"My Other Self: Reflections on Tolerance "

Thelma Young

SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall 2008)


1 Comment



I went into the center of the anti-government encampment in Bangkok recently and met with the “yellow- shirt” protestors that I had long heard labeled as a contemptible “they”. I spoke with many people, including several old women who showed me through the maze of tents that had been there for several months, while people demanded the resignation of a corrupt government. I asked the old women what they wanted, and they said “freedom” and “democracy”, and other responses that I doubt would be different from the desires of the opposing side, the “red shirts”. A few weeks later when the conflict escalated and I saw bloody yellow shirted effigies being dragged through the streets, my heart broke. I had spoken with both sides of the political spectrum and found such a great deal of commonalities, that when further escalation happened I grieved for another perpetuation of an injurious “they”, the cruelty that comes from the uncharitable ignorance of those around us. For as the poet Li Young Lee says “Cruelty is when I mistake you for something other than God. Or I mistake myself for someone other than God.” [1] We are a religion that seeks to perpetuate truth throughout the world, and in doing thus, we need to ensure that we maintain the divinity of all through endlessly working to erase constructions of “us” and “them” in rhetoric and actions and replace with truly charitable interactions.

I will not make the claim that it is human nature to become tribalistic, and construct the “other,” because I believe the whole discussion of what human nature is gets morphed according to a speaker’s needs.  However, there are many examples of nations, tribes, and even genders utilizing the fantasy of an opposing “other” to boost their own solidarity and power. On the other hand, we can look to other philosophies that counter this trend. An idea that has stayed with me for years has been this observation; “In the language of the Dagara tribe of Africa there is no word for the simple you, as in me or you. In their language, the closest translation to our word ‘you’, is ‘my other self.” [2] The highest priorities we can have in this life is to love God and love our neighbors, and by neighbors I don't think Christ just meant people like us--people in our sphere, our home, our tribe--but people outside of our boundaries as well.  So here is the ever-present dilemma of how do we maintain our own beliefs, while also engaging the world with full charity.

As Li Young Lee says, when we forget individuals divine humanity, then it becomes easier to act inhumanely. One of the most common ways to erase someone’s divinity is to treat them as part of an institution – something not human, but a clump of symbols and stereotypes. People then become not people but “Jews”, “Hippies”, “Feminists”, “Academics” or any other title that resonates with some form of institution. Creating institutions and states doesn’t require formal organizing through mission statements, borders, and official papers – but an institution is anything that thrives on the construction of “others”. Renata Salecl, a scholar on Nationalism, describes it as thus, “National identification with the nation (“our kind”) is based on the fantasy of the enemy, an alien…[which] is not of ‘our kind’.” [3] Once again, this does not just apply to nation-states, but any general identification that purports supremacy over others. Furthermore, this bigotry can go both ways, and thus create dichotomies – seemingly impenetrable encampments of opposing ideologies.

I have seen these dichotomies vividly, finding myself frequently stuck between them. One key dichotomy that appears again and again is between a secular and a religious world. Both religious organizations and secular organizations frequently construct the other one as something dogmatic and cruel. “The world” shouts to religions “you are close-minded and intolerant” and religions shout back “you are wicked and intolerant yourself!” I stand in the middle of these worlds often, especially in my social activism work- with many of my activist friends not understanding my religious affiliation and many people at church not understanding my activism. It breaks my heart to see it, for my religious views are the source of my activism, and in my soul they do not conflict but propel and feed off each other. I know many religious people who also see no gap between their faith and activism, and there so many social justice oriented faith-based networks which do marvelous work. However, there will come moments when the two sectors collide, when ideologies and “truths” combat and the shouting match I described earlier takes place. Whether it devolves to rhetorical badgering or not, there still remains divides which keep us from coming further together.

At the hinge of this is the concept of “truth”, and who owns it, if it exists, and where its place shall be in society. During a long bike ride home the other night I spoke with my dear friend about this subject. She grew up in a non-religious household and is also a person who values many similar things as I do, so we discussed the divide between religion and secularism. She said that religion is dangerous, because as soon someone believes they have “truth” they no longer listen to others, that it creates hierarchy, and cease to really love.  She points to many wars and cruelties that have been fought in the name of religion and “truth”, and sees danger in the institution of owning truth.  However, the question I ask myself in return is if I denounce the truth I know, will that defy the first commandment of loving God? I should be able to love people as myself, and still love God – and even in this world of various constructions of institutions and ideologies, we should be able to fulfill both laws.

