A Curious Prophecy of Victorian Bigotry

GIVEN all the kerfuffle in the news lately about religious intolerance (especially as touching a certain nameless sexual orientation in a certain nameless Midwestern state), I thought it might be instructive to examine some pertinent writings from an eminent clergyman Across the Pond. Their style is a tad old-fashioned, since their author is John Keble (1792-1866), father of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England. But their message would not at all be out of place in the editorials and pulpits (though probably not the YouTube comments sections) of the Culture Wars battleground of 2015.

In the passage below, an except from a sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity, Keble explains the great unwisdom of terming “tolerance” a virtue without discriminating (pun intended) between the good and bad sorts of tolerance.

There is hardly a word more thought of at present, especially among us English people, than the word “toleration.” Many — very many — there are who seem to think more of that than of any thing else in their judgments of others. If a man be a tolerant or, as it is sometimes called, a liberal person, plenty of people may be found to praise and admire him without asking any further; if he be supposed illiberal or intolerant, nothing will make up for it: he is condemned at once.

But these two hard and disagreeable words, “illiberal” and ” intolerant,” as well as the words which sound most contrary to them, the pleasant words “liberal” and “tolerant,” do not at all mean the same things, when they are used by different persons. Liberal and tolerant are like a good many other words: they have a good meaning and a bad one. For what, in fact, is the meaning of the word “tolerant?” It signifies just this: bearing with things and persons which are or seem to be wrong. Now there is a way of doing this which is wicked and ungodly, and there is a way of doing it which is merciful and dutiful and Christian. We bear with wrong things and bad people in a wicked ungodly way when we do it so as carelessly to encourage sin and unbelief and the things which God abhors. We bear with wrong things in a dutiful Christian way when we try to keep ourselves calm for Christ’s sake, putting down the risings of anger and discontent, and turning them, as well as we can, into prayer.  And of course if we be so inwardly minded we shall be gentle and considerate in all our outward behavior, making the best of things and endeavoring to do always as we would have others do to  us, in little things and in great. This is true toleration: “forbearing one another in love,” the duty which the Holy Ghost by the apostle so earnestly urges on us all in the Epistle for this week “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4: 1-3).

Those virtuous souls who “bear with wrong things in a dutiful Christian way” may be assured of their reward in heaven, but on earth they often find themselves the targets of additional Wrong Things from fellows who, in their fervor against bigotry, end up becoming even greater bigots than their foes. In a culture so de-christianized as to expect its members to not only permit but applaud evils condemned in Scripture, a mere expression of disapproval can suffice to merit the odious title of persecutor. As our writer preached to one Good Friday congregation:

One very common and very dangerous trial is when notions and practices forbidden by God’s law and His Church are become customary under whatever pretense. For example, consider the notion that people may choose their own religion according to their own fancy of what will most edify themselves, without regard or reverence to the warnings of the Church. These things are now become so common that I suppose it must require Christian courage, something like taking up the Cross, in any one who resolutely sets himself against them on true Church principles. Surely, then, this is a time in which we ought to be much on our guard as to how much we join in the disrespect and scorn with which the world is sure to treat every opinion or person which it calls bigoted. If there be such a thing as Christian truth and a Christian Church, surely they are to be upheld, and we must cling to them in spite of any loss of credit, ease or purpose. To damp any such purpose and make light of any such sacrifice is no light error, but rather a mark that the person so judging is one of those, to whom, if he had lived in our Savior’s time, the very Cross of Christ would have been foolishness.

Keble lived a good century-and-a-half closer to our Savior’s time than we, and I do not think the disrespect and scorn has abated. Nay, it has grown, and is very likely to continue to grow for the next century-and-a-half. A realistic prediction, but it need not be a dreary one. For our salvation does not depend on achieving victory for the cause of bigotry: only on carrying her flag with honour.

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