I would like to relate an important story of religious tolerance with which you may be less familiar, but which is an integral part of the my Unitarian heritage. It comes from sixteenth-century Transylvania. Transylvania is now mostly in Romania, but was then an independent part of the Hungarian Empire where Unitarianism received its first vibrant expression. In 1557, Transylvania’s Queen Isabella, mother of the young King Janos Zigsmond, issued a decree of religious toleration in order to quell controversy between Lutherans, Calvinists, and the Catholic Church. It stated, “each person [could] maintain whatever religious faith he wishes … just as long, however, as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.” This decree established a synod to conduct comparisons of doctrine. This was a radical move in a region of continuing religious intolerance because it allowed public debate of religion. Freedom and reason had made way for tolerance. Eight years later, in 1563, this edict was reaffirmed and extended to say, “each may embrace the religion that he prefers without any compulsion …” Another three years passed, and the Holy Trinity itself was on the table for debate. Barely a decade earlier, Miguel Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva for publishing several volumes on the errors of the trinity.
The debates between Trinitarians and the new Unitarians, the latter led by Francis David, continued for several years. In 1569, King Zigsmond converted to Unitarianism because of these debates. He was the first and only Unitarian King! The story concludes in 1571, when the young King, only thirty years old, in the quest for religious tolerance begun by his mother, named Unitarianism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Catholicism as the received religions of the realm. This offered more than tolerance. It offered each of the four faiths a measure of protection under the law, and was the first time a ruler had formally allowed his citizens to worship a religion other than his own. Unfortunately, the King died the following day in a hunting accident. The Unitarians continued to have a difficult time of it, but the seeds of religious freedom and tolerance were firmly planted in the western world.
Freedom, reason, and tolerance. These are not without necessary limits. With freedom comes a critical responsibility to maintain a healthy social and moral culture. With reason comes the responsibility to use, rather than abuse, the power that accompanies new knowledge. With tolerance comes the careful discernment necessary to affirm the worth and dignity of every person, but to reject intolerance and damaging behavior. We need not tolerate intolerance, hate, and violence, regardless of the moral code invoked in the name of such acts.
Although freedom, reason, and tolerance come with limits, simple tolerance is not enough. Tolerance is the language of the powerful–of the dominant culture, as evidenced by the near complete absence of writings and speeches on tolerance by women throughout history. Members of minority, marginalized, or otherwise non-dominant groups don’t speak in terms of tolerance because they are still struggling for some measure of freedom. They are struggling to be understood–more than just tolerated. Tolerance is a far cry better than intolerance or outright hostility, but it is still a half-empty glass. We can tolerate people, groups, or some stereotype of the other–of those people–and still hold them in contempt. We can tolerate someone and know nothing about them except that they are somehow different from us. Without moving beyond tolerance, we reinforce our differences in negative ways. Only through knowledge and first-hand understanding of the other do we begin to move beyond tolerance into affirmation and advocacy.
In my next post, I will present a continuum of tolerance that anyone can use to move from hostility to advocacy.