Luther College is a campus of tolerance, and I do not mean it as a compliment. In fact, I mean "tolerance" in the most literal sense of the word: "the ability to tolerate the existence of opinion or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with." You'll have to pardon my elementary Google search—I'll admit it's a reductive analysis of "tolerance" and its history. But I am prompted to ask, when did "putting up" with difference, and existence, become something to be proud of?
Each day at Luther College is a flurry of "how are you's," and distance doorholding is our favorite sport. But how often do we ask one another "how are you?" and actually care about the answer? How often do we hold the door open for a stranger only to avoid eye contact with them?
I have worked with incoming international students during their orientation week for two years. Each year, we do a brief lecture on "American culture." More often than not, it turns into a conversation on Midwestern culture, and even more narrowly, Luther College culture. And each year, one of the most complicated things to explain is why Luther students say "how are you?" and not actually want to know the answer, or, why, when someone asks to "catch up sometime," they rarely follow through.
Of course, there are significant cultural differences that make this confusing. Yet, being a Luther student for three years, the persistent culture of indifferent friendliness can make for a lonely four years for some students. And in light the recent "bias incidents" on our campus, it seems many of us are only just beginning to realize that our sanctitorial bubble can be popped while we look the other way when certain communities, within our larger community, have their livelihoods attacked.
The presence of tolerance does not mean the absence of oppression. In my varied experiences, Luther students are good, passionate and tolerant individuals. Yet, when acts of racist slander occur on campus and in the greater world, it can be all too easy to slip into the comfortable childhood bed of willful ignorance, where you don't have to address the realities of the world, of the systemic injustices that plague certain communities and identities, because it doesn't affect the comfort of your everyday life.
However, the campus-wide sit-in on Friday, April 27th, gives me hope. Over 600 students, staff and faculty came to support and stand in solidarity with those in our community who are hurting, and to hold our administration accountable for inaction. This much needed day of healing and collective activism showed that we, the Luther community, have great potential to use our voices and positions of power for the greater good. I only ask—what will we do next?
Tolerance is the first step, a bare minimum requirement, in crafting a pluralist society. By pluralist, and pluralism, I mean possessing an enthusiasm for dialogue and understanding of difference that seeks to entwine the beauty of diversity into the fabric of a society. For example: in Rochester, Minnesota, a city with a high population of Somali-Muslim immigrants, this year's April 3rd "Punish a Muslim Day" was nerve-wracking for local residents. But I saw "tolerance," or more aptly, "pluralism," when several Rochester church leaders took shifts posting outside a local mosque during the day's five prayers. Likewise, I am reminded of 2013 events in Egypt, when, after a series of church-bombings, 20 Muslim men held hands and created a line of defense outside a Catholic church as its parishioners attended mass. These simple acts go beyond tolerance—they are pluralism—an indisputable encouragement of existence and solidarity with suffering communities.
In George Eliot's classic English novel, "Middlemarch," heroine Dorothea Brooke is a young woman who desires nothing else but to find meaning through societal transformation. In the end of the novel, she is married and happy, but somewhat unsatisfied in her contributions to society during her lifetime. In the last paragraph of the novel, Dorothea reflects:
...the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Chances are, most of us won't go down in the Luther College historical records, and even fewer of us in future United States history textbooks. It is the same with the pastors in Rochester and the Muslim men in Egypt. Despite our contributions to the world, we will live hidden lives, and one day, rest in unvisited tombs until the end of time. But the little, seemingly minute actions and words we put into our dizzying world are ultimately as important as discovering the atom or inventing sliced bread. Something that seems as simple as helping your neighbor pray in safety can create a ripple effect of goodness that persists through time and place.
Grassroot kindness and pluralism have kept the world turning thus far, and continuing to seek this intentional pluralism is how we move forward, and how hope triumphs over hate. We must not just "tolerate" people's existences; we must encourage them to exist, help them to exist and be in solidarity with their existence. Tolerance means intertwining with pluralism at the expense of our own comforts and privileges.
Luther College can do better than tolerance. We have work to do beyond the "how are you's" and doorholding we hold up as the epitome of politeness. Encourage and support the existence of your fellow community members by continuing to educate yourself, showing up and not shying away from uncomfortable conversations. Each small piece of goodness and pluralism you put into the Luther community will be what helps us achieve large scale institutional change, as well as a campus climate where our students don't just feel safe, but feel they are a valued, integral part of this beloved community.