Is tolerance really tolerant?

It seems unreal that exactly a week ago, the program ended and everyone left to resume their separate lives. It’s even more unreal when I think about the experiences that were packed into one month. I was given the chance to explore another country in extraordinary ways and then given the same opportunity in my own country. It’s really amazing when you reflect on how much of your own country’s history and culture remains unfamiliar to you. What’s more, is that until this program, I really didn’t have an understanding of what religious pluralism meant in America, let alone an appreciation for it.

In Indonesia, there is no doubt that religious pluralism exists, but in my opinion, it exists in a limited sort of way. There is a hierarchy of religions in which the six nationally recognized religions are given special privileges over the secondary and rural religions. Furthermore, there are certain sects of religions that are forbidden from being practiced in Indonesia, yet these sects are allowed to practice freely in the United States. To me, this demonstrates a difference in tolerance between the two countries. The United States on a whole is a more tolerant country in terms of religious practices than Indonesia is. While many people may look at this and think, wow that’s great, I’m not really sure it is. When we went to the Capuchin Soup Kitchen in Detroit, a man who worked there asked us if a tolerant society is the best solution. Tolerance doesn’t encourage people to embrace and learn from other ideologies; instead it asks us to merely show “willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Tolerance is most definitely better than any other violent alternative but is it something that we ought to strive for? Or is it merely a stepping-stone between two places? And if so, what’s the next step for us as a society to move past tolerant behavior?

 For me, I see the solution to tolerance as a move towards a more compassionately oriented society. During the trip, we spent a day at the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington, New Jersey. There we participated in a meditation session and also attended a Buddhist class. Through those experiences, we were exposed to what one might call a Tibetan Buddhist’s approach to life. An approach that is simple in its understanding and refreshing in its ideology. For Tibetan Buddhists, there is an emphasis on compassion for all mankind, regardless of past grievances. Compassion is compulsory even for those who have committed an act of violence against one another. Moreover, there is not just to be a tolerance for other religions but an embracement of them, a love for those who find their truths in another religious practice. In a society that reflects a Tibetan Buddhist approach, there would arguably be less conflict and harmful misconceptions, as embracing another religion calls for a greater understanding of it, a greater appreciation of the difference. I don’t see that the Tibetan Buddhist ideology as only limited the Buddhist religion. I see it as an ideology that can be adopted by all different schools of religious thought, an ideology that speaks for a more peaceful and equal society, the kind of society in which all religions should strive to create.

Tolerance walks a thin line, as its pillars are weak and thus can easily be transformed into a deep seeded hate for those who are different. Before WWII, in Germany and parts of Eastern Europe, while the Jews were most certainly discriminated against, they lived in a society that was more or less tolerant to their religious views. Yet that tolerance was never developed into compassion and instead, grew stagnant. During the Holocaust, tolerance worked in the Nazi’s favor as those who did not agree with their ideology simply tolerated their existence and as a result, 6 million Jews perished. While this is an extreme example, it nevertheless shows what can happen in a society that endorses tolerant behavior.

In this way, to ensure progress, we must constantly work to push our society beyond a simple tolerant view of those different from us. While this change may seem daunting, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Anne Frank, a quote I find particularly inspiring.

 “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”



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