I firmly believe that the key to all interpersonal communication and to overcoming this dilemma is charity. It has the power to break all boundaries. “Being in the world, but not of the world” creates a strange paradox of social interactions, but whoever it is, whether a Mormon neighbor, a person of another faith, or someone we meet on a bus that appears to be the complete opposite of who we see ourselves as, the key to transcendent connection is the same: charity. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, who interacted and taught many groups of people, wrote a great deal about charity and love. In 1 Corinthians 13: 1 he says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Even if we have the most beautiful truth, if we have not charity, our capacity to do anything diminishes.

“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” [4]

Paul’s statement on charity, on the virtue that is essential in human interaction is far different from corrupted notions of power. We do not interact with people to win; we interact with people to learn. It requires a complete shift away from self-interest. Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher said "I felt I have not the right to want to change another if I am not open to be changed by him as far as it is legitimate." [5]   We must not treat an “other” and his/her ideas as something inferior, but as something intrinsic to understanding ourselves – they are “my other self.”

In our conversations with others, and especially about the gospel, we are to teach, not command. I cannot fully say if this is what Joseph Smith meant when he wrote the 11th Article of Faith, but I find it applicable. "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” I find this doctrine beautiful, because it shows enormous respect for other’s beliefs, and works to erase a foundation of imperialism from our doctrine. If we do hold this to be true, as well as the 13th Article of Faith that says that we seek after “everything lovely or of good report we seek after these things”, then the general “world” around us seeks to not be an institution looked at with skepticism, but a place that we can learn from. There are people who want Babylon to be something tangible, an institution that is easily condemnable – but it is not that easy.  To progress towards Zion, away from Babylon, is an everyday endeavor for holiness that we have to fight within ourselves as well as try to maintain in our social space.  As we engage with the great society at large, not only is charity important, but specifically charitable dialogue – a form of communication that works with the spirit to break down pride and false social institutions and progress towards truth. True speech and connection is the action that is so crucial to bridge the divide between humanity that institutions create - to fervently ask why a person thinks the way they do, why they act, to respect it, and to engage further.

People shout because they do not want to be silenced. Charitable dialogue though looks beyond the shouting and sees the process as everything. I work for a non-violent political struggle, and we choose non-violence because if we lose ourselves through violence, then there is no point in overthrowing the dictatorship if we become dictators ourselves. We are often told that non-violence is weakness, that what Burma really needs is Rambo, is violence, is retribution. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel-Peace prize winner who is the leader of this movement responds “A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man's self-respect and inherent human dignity.” [6] Through my time in the NGO world and more I have seen too many people fall prey to this form of fear and eventually become the entity they are fighting in order to win, with the end justifying the means. However, what is lost in the process, our sense of charity, cannot outweigh any end goal. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to be silenced, but we can use the best methods. Some people view non-violence as just lying down in front of enemies and being slaughtered, as in the Anti-Nephi-Lehis, which is a beautiful example of supreme faith, but is not just that. It is strategic, it is thoughtful, it is creative, courageous and doesn’t fall in line with corrupted notions of “power.” Some people believe that peace means letting yourself be rolled over, but that is such a narrow perspective. When we interact with those we disagree with there are more options than submission or hostility. I mention non-violence, because I think it has similar principles as charitable dialogue – ones that focus on the process over end goal, and the process is smart, engaged, and by no means weak.

It is easy to speak of dialogue when the issues may not be that tense, but when people stand firm with ideas that they hold to be truth, and the two truths stand at a complete impasse, dialogue seems less attainable. If I brought together my friends who works at Human Rights Campaign, campaigning for gay rights, to talk with some friends in the Mormon community, I do not know if they will ever reach a common consensus, but they could at least reach a point of respect for the other. Ideally, any dialogue would be successful, as long as in the end both sides enter in and leave with the goal of maintaining the other person’s divinity – but to continue to value their opinion as if they were your own.  Most people have contradictions and problems to sort through and through it all find a greater truth. Even internally, humans are full of contradictions, as Walt Whitman so famously put it "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." [7]   Interacting with others in a respectful way is no different, than when we work internally - we go through periods of research, questioning, prayer and meditation to find some sort of peace. In trying to understand the issue of homosexual marriage, I have been very conflicted myself as I see validity in many arguments, and so I have had to really work, and am still working to find peaceful conclusion with my thoughts. So I am going through the steps mentioned above- it is not easy, but I feel necessary. This internal dialogue of action – humbly seeking out all information and meditating on it should be no different when having discussions with people.

