The aftermath of the recent murderous attack on the Coptic cathedral in Cairo has a drearily familiar ring to it. First come the expressions of grief and rage; then come the condemnations; then the funerals and the mourning of a victimised and frightened community; then the calls for unity by the government, along with the promise that the security forces will do all in their power, etc, etc. But the fact remains, Egypt is a dangerous country for Christians, and it is not going to change in the foreseeable future.
People will no doubt wish to find reasons behind this latest attack. It is ominous that no one has claimed responsibility so far. The purpose may be in fact to destabilise the Egyptian state, to create an anarchy out of which some sinister Islamist dictatorship will arise. Of course one could argue that the real cause of all this is economic, and it is undoubtedly true that Egypt is a grim place to be poor, young, hopeless and unemployed, and such young men are drawn to terrorism. But the cause of terrorism is not simply economic, as there have been many poor societies where terrorism has not been a problem. Terrorism flourishes where its opposite, toleration, has withered.
It is really time to start preaching toleration again. Our problem in trying to do so is that we have lost sight of the true meaning of the word. Toleration means recognising the rights of others and is motivated by love for those others. We should see the people we tolerate as people like ourselves, people we fundamentally like, with whom we recognise a certain kinship. But the modern world advances a model of toleration which is fundamentally unattractive, based not on love, or community of feeling, but rather on difference. We are told we must tolerate people who are different to us, even if we do not like it, a toleration that springs not from love, but at best from indifference.
There is a deeper problem too: the first model of toleration is essentially Christian in its inspiration, or indeed Jewish. Moses makes it clear that we are not to harass the stranger who dwells in our midst (see Exodus 22:21; also Deuteronomy 10:19; also Leviticus 19:33). The parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that common humanity and charity should overcome any sectarianism derived from race or religion. The second model of toleration is perhaps inspired by the idea that rights are claimed, secured and fought for rather than recognised and granted out of kindness.
As for places where tolerance does not rule, such as in the Middle East, the tolerance that has fitfully emerged has been undermined by Islam’s historical insistence on the basic inequalities that God has supposedly laid down: between slave and free, between men and women, and between believers and unbelievers.
In the end – have I said this before? But perhaps it needs repeating – for toleration to emerge, for people to live in peace with each other, there need to be changes in what they believe. The problems of Egypt are not just economic – they are religious too.