evening. Here is a transcript of what the presenter, Michael Buerk, said:

"There are times in our postmodern world, and this is one of them, when it seems the only real sin left is hypocrisy. It's been interesting watching Lord Sewell swinging in the wind, after being filmed in an orange bra apparently snorting cocaine off the breasts of two prostitutes. And listening to the debate about what actually he'd done wrong, hypocrisy was the clincher. He was chairman of the Lords' Privileges and Conduct Committee after all. Tricky though! Some of those pointing the finger might well be amongst the million on that adultery website that's been hacked. There is a disjunction between public expectation and private behaviour, but hypocrisy is so useful. If immorality is merely a matter of being found out, there's little point in virtue. Who casts the first stone? Is hypocrisy a virtue or a vice? The Moral Maze after the news at 8 tonight."

So in modern Britain for a significant number of people (apart from violent assaults of various sorts) the only real sin left is hypocrisy and being found out. It is a sad and tragic fact that at the start of the 21st Century there is little that is publicly admitted in Britain as morally wrong. For the concept of "inclusion" is the now the ultimate virtue. That means you must say "Yes!" to everyone's beliefs and morals, however bad, except to those who, like mainstream Christians, say "No!" And that is why many cannot understand the real meaning of respect and tolerance.

Let me explain how all this comes about. The 21st Century West (including Britain) has lost its spiritual roots, having positively been ignoring its Christian tradition. So it is left only with politics and economics to hold it together. However, a healthy State, like a three-legged stool, needs a spiritual order as well as a political and economic order. As Jesus so clearly said back to the Devil and quoting the Old Testament, in Matthew 4.4,

"Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."

And whether nature abhors a vacuum or not, the State certainly does. So something will fill that spiritual gap. Two weeks ago we saw that "individual liberty" can lead to "The Religion of Me" filling that gap. But that, in terms of the State, becomes "The Religion of Inclusion" where almost every "me", whatever they say or do, however wrong or immoral, has to be included. From the State's point of view that benefits politically its bureaucratic control and economically the business-world's markets. And it sounds so good, for it offers, as someone has said,

"a vision of unity in a world without outsiders and without borders, one in which there is no 'they' but only 'we'."

But – and it's a big "but" – to make that happen before long, marginal groups in society have irrationally to be made central, no matter what their beliefs or behaviours. At the same time central mainstream groups, that point to any problems with the beliefs and behaviours of these marginal groups, are irrationally made marginal themselves. In the West, Islam and homosexual sex have been catalysts for this process. As simple history, after "9-11" Islam has been presented as a religion of peace, when the word Islam, of course, means "submission" and Mohammed was one of the great warriors in world history. And AIDS has somehow sanctified homosexual sex, when the world knows that anal intercourse is a major cause of AIDS. But now "inclusion" for many is axiomatic – that is to say, not needing any justification. And respect and tolerance, understood in an inclusive way, are allies of "inclusion". But they then have little to do with the traditional British value of respect and toleration that has been a foundation of the free world.

So that brings us to our second heading and What are Respect and Tolerance?

The historic, not the post-modern, but the historic Western value of respect is this. It is a respect for human beings as supreme in creation and so distinct from other animal life and the rest of the created order. It is based on the belief that men and women are made "in the image of God". Genesis 9 verse 6 says this:

"Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image."

That verse teaches that taking the life of another human being is so serious because of the supreme importance of the human creature as made in God's "own image". And that is a simple underlining of that fundamental verse in Genesis 1 - verse 27:

"So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them."

However, as we thought when we considered Individual Liberty, this creates problems when you reject God. For you lose that grounding of human worth as being made in God's image. When you think humans are merely naked apes in a meaningless world, what is there to respect? Answer – just a more developed animal? But that is worthless respect and not the historic British value, "respect". For that historic respect can distinguish between respect for a human being as made in God's image, and esteem of, or the evaluation of, that human being's beliefs and behaviours. So because there is right and wrong for that historic respect, we are to "respect" every one as a human being made in God's image, whatever they think or do. But we clearly cannot "esteem" or evaluate what they think or do to be true or right, if it is false or wrong. Yet we still respect them as human persons, but wrong in what they think or believe.

However, when it is believed there is no right or wrong and "it seems the only real sin left is hypocrisy", "respect" in this inclusive world becomes synonymous with "never criticize" or "never suggest someone is wrong". So every belief or behaviour appears to be esteemed or evaluated as good. Therefore, "respect" comes to mean "do not judge between beliefs and behaviours for all are to be accepted." That, however, is not only foolish but dangerous and has little to do with the respect that has been the British value for three centuries.