There will be many times where an ideal situation of charitable dialogue will not happen, because dialogue takes both sides having a proper mindset to really function; however, this does not mean we relinquish the standards of charity. Martin Buber, who spent much of his philosophical career focusing on interpersonal communication, was also a key member of the Jewish community in the 20th century. Even Buber, who worked to connect with all people, mentioned how he was never able to really reach David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel. He says, “I think I can understand the inner struggle he is going through...If only he could talk to me, really, talk! If only he could share the burden! But things have not developed between us the way I had hoped....He is only four-hundred yards from here. But there is a chasm between us." [8] This is such a beautiful representation of how to view those we disagree with. We never cease the desire for true understanding, and never dismiss the person as trite or evil. 

So in these cases of impasse we can ask ourselves if it is worth to keep on engaging or not. If we are engaging just to maintain our pride, and there are minimal other implication, then it may not be worth it to maintain a potentially detrimental situation. However, there are instances when not turning our backs is necessary, though bastions of hostility may face us because of truths we hold. Russell M. Nelson gave a beautiful talk about tolerance and how it is a vital virtue to maintain, saying "Tolerance is the key that opens the door to mutual understanding and love.” [9] Nevertheless, he made some further clarifications about boundless tolerance, stating there are limits, and there are moments when we need to oppose what we see as evil. “Boundless mercy could oppose justice. So tolerance, without limit, could lead to spineless permissiveness.” Christ is the God of peace, but he is also the being that overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Peace does not necessarily mean passivity, and we cannot forget the first commandment of loving God in order to not offend others. One of the most difficult things in this existence is learning how to deal with other’s agency – when do we respect it and when do we step in because it crosses the line in regards to inflicting pain on others. There are many cases where I do not hesitate to condemn and act. For example, though some people might view systematic rape as a weapon of war against Burma’s ethnic minority women as justifiable, my belief system tells me that it is horrific and I will stand and fight to end it. There are many examples of such cases, when we must decry evil that exists in the world.

Systematic rape is a vivid example of evil, but there are so many other hazy boundaries around what is evil, because it comes back to the dilemma of deliberating who possesses truth in this world. At the present moment I see no concrete way to always be able to rectify the issue of opposing claims to truth. Charitable dialogue can create many alternative pathways of understanding, but it will not ensure that both parties always reach an accord. Consequently, if we are going to make the prodigious claim that something is evil and needs to be combated then we must be prepared to ensure that our actions are as charitable as can be – for the logic of upholding the first commandment does not give us an excuse to eradicate the second commandment to love others. Therefore, we separate the evil actions of the institution or mechanism away from the complete condemnation of individuals – throughout the entire process we must maintain the divinity of individuals. A key indicator in our process of engagement is how we view those we are engaged against. We are told to love our enemies, which requires a continual assessment of our own intentions as well as a frequent assessment of tactics. Why did we label the action as evil in the first place? Who told us that it is? Why do these actions exist? Why are we concerned about the activity? The questions always come back to how and when we fight. Going back to the example of non-violence, if we lose ourselves in battle, then there is no basis in a superficial righteous campaign. The two commandments of loving God and loving others do go hand in hand and are not contradictions. It is a tiring and intense process to maintain this outlook, but it is vital and will help us better understand the complexities of this world.

Furthermore, separating people from institutions will also help to create smarter, more effective campaigns. By furthering dehumanization of the enemy we only diminish truth and will not see the full spectrum of the situation. For example, I work to end the brutal military junta in Burma, but I recognize that the entire military is not an evil mass. They are people, with families and concerns just like anyone, and possess their own humanity. Recently, a group of soldiers were ordered to destroy Leh Kee village because the village allegedly supported one of the ethnic resistance groups, the KNLA. When the soldiers left after destroying the village they wrote a message on the wall of the burned school “We didn’t want to burn down your village, but we were ordered to. The soldiers [presumably meaning the KNLA] and us are brothers.” [10] This expression of humanity, even after acts of cruelty, gives me some degree of hope, that there are people in the military who see beyond indoctrination. I do not condone their actions of burning down villages, but by truly understanding the full situation I can create more strategic plans. I am not up against an impenetrable “they”, but against a faltering mechanism. It would only be detrimental to our cause if we treated everyone in the military as “our enemies.”

Even if through all our actions to engage the world with full charity we are still mocked, scorned, and cast aside in our attempts for true communication and understanding; and if in our most fervent and strategic actions to diminish evil we are still vanquished, then we must take faith in the infinite power of the Atonement. In John 15:17-18 Christ tells us “These things I command you, that ye love one another. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you.” However, if through all our best efforts we are still despised, we will always maintain our infinite divinity.

