What makes tolerance costly?

Leo J. Koffeman – July 16, 2018

As one of the organizers of our 2015 conference on ‘Costly Tolerance,’ I do remember why we choose this qualification of tolerance as costly. We wanted to stress that tolerance, i.e. real and sincere tolerance, is not cheap. It costs; it has a price that you must pay if you really intend to be tolerant.
In this essay I want to show that by way of referring to some of the conference papers translated and collected in the book Costly Tolerance: Tantangan Baru Dialog Muslim-Kristen di Indonesia dan Belanda (A New Challenge for the Muslim-Christian Dialogue in Indonesia and the Netherlands), launched at UIN Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta, in May 2018.

But let me first share a personal theological observation. The word ‘costly’ reminds me of the words of a famous German Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a young theologian he wrote a book, Nachfolge—the title of the English translation of this book became The Cost of Discipleship—in 1937, during the time of the Nazi regime.

In that book, Bonhoeffer rejected what he called “cheap grace”, i.e. “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”  Cheap grace’ does not cost. It has no consequences. For Bonhoeffer this was unacceptable. Grace is costly: living from God’s grace changes lives.

That is what Bonhoeffer saw in Nazi Germany. The oppression of Jews and other minorities by the government intensified. Injustice and violence increased. Most of the church leaders did not have the courage to speak out against this development: they rather adapted to the regime or even explicitly supported its policies. Bonhoeffer was executed in April 1945 as one of the last victims of the Nazi terror, not yet 40 years old. He paid the highest price, the price of his life, for what he saw as an inevitable consequence of his choice to follow Jesus Christ, resistance against Adolf Hitler, if necessary by means of a conspiracy against Hitler’s life.

Bonhoeffer’s idea of costliness comes close to what we wanted to express when we choose the theme Costly Tolerance for this important conference of March 2015. Tolerance, real tolerance is not cheap; it costs, it has a price, it might even be expensive.

When we invited scholars to participate in and contribute to this conference, we expressed our intention in the call for papers in the following words:

Tolerance is key to multi-religious societies like Indonesia and the Netherlands, although tolerance finds different expressions in different contexts. From a historical perspective, however, the common colonial history has influenced both contexts. E.g., traditional views of Islam in the Netherlands have been shaped by experiences and studies in the context of colonialism and mission, whereas the legal framework of the colonial regime had its impact on Indonesian society.

Peace and justice within a democratic society can only flourish, if there is an attitude of tolerance between religions, both in terms of leadership and of the other members of the faith communities. The opposite is true as well: tolerance as such is insufficient, if peace, justice and democracy are lacking. In other words, tolerance is no absolute value: it has its limitations, due to such other values. Real tolerance is costly; it implies commitment and solidarity.

Cheap tolerance is, in fact, indifference. It is the kind of tolerance that avoids meeting the ‘other’. It is easy to be tolerant towards people of another religion – or race, or sexual preference, for that matter – if they are nearly invisible, as it was the case until about fifty years ago in the Netherlands: the number of Muslims was very small. Most of them belonged to those Moluccans that had served in the Dutch colonial army, and that had come to the Netherlands after the Second World War and the independence of Indonesia. As a small minority they were in no way seen as a threat. Tolerance was cheap. It was only in the nineteen-sixties that this started to change, with the coming of hundreds of thousands of Muslim people from Turkey and Morocco. Nowadays, we find mosques in all major cities and many smaller places. Newspapers write about Islam issues every day. Muslims cannot be ignored. And still it is cheap to be tolerant if you live in a monocultural, white area (as I do).

What is the price of sincere tolerance? What makes real tolerance costly? When I read through those of the original papers that were available to me, it struck me that there are only very few explicit references to the costliness of tolerance, although as much as all contributions reflect on what tolerance is. However, most of the articles make it very clear that tolerance is not easy. It costs, indeed.

