Coincidentally enough, these two words have popped up in two separate conversations in the last couple of weeks. And I’ve been thinking… which one is best? Which one applies to me? How do I feel about being on the receiving end of one versus the other?

First, let me recount the instances.

Example #1 was overheard at a large, well-known church in my area. Here it is:

Question:  So do you respect other belief systems?
Reply:  No, we tolerate them.

Example #2 was posted on a private message board last week, a board that only includes kids I grew up with in TheChurch. And here it is:

The tone I wish to convey is one of respect, not necessarily tolerance. I will not pretend that everyone has made the best choices, but I do recognize that each one of you has your own story, your own struggles and your need to be respected as a human being.

Interesting, isn’t it, that this verbal dichotomy was presented from two opposing (completely unrelated) perspectives just in the course of the last two weeks.

Now I must be honest. My initial reaction to both of these statements was identical… that is, I found them equally offensive. The actual words used were opposite — one claimed “tolerance, not respect” while the other claimed “respect, not tolerance.” However, the tone & implication feels the same to me. A lack of acceptance with a dash of judgment seems to be present in both statements.

So my inner almost-English major felt compelled to study the actual meanings of these words:

re·spect –verb To hold in esteem or honor; to show regard or consideration for; to refrain from intruding upon or interfering with

tol·er·ate –verb To allow the existence, presence, practice, or act of without prohibition or hindrance; permit; to endure without repugnance; put up with

I’m reading these definitions, and I’m thinking that “respect” appears to be the clear choice. I would rather my views and beliefs be respected by others, rather than tolerated. You can have tolerance without respect (as is evidenced in Example #1)… but can you have respect without tolerance (Example #2)? I suppose that the writer of Ex. #2 could “refrain from interfering with” the choices that others have made, but not without repugnance.

It’s disturbing to me, I guess. I want to respect others. I want to be tolerant of others. But I don’t want to patronize or have an attitude of “permission” toward others. What right do I have to give others permission to believe as they wish? None at all. I want to be able to recognize differences without adopting an “us versus them” mentality. I grew up in an environment that was ruled by this mentality, and it’s incredibly polarizing, lonely, & even frightening to realize as a child that your friends & classmates are the “them” that you hear about at church.

This entire thought feels very incomplete. I’m just rambling. Not sure I’ve made a point, or if I even had one in the first place…