Forgiveness (noun): “Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu)
Tolerance (noun): “a willingness to accept behavior and beliefs that are different from your own; even if you disagree or disapprove of them, or alternatively the ability to bear something unpleasant or annoying, or to keep going despite difficulties.” (dictionary.cambridge.org)
I don’t know the etymology, but my brain keeps cycling between the two. They go together but they are not the same. Both involve forbearance. Forgiveness is more personal and active, something one does to unstick oneself in order to move on. Tolerance is more passive, more about accepting diversity in behavior, ideas, and people, but both have limits.
In his book, The Limits of Tolerance, coming in May, Columbia professor Denis Lacorne reminds us that “The modern notion of tolerance—the welcoming of diversity as a force for the common good―emerged in the Enlightenment in the wake of centuries of religious wars. First elaborated by philosophers such as John Locke and Voltaire, religious tolerance gradually gained ground in Europe and North America. But with the resurgence of fanaticism and terrorism, religious tolerance is increasingly being challenged by frightened publics.” (The Limits of Tolerance: Enlightenment Values and Religious Fanaticism (Religion, Culture, and Public Life) by Denis Lacorne
The Holocaust is ground zero for both propositions. People directly impacted can’t forgive the “final solution,” can’t comprehend how it happened, and can’t understand why it was tolerated. As Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity in Jacobellis vs. Ohio(1945), “I know it when I see it.” So it is with genocide, but what about more complex emotional material?
Is it OK for Christians to tolerate Donald Trump’s lack of moral principles because they like his tax, anti-immigration, and anti-abortion policies? Are they forgiving the president, tolerating his behavior, or just turning a blind eye if it helps achieve the result they want?
Where is the line that says you’ve exceeded the limits of my tolerance? What happens when personal moral beliefs conflict with more immediate political or family needs. I confess, I’m mystified when conservative Christians find it so easy to place their religious ethical values on the sidelines to embrace Trump when their politics are at stake? Is that the quid pro quo? Swear allegiance to an amoral despot in return for Christian-supported legislation?
Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Thou shalt not covet… thy neighbor’s wife, thy neighbor’s house. Thou shalt not take the name of the lord in vain. Mr. Trump has done it all. As a Christian shouldn’t this alarm you?
Are Trump’s sins forgivable? Those sins? Yes. Most of them are venal and personal. I don’t care if he screwed Stormy Daniels or had an affair with Karen McDougal. I’m not outraged. I’m just disgusted. Mr. Trump is a moral failure, but God loves a sinner, so it’s not difficult for me to forgive him. I have no skin in Donald Trump’s miserable life. If God can forgive him, who am I to say no?
That’s personal, but can we, as Americans, afford to forgive him for actions that undermine democracy and fail to meet the high standards we expect of our presidents? Since his inauguration two years ago, he has lied or misled the American people more than 8158 times (Washington Post, Jan 18,2019). He has defended neo-Nazis and ruthless dictators, made fun of the disabled, called Mexicans rapists and terrorists, disparaged NATO, pardoned felons like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and attacked a Gold Star family and a dead American hero, John McCain.
These are not the behaviors we expect of our president? Are they beyond the limits of our tolerance? Some are serious crimes. Some impulsive rants, and some are low class deviations from traditional presidential norms. What about reciprocity, one of the new words he learned as president? Should we point out that his own inability to forgive, his grudges, and his petty resentments have no predicate and lack reciprocity?
I remember Gandhi’s dictum on forgiveness: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Trump is weak and impulsive, sociopathic and amoral, so while his personal conduct may be forgivable his performance as the highest elected official in America is not. He’s an excellent test dummy for any discussion of the limits of tolerance. As the American philosopher Sydney Hook noted, “Tolerance always has limits. It cannot tolerate what in itself is actively intolerant.”
Several years ago, I was on the receiving end of a lecture on forgiveness. I thought it was harsh. It was delivered by a Zen Buddhist who seemed to be hanging on to personal resentments. Maybe I read it wrong. Maybe it was deserved. In any event, it stayed with me. Something to work on, as they say, in the practice.
“It is critical to remember that forgiveness doesn’t automatically mean a reconciliation. We don’t have to return to the same relationship or accept the same …” (psychologytoday.com)
Maybe that’s my lesson… I had a picture in my mind of how a Zen practitioner “should” act…but that wasn’t what I experienced. Today, I understand that Zen practitioners, Christians, and Donald J. Trump are all fallible human beings. The Zen rebuke confused me but, like other Zen methods, it shocked me into a new awareness.
I’m fairly neutral on the human capacity for good and evil. It cuts both ways, not as Trump said about Charlottesville, “some very fine people on both sides.” We are each the sum total of our experience, our fears, our genetic make-up, and the serendipitous nature of our geography. But there is a difference between forgiveness and tolerance, and there are limits to both.
I’ve more or less given up hope that my unfinished business (or Trump’s) will be cleaned up before I check out, and though its verse is dark I take consolation from Bonnie Raitt’s lament in “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” It is, after all, a love song.
‘Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t
You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t
Here in the dark in these final hours
I will lay down my heart and I’ll feel the power
But you won’t, no you won’t
‘Cause I can’t make you love me if you don’t
Maybe that’s how it is with unfinished business. Forgiveness, like compromise, helps us move forward in life – not perfectly – but it helps us leave our unfinished business behind. We should all be mindful in the big picture sense that it’s OK to draw a line that limits tolerance when it threatens us as individuals or as a nation.
And, speaking of unfinished business, these two are my inspiration now.
They’re into the of art of living.