“So often, when I say what I believe, someone pigeonholes me as ‘intolerant.’ I wish I knew what to say when that happens.”
"Yes, I've been expecting you." A few days ago I'd talked over the true meaning of tolerance with Mark and his friend Sarah, and he'd said he'd return. I waved him to a seat.
"You're eyeing my coffee oddly, Mark. Would you like a cup?"
"Was I? No offense, Prof, but I was just wondering how you can drink that bitter stuff."
"French roast. Nectar of the gods. Demigods, anyway — this is decaf." I took a sip. "But that's not what you're here about."
"No. It's this name-calling business. So often, when I say what I believe, someone pigeonholes me as 'intolerant.' I wish I knew what to say when that happens. It happened again just this morning."
"Really? What did you say to bring it on this time?"
"A guy in my Ethics and Public Policy class said it's wrong to discriminate, so practicing homosexuals shouldn't be treated differently just because of sexual preference. I said that according what the Bible says in Romans, sodomy isn't a preference, it's a sin. Then he called me intolerant because I wanted to 'impose' my biblical morality on everyone else. For a moment I was at a loss for words, and the teacher —"
Mark cringed with the memory. "He just smirked and said to me 'I guess he told you!' Professor T, did I say something wrong?"
"Are you asking whether you got the Bible wrong?"
"No, I know I got the Bible right. What I'm asking is whether I could have spoken more effectively."
"Well, you did leave yourself wide open."
"Did I? How?"
I studied him over the rim of my mug. "Let's pin down your morning discussion and dissect it. Understand, though, I'm not interested in discussing effective speaking apart from clear thinking."
"I'm not either, Professor T. Go ahead and be tough on me."
"All right. The first way you left yourself open to the charge of intolerance is that you weren't really listening to your opponent's argument, and carelessly let him get away with too much."
"What do you mean?"
"He said it's wrong to discriminate. That puts you in the wrong because you do discriminate — about lots of things."
"Of course you do. To 'discriminate' is just to make distinctions. Everyone makes distinctions. Would any sane person say, 'It's wrong to discriminate on grounds of age, so children shouldn't be prohibited from driving?' Or 'It's wrong to discriminate on grounds of relationship, so go ahead and sleep with my wife?' You see, your opponent believes in making distinctions too. He only disagrees with you about one distinction."
"I get it," said Mark. "We should have been debating which distinctions to make, but I let him make it look like we were debating whether to make any at all. That made me seem the bad guy."
"Next time, I won't let the other guy get away with vague statements that put me in a box. How else did I let down my guard?"
"You did the same thing a second time."
"What? How so?
"He said practicing homosexuals shouldn't be 'treated differently.' That's much too broad. It's not your issue at all." I took another swig of coffee.
"Think about it. Is it wrong to say that people who practice homosexuality shouldn't be ordained as Christian ministers?"
"No, that's not wrong."
"Is it wrong to say that they shouldn't be able to purchase groceries?"
"Of course that's wrong. It's cruel."
"Is it wrong to deny them the privilege of registering their sexual arrangements as 'marriages'?"
"No, that's not wrong."
"Is it wrong to say they should be hunted down and beat up?"
"Completely wrong. Christianity teaches that we should hate the sin, but love the sinner."
"All right, Mark, I just polled you on four different ways of 'treating homosexuals differently.' Would you summarize the results?"
"Two 'Wrongs' and two 'Rights.' I'm strongly in favor of some differences in treatment, but strongly opposed to others."
"But you let your opponent lump them all together. Do you see now what you lost by that?"
"For sure. I ended up looking like I was for all sorts of differences in treatment, fair and unfair alike. It was as though I'd held up a picket sign that said 'Let's Treat Some People Differently.' No wonder I was called 'intolerant'."
"How could you have kept that from happening?"
"I should have pinned my opponent down. I should have asked him which differences in treatment we were talking about."
"Bravo!" I cheered, almost spilling my coffee. "Remember, Mark, people who are trying to fudge the truth always try to treat dissimilar things as though they were similar, and similar things as though they were dissimilar. Don't let them get away with it."
"That helps, Professor T." Mark reflected a moment. "But not in the way I expected."