In the book, we see several definitions and descriptions of what makes tolerance costly. Some of the authors focus on the personal level of life. It is a matter of ‘coping with one’s own ego,’ as Rachel Iwamony shows in terms of the informal social education expressed in the Moluccan proverb ale rasa beta rasa (I feel what you feel).  As M. Alipour shows, it requires ‘the ability to accept something harmful or unpleasant’ as demonstrated in how the traditional method of Ijtihad, the hermeneutics of the tradition, realized its potency when, in late 1980s Iran, it produced a fatwa that adapted to cultural conditions by legalizing sex-change operations for transsexual Muslims.

In other words: tolerance is costly, because it is based on the experience of human vulnerability, as Gerrit Singgih argues when he goes beyond Raymundo Pannikar’s argument that  real tolerance, and not just coping with the other, can only be justified if pluralism is the factual structure of reality, pointing out that reality has other dimensions than rationality. Singgih then focuses on the role of common suffering in furthering tolerance. Sometimes, e.g. in the case of natural disasters, people, Muslims as well as Christians, suffer – simply because of human vulnerability. No religion has an answer for everything and especially for suffering caused by natural disasters. Confronted with disasters, words of religion are like blunted swords. This awareness in turn may generate genuine tolerance, based on the experience of human vulnerability. That’s certainly no cheap tolerance.

On an institutional level, costly tolerance suggests a society that ‘tolerates something by not forbidding it or demanding it, although it would have the power to do so’ as Ge Speelman puts it, which, I further argue, suggests ‘a degree of self-restraint, not out of fear for retaliation, but out of respect for people with other religious views.  Both of us use the example of multicultural Dutch society.

But what makes tolerance costly for theologians in particular is that it requires them to think in new ways. It takes ‘the courage to read holy books in a different way’ as when Yaser Ellethy argues that Al-Tabari, the father of the tafsir literature, disagrees lucidly and utterly with the approach that classical traditions reproduced in Muslim literature for centuries that the anti-tolerance verses we can find in the Qur’an, in particular the so-called Sword Verse (Sura 9:5), abrogate numerous rulings of peaceful and tolerant treatment.

Amin Abdullah calls for ‘a new and fresh scientific mentality, a fresh ijtihad and new way of thinking religiously.’  He distinguishes two large groups of Qur’anic verses related to the issues of divinity, deity and humanity in Islam and Christianity. According to Abdullah, the group of Qur’anic verses that explain religious diversity and the dynamics of relations between faiths, especially Islam and Christianity, and the group that consists of the ‘final’ answer of the Qur’an against the theological-sociological reality of the religions are, as a matter of fact, mutually interrelated and interconnected, and each has the spirit of dialogue and criticism. They cannot be read or interpreted partially, fragmentarily and selectively, but should be read comprehensively, and in interconnected and interrelated manners as a whole, using a System approach, not an abrogation approach type of reading texts.

From a Christian perspective, Klaas Spronk has a similar approach to the many Biblical texts that suggest that the one God supports and even requires violence. He argues: “Despite the fact that the belief in the one God, especially when it was combined with power or fear, often lead to intolerance and violence, there is also a counter movement. There are also traces of a strong spirit of peace coming from the same one God – we could call them cracks in the system – that the one God is broader minded in this regard than many religious hardliners see Him or would like Him to be. In the ongoing discussions about the relation between (monotheistic) religion and violence, focusing on these cracks in the holy scriptures will help to let more light of tolerance come in.”

We all know that tolerance can be costly, indeed. It is easier, cheaper, not to address such issues but to conform to the traditional views as supported by the vast majority of a specific faith community. If we don’t do that, we may meet resistance, certainly on an academic level, but may be also on other levels in the faith community; resistance in the form of rejection, evil talk, slander, and the suggestion of disloyalty towards our own community.

History, both in Christianity and in Islam, presents many examples of people that had to meet such consequences of a sincere attitude.

This brings me back to Bonhoeffer. He paid the highest price, his life, in his search for a sincere life of tolerance, justice and peace. What would history be like, and what would our world look like, without such men and women?

This essay was adapted from Prof. Leo Koffeman’s paper presented at the “Costly Tolerance” book launching at UIN Sunan Kalijaga on May 9, 2018.

This post is also available in: Indonesian