LUNCHTIME SERIES: TALKING ON TOLERANCE
How is Tolerance Possible Here in the 21st Century?
Welcome & contribution by Benedicta Attoh of Louth African Womens Group and member of Akidwa
Contribution by Professor Monica McWilliams Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
The Dublin Unitarian Church explores the idea of tolerance as a defining principle of Unitarianism and how it relates to 21st century Ireland.
In the Spring of 2006 the Dublin Unitarian Church on St. Stephen’s Green ran a groundbreaking series of lunchtime talks called Talking on Tolerance – How is Tolerance Possible in Ireland in the 21st Century. The brainchild of congregation member, Shari McDaid, this series of four monthly lunchtime debates was initiated to explore tolerance
in the light of a changing Ireland.
Over the last six years, due to exceptional economic growth, Ireland has experienced rapid change from a mono cultural into a multi-cultural society. Aligned with this, the troubled situation in Northern Ireland has improved to the extent that discussions are again underway to implement a power sharing government in the North. In the light of this, and the apparent ideological divide between Christians and Muslims in a post 9/11 world the need for a discussion about religious tolerance seemed apposite.
Each month, two prominent speakers were invited to present their views on the general subject of tolerance for ten minutes, followed by a question and answer session with the audience. All four talks were well attended and provoked a lively public discussion. However, as they progressed over the four months, it was suggested by most speakers that tolerance, as it is currently interpreted, is an outdated concept and needs to be replaced with a much more active, dynamic principle
In March, the Reverend Bill Darlison, Minister of the Dublin Unitarian Church and Mustafid Gani of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland were invited speakers. Rev. Darlison began by saying that Tolerance has been a cornerstone of Unitarianism for over two centuries, along with Freedom and Reason. He asked is it adequate to-day to express our feeling towards other faiths or does it imply indifference. He saw no need for conflict between religious systems, as each is part of a symphony of praise offered to God and each one has something unique and precious to offer. He suggested that different faiths are different cultural responses to religion and that there is no absolute truth, an admission that religions sadly rarely make.
Mr Gani explained how Islam commands people to respect, honour and defend the property and life of those who do not profess the Muslim faith. The Koran exhorts Muslims to be tolerant in many ways and to stand up for justice. Muslims are bound by the universal brotherhood of man and obliged to defend non-Muslims from invasion. The differences between people are exciting and enriching. These principles need to be stated publicly and the media need to report them, as extremists are ignoring these golden precepts of Islam.
In April, Sean Love, Executive Director, Amnesty Ireland and Chinedu Dibor from Nigeria were the guest speakers. Sean Love began by pointing out that tolerance is not enough, that living with diversity must mean more. While tolerated, marginalised groups in Irish society suffer from a lack of integration and acceptance. We also tolerate many objectionable acts and activities here such as the detaining of people with intellectual disability in psychiatric institutions, one of the highest rates of child poverty in Europe, and the high levels of domestic and sexual violence experienced by women. People must reach out, both at the level of the state and at community level, to marginalised groups, and above all as a society, we should seek a human rights based approach to policy.
Chinedu Dibor, who considers himself Biafran, has been in Ireland for four months. He spoke of the need for Irish people and foreigners living here to tolerate one another and live in harmony. He also spoke of the need for the government to explain to the Irish people why so many migrants are now living here, as Irish people need to understand there is an international obligation and responsibility to care for peoples fleeing from persecution. He urged people to make diversity a source of richness, not disunity. To be fulfilled we must create communities of dialogue and life giving relationships.
May brought two speakers from differing religious perspectives; Rev. Gary Hastings, Church of Ireland Rector, Westport and prominent Irish traditional musician, with Proessor Enda McDonagh, Emeritus professor of Moral Theology, St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. While they approached the idea of tolerance somewhat differently there was significant agreement between them. Rev. Gary Hastings did not believe in tolerance, seeing it as a very poor excuse for a virtue – a device to paper over the cracks. He equated it with ‘respect’ which he saw as allowing hatred, ignorance, false myths and propaganda to grow. Like Sean Love he saw tolerance as allowing us to put up with things that should not be tolerated like child abuse, poor health services, global warming, the Iraqi war, drink culture etc. He saw ecumenism as being in a backwater with nothing changing and little dialogue at grass roots level about beliefs. In Northern Ireland there is now more tolerance than ever before. Tolerance leaves old fears, hatreds, myths, and propaganda untouched. It is not enough.
For Rev. Hastings the answer lies in the teachings of Jesus and in change and understanding. The thrust of most religious faiths is toward union with the other a deep level, towards compassion, love and caring, acceptance and forgiveness. But to achieve this, change must happen at the realm of self. We must recognise the full person of the other. At the level of Self we are all one. He saw faith as being perverted easily by power and toleration as a facet of power. Where toleration stops is where power, the ego, feels threatened. Then anger and hatred arise from fear. We prefer to tolerate rather than to open up. He quoted the Zen Buddhist saying: ‘Great faith requires great doubt’. We must keep producing doubt. Reformation must happen continually. Change must happen again and again. There is always a better way, and we must seek it. Tolerance is a tool which can produce a ceasefire, but only love and compassion can bring the peace.
Dr. Enda McDonagh agreed that tolerance is a weak form of social interaction. Putting up with or enduring the other is not adequate to the situation in Ireland or in the world. He argued for a strong tolerance which could be seen as bearing each other’s burdens rather then simply enduring or being indifferent to others. We need to come closer to each other, which tolerance in its strong sense demands, to get to know and understand each other, accept one another and be enriched by one another. By relating argumentatively you are on the way to a much richer understanding of the other. Tolerance makes a preliminary contribution by smoothing the ground, but this in not enough to build a society. Tolerance in Ireland now, should be talking about action not feelings.
Examining religion, Professor McDonagh saw no desire for religious unity in Ireland to-day. There is no search for joint beliefs or action. Looking at Irish politics he spoke of the need to promote truth and justice here, to develop a real social justice society North and South and argued that this is a strong powerful form of tolerance and expresses our love
for one another and the love God has for all of us.
In the final talk in June, Benedicta Attoh, of the Louth African Women’s Group and Professor Monica McWilliams, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission discussed tolerance from their particular perspectives. Ms. Attoh found no tolerance in Irish society today. Immigrant families are stratified by citizenship laws. Irish born children of immigrants do not have the same rights as Irish children. They are denied the right to live with family members. She found racism among Government Ministers and in the media and that integration is not a two way process. There is a lack of esteem for
migrants, they are seen just as economic units.
Professor McWilliams asked if tolerance is possible in a post 9/11 world in the context of terrorism. In Ireland, while reform is happening at the institutional level, not enough is happening at the community level. There is a great need for truth and reconciliation. The Human Rights Commission is working on a Bill of Rights to define communities own fundamental right framework. She saw tolerance as about peace building, about building a web of relationships that acknowledge diversity.
While each speaker in the Talking on Tolerance series had a personal view, it is possible to see a common theme emerge. Tolerance must be an active agent in social interaction. To tolerate or just put up with another is not enough. It begs the question – is tolerance an adequate expression of Unitarianism in the 21st century.