Intolerance is the single greatest problem I think we face in religion. Intolerance rears its head when Christians preach that Jesus is the only way Home, and anyone whose follows a different path is condemned to hell. Intolerance rears up and screams its hateful hue and cry when secular Muslims misuse the words of Muhammad to preach violent jihad. Intolerance spreads like a cancer when fundamentalists of any cloth or wearing any frock picket and protest in denial of an individual s right to experience love when their sexual choices come in rainbow coloration.
Intolerance itself can be defined in the following manner:
- Lack of tolerance; unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect opinions or beliefs contrary to one’s own.
- Unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect persons of a different social group, especially members of a minority group.
Intolerance’s playgrounds, ironically enough, are vast and diverse, for intolerance is bred in any petri dish that separates humanity on religious, political, geographical, social, artistic, or historical grounds. The cause of intolerance is difficult to locate, because so many modalities of incoherence feed into it. Yet an evolution in the genus of intolerance can be found if one starts with identity, adds in the three sisters, fear, ignorance and irrationality, peppers in a false sense of separation or otherness, and ignores the divine spark that fuels individual human existence.
Where otherness blooms, hatred spreads. Combating this growth is akin to preventing the spread of invasive bamboo in a mid-American back yard. You can rip each instance of it out, but if you do not dig a canal around the bamboo, or dig an entrenchment before the bamboo reaches across your land, it will shoot across any other plant or bush or grass or flower in its path. In other words, it’s much easier to attack bamboo before it takes root than to pull up each weed as it appears. Bamboo, like intolerance, must be met at the outer gate, before it takes hold of the yard.
The key to fighting intolerance is prevention. It must be fought before the roots that feed it find home in your heart, or in the hearts of those surrounding you. The keys to overcoming intolerance, fortunately, are as varied as the causes of it are varied. After all, the antidote to an unwillingness to tolerate others lies in love and acceptance. The answer lies in unity.
How, though, do we sow unity? One of the best engines for achieving social change lies in our religious institutions. At first glance though, hope for using religion to instill such unity seems like a task brimming with difficulty. Each week, I talk to people about religion in America, and all too often, people express anger and disillusionment towards the church they were raised in, or deny God altogether. Raised by fear-based and shame-engendering teachings, Americans either embrace pulpits that brandish the weapons of disunity and intolerance, or they reject religion altogether. They call themselves spiritual, not religious, and many good souls (far too many good souls) give up on church altogether.
In some ways, I was one of those souls, except instead of rejecting religion, I started the difficult process of trying to form my own ministry. No matter how disappointed I’ve gotten with the actual practices of churches, I still like the concept of church. I have seen the importance and utility of combining with others to fuel social justice and to synergize interfaith growth and dialogue via the sort of collective action that occurs within the walls of a worship center.
Yet when I looked around, I saw nothing that seemed to match my own beliefs. Interfaith ministries, as far as I could tell, did not exist. So I figured I would build one, but I discovered early in the process that there is a tremendous difference between serving others and doing the structural work of church building. The mere process of starting a non-profit requires cutting a swath through an endless sea of paperwork and red tape, and the actuality of creating a sacred space for worship services includes outreach, salesmanship and organizational vigor. I found that I was somewhat grinding my gears.
That’s when I discovered the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church. One day, I was researching the dogma of the trinity. I realized that the opposite of trinity was unity, and I began to read more carefully about the Unitarian tradition. For some reason, I clicked on UU instead of Unitarian when I got to the search page on Google. That’s when I came to the main UU website.
I had to keep rereading what appeared there, because it was so unique and yet so familiar. Indeed, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I first read the seven Principles that guide UU practice, which focused on the worth of each individual, acceptance and compassion, the goal of community peace, and “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This, I said to myself, is exactly what I believe. And these principles, if applied by individuals when supported by a strong religious institution, would result in the propagation of love, unity and tolerance.
And it was about that time that I read a sermon that had been shared at a UU congregation. In the sermon, the preacher (a woman!) weaved Rumi and Buddha into a discourse on a problem of some sort . . . ironically I don’t even remember what the problem was—which is to say the problem itself seemed almost irrelevant. What impressed me was how the preacher tried to solve the problem, which was by searching for truth across cultural boundaries and within multiple sacred traditions. All I knew at that moment was that I had found a place where I could comfortably serve and contribute.
After all, it was Rumi that gave me the motto for my own religious approach:
Not Christian or Jew or
Muslim, not Hindu,
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.
Not any religion
or cultural system. I am
not from the east
or the west, not
out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not
natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all.
I belong to the beloved,
have seen the two
worlds as one and
call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner,
only that breath breathing
No matter where I serve, THIS is what I will teach. Because it captures the essence of what human institutions, particularly religious ones, should exalt: the oneness of humanity. We are not other. We are not different. We all bear a spark of the divine. And if we can teach one another to see this divinity in one another, we can all walk one another Home.