Norman Dennis understood this so well. Norman was a truly great former head of Social Science at Newcastle University, who sadly died in 2010. But one of the last things he wrote was on "respect". He argued that in an "open society", where there are different faiths and beliefs, the only way of promoting them or opposing them is by reasoned argument. You can't use "manipulation, coercion, intimidation or lies." Also you must "listen to an opponent's case with a readiness to be corrected", if you need to be. But you treat your "opponent's readiness to be corrected, in turn, as sufficiently important to correct" their case where you believe it (I quote), "factually distorted, or morally or spiritually mistaken." And this is Dennis' conclusion about such people in a rationally open society, (I quote):

"They treat both their own view of the world and that of their opponent seriously, that is to say, with respect … Respect in this sense is neither necessary nor possible, it is simply irrelevant, if all views of the world are equally valid. If all views of the world are equally true and equally good, then one set of people can feel only indifference if the effects on them of the world-view of another set of people are neutral; pleasure if they are beneficial; and defiance, hatred, fear or helplessness if they are oppressive."

So wrote Norman Dennis. Furthermore, to think all views of the world are equally valid is not the way for genuine humanism and human flourishing. That flourishing needs the conviction that "God made man in his own image". For that is why human beings are not only to be respected but also have genuine God-given human rights. Lose that conviction and human rights become "nonsense on stilts" as the atheist Jeremy Bentham said in the early 19th Century.

Well, so much for respect. What then is tolerance? The historic understanding of tolerance, similarly, is not where you sit back and let people think what they like, or do what they like. That emphatically is not the historic British tradition of political tolerance which it has given to the world. For that tradition is owed especially to the British Puritan tradition after the 16th and 17th Century Wars of religion. One very important person regarding tolerance was a pupil of the great Puritan theologian, John Owen of Oxford, John Locke. In Locke's famous Letters of Toleration he argued that the State must never enforce faiths or beliefs. So it had been wrong in the Wars of religion to force people to be Protestant or Roman Catholic with those in power imprisoning or burning them at the stake for not converting. And so faiths and beliefs must be free. That is, of course, taking seriously the teaching of Jesus in John 18 verse 36:

"My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world"

So this is different to the Old Testament where force was to be used to bring immediate judgement on God's enemies. But Jesus Christ brought in an age of grace with the cross and his resurrection and the giving of the Holy Spirit for new life. This was the beginning of a new age. And with his coming, God's judgment on people who reject him has been postponed to the last judgment when he will return. But God's people now are not to execute that judgment as God's people, and as happened in Old Testament times. Yes, the State may use force, as we saw when we considered democracy, but never the church. And there lies one of the great differences between Mohammed and Jesus. For Mohammed rode into Medina to conquer; but Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die. The Western tradition of tolerance, therefore, based on Christian teaching, understood that you may propose religious belief but not impose it.

But all this means, of course, tolerance is only possible when you believe something is wrong or false in someone's faith or belief. For it means you "tolerate" what is wrong belief, on the one hand, by not punishing it, and, on the other hand, by not enforcing what you believe is right belief. However, Locke was emphatic that the ruler, while not enforcing faith and beliefs by punishments, personally should work to teach what he or she believed true and right. So tolerance never was meant to imply indifference to belief and then passivity. It also needs to be said that freedom of belief was not absolute. Locke wanted the State to act to prevent faiths or beliefs that were violent, seditious or sexually immoral, and through belief in God he wanted the State to champion truth.

So the British Value of tolerance is that while godless secularism says "No!" not only to imposing faiths and beliefs, but also to proposing them; and Jihadist Islam says, "Yes!" not only to proposing them but also to imposing them by force, historic British tolerance says, "Yes!" to proposing, but "No!" to imposing faiths and beliefs. 

That brings us finally to my third, heading, What is to be Our Response?

1 Peter 3, our New Testament reading, has at least six simple points as to how you can show respect to people with other faiths and beliefs. Look at verse 8:

"all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind."

There are three points here. One, when you are trying to help and witness to non-believers or people of other faiths, make sure you have "unity of mind". And that means unity of mind not only with contemporary Christians but above all with the Apostles, whose witness to Christ and teaching you have in the Bible and should be what you are trying to share.

Two, show "sympathy, brotherly love, and a tender heart". The people you are sharing with may have wrong views or doing wrong things because they are so damaged and mixed up in one way or another. But you need to realize that, but for the grace of God, if you had gone through what they have gone through, you could have been equally mixed up.

Three, above all have a "humble mind". Realize that you can learn from them, not from where they are wrong but in some things where they are right by God's common grace and where you are not so strong. That is true of Muslims who can show up Christians for their commitment and discipline. And it is true of Secularists who can show up Christians for some of their care and concern for each other.

Then now look at verse 15 for two more points:

"but in your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect."

So, four, all the time be so conscious of the great fact that Christ the Lord is holy. He is the divine Son of the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is utterly holy and risen and reigning. And be conscious that Christ is Lord of all and the agent in the creation of this amazing universe and is still, amazingly, upholding it while it all holds together in him. So let that dominate your consciousness - "in your heart honour Christ the Lord as holy" as you share with people.

And, five, talk about the hope you have. Notice how Peter speaks of people wanting to know about, not "the faith", but "the hope" that is in you:

"be prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect."

So explain that as 1 Peter 1.3-4 says, while life is full of problems, you can …

"be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you."

And, six, tell them as 1 Peter 3.18 says, you can be in full and real fellowship with almighty God through faith in Christ:

"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God."

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