"Not in the way you expected?"
"When I told you I needed help knowing what to say when people call me intolerant, I thought you were going to — you know —"
"Suggest some snappy comebacks?"
"Snappy comebacks are the last thing to worry about. The great thing is to keep from needing a snappy comeback in the first place."
"Okay. How else could I have kept from needing one?"
"So far we've been talking about what the other guy said. Let's talk about what you said."
Mark thought for a few moments. "All I said was that according to the Bible —"
"I said, 'Stop!'"
"But all I did was mention the Bible!"
"That was your mistake. There are lots of times to mention the Bible, but that classroom wasn't one of them. Naturally you were accused of 'imposing' your biblical morality on everyone else."
Mark stared at me as though he couldn't believe his eyes. "But you're a fellow Christian. How could you be telling me not to rely on the Bible?"
"That's not what I'm suggesting at all. I'm suggesting that you rely on the Bible more. Let's rely on it right now. What does it say about how to talk to nonbelievers? Does the Bible tell us to spout Scripture to everyone in sight?"
"No, but it doesn't tell us not to."
"Are you sure? One of Jesus' 'hard sayings' is 'Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.' Does that ring any bells for you?"
"Oh-h-h, I see now. Throwing Scripture references around the classroom during class was like throwing pearls around a barnyard at feeding time. And I did get sort of torn up. Of course in my case the tearing up was only verbal."
"Lucky for you," I said.
"But if I'm not supposed to spout Scripture carelessly to people who don't believe it, how can I explain the Christian world view to them at all?"
"The Scriptural precedent is to begin with such truth as people know and believe already."
"Where in Scripture are you talking about?"
"When the Apostle Paul spoke to his fellow Jews, what did he quote?"
"He quoted the Scriptures."
"Right — because they already knew and believed them. But what did he quote when he spoke to the pagans on Mars Hill?"
"I remember now. He quoted the pagan poets! 'As some of your own poets have said' — let's see — 'We are His offspring.'"
"Exactly. They already had an intuition of an unknown Holy One different from all of their idols, and he built on it. Do you get the point?"
"I think so. Before hitting people with God's word, soften them up. Hit them with what they know already," said Mark. "Is that how to talk about moral issues, too?"
"Sure is. You know, the Bible doesn't teach a different morality than people know already; as Paul says in the second chapter of Romans, God's moral law is 'written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness.' Whether or not they know the Good News of salvation, deep down all human beings know the Bad News of sin."
Mark reflected. "So in moral discussion, we're not trying to tell people what they don't know at all — we're trying to put them in touch with what they know deep down already."
I held up my coffee mug in salute. "I couldn't have put it better."
He asked, "Do you think doing that will end my problem?"
"Do you mean being pigeonholed as 'intolerant'?"
"It will lessen it," I answered, "but it won't end it. To a person living a lie, 'speaking the truth with love' sounds the same as hate. Making love sound like love is difficult, and some people will respond with bitterness."
Mark grinned. "If I have to get used to bitter struggles," he said, "then you can pour me a cup of that coffee after all."
J. Budziszewski "Accused!" Boundless Office Hours 1999.
Office Hours is regular feature of Boundless.
Reprinted with permission of J. Budziszewski.
J. Budziszewski (Boojee-shefski) earned his doctorate from Yale University in 1981. He teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, in the Departments of Government and Philosophy where he specializes in the relations among ethical theory, political theory, and Christian theology. The focus of his current research is natural law and moral self deception. J. Budziszewski is a former atheist, former political radical, former shipyard welder, and former lots of other things, including former young and former thin. He's been married for more than thirty years to his high school sweetheart, Sandra, and has two daughters. He loves teaching. He says he also loves contemporary music, but it turns out that he means "the contemporaries of Johann Sebastian Bach." He deserted his faith during college but returned to Christ a dozen years later and entered the Catholic Church at Easter 2004. He is the author of On the Meaning of Sex, The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction, Ask Me Anything: Provocative Answers for College Students, Ask Me Anything 2: More Provocative Answers for College Students, How to Stay Christian in College, What We Can't Not Know: A Guide, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, and Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law. J. Budziszewski is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2003 J. Budziszewski
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.