WHAT DOES CULTURE SAY ABOUT TOLERANCE?
We are all formed by the culture we live in; there is no way around it. While we all experience it, teens are typically impacted by the trends and trains of thought within the culture to a greater degree. They have messages constantly coming at them from peers, advertisements, social media, and your voice and the Church’s voice are just one among many.
To raise teens who are confident in what they believe and able to express it in a way that is loving and transformational, and not seen as intolerant or judgmental, it is important to first understand the climate of the current culture.
Teens are growing up in a “post-truth” political climate where many no longer trust anyone but themselves when it comes to understanding what is true or not. It is likely that your teens daily confront peers who believe things that are different from what they believe. It is also likely that they are influenced in some way by the notion that everyone is their own moral authority.
How do we help teens seek and know the one Truth, who is Jesus when one-quarter of their generation believe that truth is always changing? How do they stand up for what they believe and love their neighbor as Jesus asks them to without being labeled judgmental or intolerant?
It can be helpful to begin by defining terms. The official definition of tolerance is the “capacity to endure pain or hardship” or “the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular, the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.”
But when teens hear about tolerance in action it usually sounds less like the definition above and more like this:
“Days like today remind us how much more compassion, understanding, and tolerance we need to have for one another… less judgment and critique” (Ariana Grande)
“I think tolerance and acceptance and love is something that feeds every community” (Lady Gaga)
“Really encouraged to be an American today… love should live beyond labels and intolerance!” #lovewins #equalityforall (Katy Perry)
In general, when these main figures in culture use the word tolerance, it means “don’t be judgmental of others and accept everyone’s choices without question. While refraining from judgment and not isolating people who are different than we are important principles (proclaimed through Jesus’ own words and deeds), they become misguided when they are detached from objective truth. When the truth is seen as something personal, not absolute, then how do we approach someone who is doing something destructive to themselves or someone else? If there is no truth, then do I really have the right to correct someone when I see them heading for danger?
If there is no objective truth, then there is no authentic tolerance. Tolerance becomes allowing people to do whatever they want without questioning their actions. This mentality does not leave much room for healthy discussion because there can be no discussion if everyone is right and nothing is wrong — rather those who hold fast to absolute truth are either silenced or ostracized. Teens become more fearful of speaking up because they want people to like them and do not want to be labeled as intolerant or judgmental.
WHAT DOES JESUS REVEAL ABOUT TOLERANCE?
Aside from living in a world that thinks truth is subjective, another prominent struggle with the cultural understanding of tolerance is that it confuses making a judgment call about something that matters with being a judgmental person. No one would argue with a parent who runs after a child who is about to walk into traffic but people would see a huge problem if that parent said, “If you believe that is safe, then it is safe for you… go ahead.”
Yet when it comes to bigger moral questions, yet when it comes to bigger moral questions, any attempts to speak out against or express concern about an immoral action are considered judgmental or intolerant — most especially if it is being said by a religious person. We are told that it is most respectful and loving to encourage them to walk into oncoming traffic.
“Self-righteousness is not a Christian virtue. Moreover, tolerance is not agreement—it is extending to others the right to be wrong and treating them with dignity and respect. And in terms of being loving, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is tell someone the truth. Loving our neighbor well means seeking their highest good in word and deed.”
When Jesus talks about not being judgmental, He is challenging us to not use truth to beat up or bully others, win arguments, or view ourselves as better than others. But He never said to stand silently by or encourage and support people as they do whatever they want to even though it is destructive to themselves or others. In fact, He was never shy about calling people out (Matthew 23) and He made a lot of people really mad by telling them that what they were doing was wrong to the point that they continually plotted to arrest or to kill Him (Matthew 26:3-5, John 11:45-53, Luke 22:1-2, Luke 4:28-29, Matthew 21:45-46).
It was always done in a loving way, but Jesus never backed down from upholding the truth even if they didn’t like what He had to say.
There is a difference between being judgmental and making a judgment about whether something is right or wrong. And, there is an absolute truth to guide us above what popular opinion says.
HOW DO WE TEACH TEENS THE TRUTH ABOUT TOLERANCE?
The culture’s definition of truth is built upon the sand; it is ever-changing and unstable. It is important that you help your teen build their understanding of truth on the rock so that they will not be tossed about by society’s ever-changing moral compass (Matthew 7:24-27). That means seeking absolute truth that is revealed by Jesus Christ in Scripture and through the Church and having meaningful conversations with your teens about these truths.
Ask them questions like the following:
- What do you believe?
- What do you think is the right thing to do in ____ situation? How did you come to that conclusion?
Let these questions foster discussions that will inspire your teens to seek truth and to form an everlasting moral compass.
Their Opinions Matter
Because they live in a culture that truly believes that anyone can believe anything and it is all the same — that means that your teen needs to know that his or her opinions matter too. They have just as much right and room as anyone else with a different world view to share and stand for what they believe. Help them to find this courage by surrounding them with support and others who will stand with them and show them they are not alone. You can also strengthen their ability to state their opinions by giving them increasing opportunities within the family to weigh in on important decisions. If they know that their opinion matters to you, their parent, they are more likely to know that their opinion matters in the world.
If they are connected to a community of like-minded peers they are far more likely to be able to hold fast to their faith. They can find that community through Catholic social media accounts, through a Life Teen program, by attending summer camps, Steubenville Conferences, and most importantly with you. You must be their stronghold and example to them of what it means to be a Catholic Christian in the modern world.
For all the reasons stated previously, it is hard to have meaningful discussions between people of varying opinions because everyone is afraid to offend or to be labeled as intolerant. That is why it is important for you to teach, and model, for your teens how to have loving conversations with people who believe differently than they do.
Trent Horn, a popular Catholic apologist, presents four questions to ask when faced with someone who believes differently than you do.
Give your teens the ability to first understand what they believe and build their lives upon unchanging truth. Then after this, teach them how to encounter those who think differently than they do. This will set them up for incredible success to not only make good decisions but also to be true evangelists who love their neighbors as themselves and to build a world of peace.
I will leave you with this prayer commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, a man who demonstrated a deep understanding of the path to peace:
Lord, make me an instrument
of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred,
let me sow charity;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light; and Where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life.