November 7, 2004

Rev Rainer Schack

The mission statement of multicultural Footscray Baptist Church reads:

“The FBC celebrates the God-given diversity of cultures. We welcome you to join us on the journey of faith, whatever your race, religion, capability, gender, or sexuality.”

As Christians, we should be humble, but I have to admit, I am proud of our mission statement.

I am proud of it, because we accepted this mission statement unanimously in a church meeting about one and a half years ago.

I am proud of it, because it expresses in a radical way God’s unconditional welcome and love of every human being,

no matter whether he or she is Asian, Arab, or Aussie,

no matter whether he or she is Muslim, Hindu or Christian,

no matter whether he or she is gifted with more or less or special abilities,

no matter whether he or she is male or female or of mixed genders,

and no matter whether he or she is gay, straight, bi-sexual or trans-sexual.

God loves every human being, whether God-fearing or lost.

And as God’s people we are challenged to radiate this unconditional love of God to every human being, particularly to those who believe they are not loved, not accepted, not respected.

Tuesday, November 16, is the International Day of Tolerance.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has identified that “intolerance is on the increase everywhere and that it is killing on a massive scale. … Intolerance is increasingly seen as a major threat to democracy, peace and security.”

Intolerance is dangerous, because it has the potential to kill.

Intolerance often drives people into isolation, depression, self-hatred, suicide, mental illness, criminal and violent behavior.

And yet, intolerance is not just “out there” in the world, intolerance is often found close to home, in our churches, in our families, and in various ways in each one of us.

Let us listen now to some stories of how people we know have experienced intolerance:

Interview of Kathy, & Reuel

I think the stories we have just heard show that intolerance can be very subtle, but it is nevertheless very destructive.

In Isaiah 2 we learn about God’s dream of Shalom, God’s dream of peace, which embraces all peoples.

“God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

God’s dream of Shalom seems to be even more distant now after September 11, and the illegal war in Iraq.

Indeed, intolerance has grown particularly towards Muslims and people from Middle-Eastern background.

On the other hand, we have become quite tolerant towards the Governments’ lies on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and the Children Overboard Affair.

We are quite tolerant of our Government violating the Rights of the Child as we accept the children of asylum seekers being locked up in prisons.

And many of us are probably quite pleased or at least don’t care much about the Government’s decision to bar gay and lesbian couples from marriage, violating their human rights and driving them further into isolation.

Some of the issues just mentioned highlight how challenging and complex the issue of tolerance and intolerance is.

How do we work out what we should tolerate, and what or who needs to be confronted?

As Christians, we are challenged to learn first of all from Jesus’ example:

Jesus embraced all of humanity, both the respectable & the marginalized people of his society.

He had table fellowship with the scribes and the sinners.

However, Jesus was more supportive of those who were considered “outsiders”, sinners, or unbelievers (Gentiles) than he was of those who were considered righteous.

While Jesus spent time with the righteous, that is those in power, he often challenged their exclusive and destructive behaviour towards marginalized people.

I believe we have to learn how to respect people even though we don’t feel comfortable with what they believe and how they live their lives.

Respecting people does not mean that we cannot challenge what we, or the ones we perceive as “other, believe and do.

But we might have to learn how to agree to disagree without cutting off ties and resorting to disrespectful behavior.

The UNESCO identifies five steps to counter intolerance:

1. Fighting intolerance requires law:

Each Government is responsible for enforcing human rights laws, for banning and punishing hate crimes and discrimination against minorities, whether these are committed by State officials, private organizations or individuals. The State must also ensure equal access to courts, human rights commissioners or ombudsmen, so that people do not take justice into their own hands and resort to violence to settle their disputes.

2. Fighting intolerance requires education:

Laws are necessary but not sufficient for countering intolerance in individual attitudes. Intolerance is very often rooted in ignorance and fear: fear of the unknown, of the other, other cultures, nations, religions. Intolerance is also closely linked to an exaggerated sense of self-worth and pride, whether personal, national or religious. These notions are taught and learned at an early age. Therefore, greater emphasis needs to be placed on educating more and better. Greater efforts need to be made to teach children about tolerance and human rights, about other ways of life. Children should be encouraged at home and in school to be open-minded and curious.

Education is a life-long experience and does not begin or end in school. Endeavours to build tolerance through education will not succeed unless they reach all age groups, and take place everywhere: at home, in schools, in the workplace, in law-enforcement and legal training, and not least in entertainment and on the information highways.

3. Fighting intolerance requires access to information:

Intolerance is most dangerous when it is exploited to fulfil the political and territorial ambitions of an individual or groups of individuals. Hatemongers often begin by identifying the public’s tolerance threshold. They then develop fallacious arguments, lie with statistics and manipulate public opinion with misinformation and prejudice. The most efficient way to limit the influence of hatemongers is to develop policies that generate and promote press freedom and press pluralism, in order to allow the public to differentiate between facts and opinions.

4. Fighting intolerance requires individual awareness:

Intolerance in a society is the sum-total of the intolerance of its individual members. Bigotry, stereotyping, stigmatizing, insults and racial jokes are examples of individual expressions of intolerance to which some people are subjected daily. Intolerance breeds intolerance. It leaves its victims in pursuit of revenge. In order to fight intolerance individuals should become aware of the link between their behavior and the vicious cycle of mistrust and violence in society. Each one of us should begin by asking: am I a tolerant person? Do I stereotype people? Do I reject those who are different from me? Do I blame my problems on ‘them’?

5. Fighting intolerance requires local solutions:

Many people know that tomorrow’s problems will be increasingly global but few realize that solutions to global problems are mainly local, even individual. When confronted with an escalation of intolerance around us, we must not wait for governments and institutions to act alone. We are all part of the solution. We should not feel powerless for we actually possess an enormous capacity to wield power. Nonviolent action is a way of using that power-the power of people. The tools of nonviolent action-putting a group together to confront a problem, to organize a grassroots network, to demonstrate solidarity with victims of intolerance, to discredit hateful propaganda-are available to all those who want to put an end to intolerance, violence and hatred.

(Quoted from www.unesco.org/tolerance)

In our vision statement we have committed ourselves to working towards respecting all people and challenging injustice:

Under the section entitled “Mission” point 5 in our Vision Statement reads as follows:

“God has given dignity to every human being. We will commit ourselves to treat every person with respect, and to help restore that respect wherever it has been violated, particularly among those whom society has marginalized.”

In adopting this Vision Statement we have agreed to live according to this commitment.

Let us be self-critical to make sure we don’t become part of the life-destructive forces of intolerance.

Let us make sure we follow Jesus’ example in embracing all of humanity, but particularly those who suffer from isolation for various reasons.

May God’s Kingdom come, Shalom.