Tolerating the Intolerant.

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February 2, 2011 by Rhi

The mainstream media (save for the Daily Mail *hack spit*) have been strangely quiet over a recent case in which Catholic mental health worker Margaret Forrester, who was suspended for expressing concern over information being passed to women seeking abortions, has been restored to a “better” position within her local health authority.

Now, let’s get this out of the way at the start. I’m not convinced of the impartiality of the report I’ve read on the Christian news site Christian Today, but as it’s the only reference I’ve got for the story, it seems a fair enough place to start.

Well, let’s give Ms Forrester the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know what material she’s circulated, but in all honesty anyone who is pro-choice must surely accept that, assuming her concern for information was genuine, anything which better prepares women for the harsh realities of abortion may be welcomed. That’s not to say it ought to make them feel guilty, or attempt to make them change their minds. But there is a case, I think , especially where it involves a family who did not expect to be facing that decision (in the event of fetal abnormalities, for example) where more care ought to be taken to address the fact that they didn’t necessarily choose to be in that position. And where information on the realities of life after the procedure might be welcomed, if offered.

If Margaret Forrester’s intentions were purely altruistic, then I think this is an admirable decision. And I think the more liberal press are wrong to stay silent on this decision (although in their defence, they didn’t mention her being suspended either). It’s entirely possible that she was acting out of genuine concern for those she came into contact with, and wasn’t trying to impose her own view of the procedure of them. And that’s the problem with being a Christian in today’s society. A lot of people have a preconceived set of ideas about what being Christian involves, and even if you don’t fit into that idea, you’re still judged by it. I’m completely pro-choice, but I do agree with the idea that the decision to abort a pregnancy should be just that – a choice. And a choice can only be reached when you’re in possession of a full range of facts. If Ms Forrester felt that the lack of information was hindering that choice, it’s right that she should be commended. As long as those facts are presented in a clear and non judgemental fashion, isn’t that a good thing? And if that was her intention, it’s possible that she has been a victim of prejudice, simply because of her beliefs.

Recent court cases which have gone the other way (yes, you know which one I’m talking about) have been met with much rejoicing on the side of liberals, and much wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of conservative Christians who feel that their right to live has been eroded. Which is, in my opinion, nonsense. I think the case of Margaret Forrester (at face value) shows that it’s possible to be true to your beliefs, without it unfairly impacting on the lives of those who don’t share those beliefs. Tolerance, according to the OED, is to refrain or abstain from judging harshly or rigorously. I don’t think the Bulls did show much tolerance to anyone who didn’t fit their very constrained idea of Christianity. And as they had chosen to run a business serving the public, I’m fairly certain that they acted outside of the law as it stands.

But the upshot of their case is the throwing up of the dichotomy of who has to show tolerance first? Does holding a strong, judgmental position mean that one can’t expect tolerance in return? Can someone truthfully take a stand against extremist Christians who look down on anyone who doesn’t conform to their ideals, without also contradicting their idea that you should welcome everyone, without judging them?

The comments made about the Bull case show that there’s a lack of understanding on the part of some atheist commentators about what being a Christian actually means – just as much as there is amongst Christians, in fact. And the secular press don’t help that – using Stephen Green as a mouthpiece every time you need a Christian commentator makes all of us look like crazies. The simple fact of being Christian in the UK today is that, actually, most of us are quite normal and happy to accept the differences in people without feeling our human rights are being violated by a secular enemy. The Church of Scotland – one of the largest Christian denominations in the UK – has welcomed women as ministers since the 1960s, and is currently undertaking a review of whether members are concerned by homosexuals being ordained (following Rev Scott Rennie taking over as minister at Queens Cross in Aberdeen). Not every Christian follows the extremist line. In fact, since taking over as minister, Rev Rennie has seen attendance at his church rise by 5%. Tolerance brings dividends, and it’s embodied by those Christians who, even though they might not agree with the actions of another, don’t let it make any difference to how they treat that person. As my Gran was fond of saying “I speak as I find”.

If secularists continue to tar all Christians with the same brush,  all it will achieve is to make the extremists shout louder about intolerance and prejudice. When, in fact, it’s they who hold the prize for those two traits. If the media and others were more willing to read, understand, and listen to the majority of Christians who take the time to listen, understand, and contexualise what Christianity means in today’s society, in a spiritual and intellectual fashion, then those who seek to use religion as a means to discriminate would have no recourse to complain. Perhaps the truth is that those who shout the loudest about persecution are those who have the most to fear about being found out?


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