Bigotry and legalism in our culture

Intolerance will not be toleratedThree years ago, I lamented the use of the word “bigot” especially in the context of same-sex marriage. In the last week or so, I’ve read a couple of other things which have really said what I wanted to say much better.

Firstly, Brendan O’Neill writes about “The New Bigots” as he considers the treatment of  Germaine Greer after making her comments about transgender women. O’Neill is someone who I would probably disagree with fundamentally on a number of issues, but he is always well worth reading and this is no exception: I think it’s very insightful. Who are the real bigots – people who hold opinions like Germaine Greer, or those who try to silence those opinions?

Secondly, the webcomic Adam4d posted up a cartoon about intolerance, which makes a very similar point. Having a different opinion is not intolerance.

As I was reading these two pieces, it made me reflect on the nature of our society today: why is it that those with dissenting opinions – particularly on matters such as marriage – are often accused of being ‘bigoted’?

Let’s just take a detour into a little thought experiment for a second. Imagine a racist, let’s call him Racist Tim (I don’t know why I chose the name Tim, apologies to all the Tims out there.) Racist Tim is a member of a certain far-right political party and often expresses his support for them in conversations with his friends. Most of his conversation is focussed on the evils of immigration and the dangers of Islam.

Now, Racist Tim has views which are not acceptable in society at the moment (racism). What do you think would help him to change his views? (1) his friends all telling him that he’s stupid; (2) everyone on Facebook and social media telling him that racism is stupid; (3) him having a change of heart and realising that racism is wrong?

Now I appreciate that those three options are not mutually exclusive, but the one which really matters – the one which will really make a difference – is (3), isn’t it? At the end of the day, however much Racist Tim’s friends or the internet tells him that his views are stupid and wrong, it isn’t going to make much of a difference unless he can realise for himself that he’s wrong. Now, it is a possibility that (1) and (2) will help towards (3) – but what I think is more likely to happen is that the more Racist Tim gets abused for his racist views, the more strongly he will hold them. I’d say what is much more effective in that situation is to engage with kindness and compassion and to show Racist Tim why his views are wrong and help him to see that for himself: he won’t realise if he’s just abused, he might just realise if people engage him with gentleness.

Why do I say all of this, and what relevance does it have to intolerance? The point is, at the moment our society basically engages in (1) and (2):  telling people who hold unacceptable opinions that they are wrong, that they are ‘bigots’, that they need to change their minds. But the problem is, I don’t think this will actually change anyone’s mind.

But from a Christian perspective, I also believe there is something even more fundamental going on: the issue of the human heart. As someone once said, “The heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart.” Jesus said in Mark 7:20-23,

What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.

In context, the disciples (and the Pharisees) thought that ceremonial uncleanness – what made them ‘unclean’ and separated from God – came from outside. But Jesus says, no – uncleanness comes from within. We have a heart problem, one which is inside, rather than one which is merely external.

We human beings, by nature, love to make all our problems external. We believe that if we just follow a set of rules, we’ll be OK. We love to believe that we can set a list of rules for ourselves, and all we need to do is simply keep them. Then, once we’ve followed our list of rules, will we be good and righteous. “Don’t be racist: tick. Don’t be homophobic: tick. Give to charity from time to time: tick.” If you get ticks in enough boxes, you’re a good person. This is known as legalism – that the route to being a good and righteous person is by keeping the law.

From this perspective, it’s not surprising that our society is intolerant, is it? Our society is profoundly legalistic. If you ‘break the law’ (i.e. express the wrong / unacceptable opinion), you’re not a good person. Instead, you need to say the right words, spout the right ideas, keep in line with societal orthodoxy… or at least appear to do these things. Because, truth be told, the fruit of legalism is hypocrisy: people who appear to be keeping the law on the outside, but internally are just the same. Let’s go back to our example of Racist Tim. Let’s suppose that he recognised that expressing his racist opinions drew him lots of abuse, so he stopped. Let’s say that he learned to say the right words so that he could sound enlightened and most definitely not racist. Do you think his heart would have changed too? Or would he just simply be a hypocrite, saying ‘inclusive’ things on the outside while quietly feeding his racism on the inside? He could spend the rest of his life saying the ‘right’ things (or at least, avoiding saying the ‘wrong’ things) while inside still believing his racist thoughts without anyone knowing.

And this is where the Christian message speaks into our society: all of us have a heart problem. All of us have things inside of us we know are wrong which can’t be fixed by giving ourselves a set of rules. But God promises to give us new hearts. He promises to change us from the inside out. This is what God said through the prophet Ezekiel:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Christianity, unlike every other major religion, doesn’t say “do this”: it points to the Saviour, Jesus Christ, and says “done”. It doesn’t say, “if you try really, really hard – you’ll be OK.” It says, “You can’t do it on your own. Trust in Jesus, who has done it for you – and God will renew you and give you a new heart that wants to obey Him.”

At the end of the day, I don’t think Christians should be surprised at our society’s current obsession with the word ‘bigotry’: our society is simply doing what human beings do best – legalism. But the only real solution to intolerance is not more laws, is not more accusations of bigotry, but a new heart.  That’s the only thing which will make any difference in the end.