IN THE small town of Rengasdengklok, Indonesia, ethnic groups lived together in peace for years. Apparent tolerance, however, came to an end on January 30, 1997. Violence erupted when a little before three o’clock in the morning on a religious feast day, a believer started beating his drum. Responding to the noise, a man of another religion showered insults on his neighbor. Shouts were exchanged, and stones started to fly. Day broke, and rioting increased as others joined the fray. By the end of the day, two Buddhist temples and four of Christendom’s churches had been destroyed. The International Herald Tribune newspaper reported this incident under the title “Spark of Intolerance Lights Fires of Ethnic Rioting.”
In many countries, ethnic minorities who have their rights protected by law often find themselves the object of intolerance. Guaranteeing freedom by law clearly does not get to the roots of intolerance. The fact that intolerance is hidden below the surface does not mean that it does not exist. If at some future time circumstances change and perhaps lead to an atmosphere of prejudice, latent intolerance can easily come to the fore. Even if people are not directly persecuted, they may be the object of animosity or their ideas may be suffocated. How can this be prevented?
Getting to the Roots of Intolerance
We naturally tend to reject or suspect that which is different or unusual, especially views that differ from our own. Does this mean that tolerance is impossible? The UN publication Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief lists ignorance and lack of understanding as being “among the most important root causes of intolerance and discrimination in the matter of religion and belief.” However, ignorance, the root of intolerance, can be fought. How? By balanced education. “Education may be the prime means of combating discrimination and intolerance,” states a report of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
What should be the aim of this education? The magazine UNESCO Courier suggests that instead of fostering rejection of religious movements, “education for tolerance should aim at countering influences that lead to fear and exclusion of others, and should help young people to develop capacities for independent judgement, critical thinking and ethical reasoning.”
Obviously, the media can play an important part in promoting “critical thinking and ethical reasoning.” Many international organizations recognize the power of the media to shape minds and to encourage mutual understanding. If the media, though, are to foster tolerance rather than promote intolerance as some do, responsible, objective journalism is required. On occasion, journalists must go against popular accepted opinion. They must bring to bear objective analysis and impartial observations. But is that enough?
The Best Way to Fight Intolerance
Tolerance does not mean that everyone should have the same ideas. People might disagree with one another. Some may feel strongly that the beliefs of another person are very wrong. They may even speak publicly of their disagreements. However, as long as they do not spread lies to try to incite prejudice, this is not intolerance. Intolerance is seen when a group is persecuted, targeted by special laws, marginalized, banned, or in some other way hindered from following their beliefs. In the most extreme form of intolerance, some kill and others have to die for their beliefs.
How can intolerance be fought? It can be exposed publicly, as the apostle Paul exposed the intolerance of religious leaders of his day. (Acts 24:10-13) When possible, though, the best way to fight intolerance is to work proactively—to promote tolerance, that is, to educate people to understand others better. The UN report on the elimination of intolerance referred to earlier says: “As all forms of intolerance and discrimination based on religion or belief have their birth in the human mind, so it is at human minds that action should initially be directed.” Such education may even lead individuals to examine their own beliefs.
Federico Mayor, director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, wrote: “Tolerance is the virtue of the person who has conviction.” Writing in the magazine Réforme, Dominican priest Claude Geffré said: “Real tolerance rests on strong conviction.” A person who is comfortable with his own beliefs is quite likely not to feel threatened by the beliefs of others.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have found that an excellent way to promote tolerance is to talk with others of different beliefs. The Witnesses take seriously Jesus’ prophecy that “this good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations,” and they are well-known for their public evangelizing ministry. (Matthew 24:14) In this work, they have the opportunity to hear people of many different religions—as well as atheists—explain their beliefs. In turn, the Witnesses are prepared to explain their own beliefs to those who wish to listen. Thus they promote growth in knowledge and understanding. Such knowledge and understanding make it easier for tolerance to flourish.
Tolerance and Beyond
Despite the best intentions of many and the concerted efforts of some, religious intolerance clearly remains a problem today. For there to be a real change, something more is necessary. The French newspaper Le Monde des débats highlighted the problem: “Modern society suffers too often from an emotional and spiritual void. The law can guarantee freedom against those who threaten it. It can and should guarantee equality before the law, without arbitrary discrimination.” The book Democracy and Tolerance admits: “We have a long way to go to reach the goal of making mutual understanding and respect a universal standard of behaviour.”
The Bible promises that soon mankind will be united in pure worship of the one true God. This unity will result in a true worldwide fraternity, or brotherhood, where respect for others will prevail. Humans will no longer be plagued by ignorance, as God’s Kingdom will teach people Jehovah’s ways, thus satisfying their intellectual, emotional, and spiritual needs. (Isaiah 11:9; 30:21; 54:13) Real equality and liberty will cover the earth. (2 Corinthians 3:17) By acquiring an accurate understanding of God’s purposes for mankind, you can counter ignorance and intolerance.
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In recent years authorities have tried to stifle Jehovah’s Witnesses in France by not granting them the same advantages as other religions. Recently, the donations received in support of the Witnesses’ religious activities were heavily taxed. French authorities unjustly imposed a tax burden of $50 million (tax and penalties), with the evident aim of crippling this group of 200,000 Christians and sympathizers in France. This is a blatant action of religious prejudice that goes against all the principles of liberty, brotherhood, and equality.
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Intolerance often leads to violence
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In spite of the religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, some French officials allege that they are not a religion!