Charity and the Limits of Tolerance

This article is the last of a three part series exploring the relationship between tolerance, charity, and peace.

Villanova’s mission statement expresses a desire to achieve both peace and diversity: “The University community welcomes and respects members of all faiths who seek to nurture a concern for the common good and who share an enthusiasm for the challenge of responsible and productive citizenship in order to build a just and peaceful world.” The question is, how can we achieve peace and at the same time preserve the differences that make each of us who we are? Our knee-jerk reaction is to say that if everyone were tolerant, there would not be a problem. But tolerance is little more than a starting point. Only charity can bring us all the way.

A society where everyone agrees on which behaviors are to be considered tolerant, and which intolerant, embodies the same close-mindedness that it is trying to avoid. The views that everyone agrees are intolerant will not be tolerated. On the other hand, if there are different ideas of what it means to be tolerant, then when two opposing views come into conflict, a shouting match ensues. One side calls the other’s view intolerant, and the other defends her right to have that point of view and demands that it be tolerated.

To develop a healthy space for discussion and personal growth, then, we need something more. Since tolerance is so noisy, the first step beyond it is learning to be silent. Tolerance means that everyone values points of view—their own and everyone else’s—over the truth. When people begin to value the truth over points of view, then tolerance, along with the problems it is meant to address, begins to fade away.

Silently listening allows us to truly hear and for the first time understand others. It gives us the opportunity to see where they are coming from. It allows us to stop listening to arguments or narratives or beliefs, and to start listening to people. It permits us to forget ourselves for a minute and be completely involved in our concern for the other person. Learning to be silent is the first step toward learning to love.

Obviously, this silence is hardly more of a start than tolerance was. If everyone is listening, they won’t have much to listen to. Charity begins by listening with openness and care for the other, but it finishes with responding appropriately.

Sometimes, this response has nothing to do with words. Sometimes it cannot be differentiated from a non-response. What is always true is that, with charity, we behave with the true benefit of the other closest to heart. We respond to the other as he or she really is.

This is why charity can bring about peace where tolerance cannot. Close friends have the unique privilege, and even responsibility, to tell each other the harsh truth. The same holds for lovers, parents and children, brothers and sisters. All of these relationships provide a place for the truth to be spoken. But we need to learn to respond openly to anyone who appeals to us, so that we eventually know what they really need. We need to move past the knee-jerk reactions of intolerance and the arms-length reactions of tolerance. Only being charitable provides us with the privilege of responding intimately to the other person.
This response may be indistinguishable from silence; it may be an action without words, or it may be the words that needed to be said. Whatever it is, a charitable response will be one that the other hears, and that frees her to respond in kind to you.

Charity is the face-to-face concern for the well being of this particular person. Learning to be charitable begins with being silent, but responding charitably will be the loudest thing you ever do.

By Robert Duffy ’13

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