I think for the rest of my life I will be working to truly achieve the principles of charitable dialogue, to open myself to others while still maintaining my ground - to love and still fight for my beliefs. We may not win the debate, but if we stick to charity, and the belief that meekness, humility, and love are more powerful than physical or verbal might, then we will always win. This mortal existence is such a tiny speck in eternity and it is not worth winning a battle if we lose our souls.

The commandments to love God and love others are intrinsically connected- one cannot happen without the other, and it is incapable to achieve this without charity.

[1] Li Young Lee and Tod Marshall (2006) "Riding a Horse That’s a Little Too Wild for You (Interview, Fall 1996, Memphis, Tennessee) in Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li Young Lee, edited by Li Young Lee and Earl G. Ingersoll, Rochester, NY: BOA Editions , Ltd. [Back to manuscript]

[2] Quotation on a pamphlet from the Jung Center, Houston, Texas [Back to manuscript]

[3] Salecl, Renata, “Nationalism, Anti-Semitism and Antifeminism in Eastern Europe,” Journal of Area Studies 2, no.3 (1993): 78-90. [Back to manuscript]

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:4 [Back to manuscript]

[5] Avhraham Shapira (1999) Hope For our Time: Key Trends in the Thought of Martin Buber, Albany, NY: SUNY Press. [Back to manuscript]

[6] Aung San Suu Kyi (1996) “Freedom from Fear," (speech given upon award of the 1990 Sakharov Prize), in Freedom from Fear and Other Writings, edited by Michael Aris, New York: Penguin. [Back to manuscript]

[7] Walt Whitman (edition 2005) "Song of Myself," in Poetry X, edited by Jough Dempsey. 19 Jun 2003. Accessed 15 Dec. 2008. [Back to manuscript]

[8] Shapira, see note 5. [Back to manuscript]

[9] Russell M. Nelson (1994) “Teach Us Tolerance and Love,” Ensign, May [Back to manucript]

[10] Karen Human Rights Group Photo Gallery 2008 [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Young, Thelma (2008) "Enchanted: Pilgrimess' Progress," SquareTwo, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleYoungOtherSelf.html, accessed [give access date].

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 500 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 1 Comment

1) Richard Chun-Ling Chiu replies,

I am struck by the summarization of the anti-religious argument, "religion is dangerous, because as soon someone believes they have “truth” they no longer listen to others, that it creates hierarchy, and cease to really love." The proposed antidote of the irreligious is to cease to believe in truth, thus they have no need to listen to even their own consciences, give obedience to anything at all, or practice any concrete form of "love".

Charity is indeed the solution to the spiritual sickness of hatred. But though we can extend it, we have no power (and God declines) to force others to have it. More significantly, it is not our place to judge (though God will) whether anyone else has it.

To equate non-violence (a strictly negative concept) with charity is dangerously close to the worst kind of intolerance, implicitly claiming that all who do not ascribe to a given practice are lacking in the most critical of virtues. To consistently exercise non-violence is difficult, and any difficult task requires that we persuade ourselves that it is worthwhile. But if we allow ourselves to imagine that some task is the only way to practice virtue or follow God, we sow the seed of hatred in our own heart. If we are to hate sin, and yet love the sinner, we must act in a way that would appear to contradict the feelings of our heart.

I find the reference to "Rambo" particularly telling. The archtype so named began with a story about a man seeking only to find some place to rest from the horrors of war. Despite the violence that popularly characterizes (and tends to mar) the series, that basic desire to find peace remains the foundation of each of the movies (however ineptly executed). If lasting peace could always, or even ever, be obtained simply by refraining from battle, there would be no justification for anyone practicing the arts of war. But the truth is that non-violence is only ever effective because the vast majority of those who fight are motivated by an earnest desire for peace.

Relatively few wars end with total genocide. History has proven that the victors are usually content to have the enemy lay down their arms. Unfortunately, it has also demonstrated the exception, and non-violence has never and cannot even in theory be of any value in opposing an enemy that truly hates us.

Appropriately used, non-violence must always be accompanied by the unambiguous and sincere declaration of this principle. "We do not fight you, not because we believe fighting to be wicked, but because we believe that you do not truly wish to fight us." This declaration, whether implied by action or put into words, is what decides whether non-violence will be remembered as simply ineffectual resistance or remembered as an act of basic faith in peace. A non-violence arising from incompetence may stay the hand of one aggressor, even the most heartfelt plea will evoke nothing more than a sneer from another. Such is the way of every human endeavor, often success or failure is more a matter of the difficulty of the task than the efforts exerted.

But let every effort be the best that can be given.

Richard Chun-Ling Chiu.

March 2009