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Of Blind Men and Elephants, part 1

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Deepa

Authored by Dia

Tolerance toward people is about respecting them and treating them decently and fairly regardless of their nationality, culture, race, religion, belief system, lifestyle, gender, or any other factor.

A few years ago I met a young Hare Krishna devotee who was evangelizing. I’ve often been curious about others’ beliefs, so I asked him to explain his to me. We met up a few times to discuss it, and although I didn’t end up agreeing with all of the Hare Krishna fundamental beliefs, I did become more aware and respectful of the commitment that people in that movement give to their beliefs, the sacrifices they are willing to make for a cause and purpose they believe in, and this in turn inspired me to be a more committed follower of Christ.

I’m not saying that I think everyone should (or even has the time) to become fully informed about what everybody else believes and practices. The point is that being willing to recognize and appreciate the strengths of another can enrich your own life.

As a child I owned a comic book of an Indian fable about six blind men and an elephant; some friends and I even performed it as a skit in costume with the appropriate accents. In the fable, six blind men stumble across an elephant, which none of them had encountered before. One blind man feels the elephant’s leg and says, “An elephant is like a tree.” Another grasped his tail and said, “No, no! An elephant is like a rope.” And the third man discovered the elephant’s side and says, “I’m telling you, an elephant is like a wall.” The fourth blind man, feeling the large ear, smiles and with a contented sigh says, “Ah, I am now aware that the elephant is like a leaf.” The fifth man, grabbing the smooth, sharp tusks, declared, “The elephant is definitely like a spear!” The sixth man, catching hold of the elephant’s squirming trunk, spoke with certainty, “You’re all wrong! An elephant is like a snake.”

It’s a very simple fable, but if you think about it in relation to tolerance, it gives some food for thought. When I personalize it, I am able to go into a situation, experience, or friendship and picture myself as one of the blind men, with my thoughts, feelings, opinions, and perception seeing only one part of the elephant, so to speak.

Take a few minutes to imagine yourself as a blind man encountering a metaphorical elephant in your life—it could be someone or some situation or some issue you’re currently facing. Consider that perhaps you’re only grasping a part of that something, and that there is a lot more to that person or situation or issue than meets your eye. Doing so is probably giving you a bit more perspective as you realize that what you see is not always the full picture.

The next time you’re in a situation that you feel you cannot tolerate, where you “just know” that you are right and it’s frustrating that others aren’t seeing things the same way—insert the mental picture of a blind man grasping an elephant’s trunk and exclaiming, “Snake!”

I’ve always found the New Testament story where Jesus is asked by the Pharisees to pass judgment on a woman caught being disloyal to her husband very moving. The Law of Moses declared that she should be stoned to death. If Jesus contradicted the Law of Moses He would not have appeared as a righteous rabbi to the crowd waiting to participate in the stoning. Jesus said to the indignant crowd, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”1 So straightforward, so beautiful.

Then He said to the woman who had committed adultery, “Do none condemn you? Then neither do I. Go and sin no more.”2

Only God is righteous, we should let Him be the only judge.

Jesus said: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”3

Self-righteousness and believing yourself to be better than others is often at the root of being judgmental. Tolerance can be found through accepting that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

I’d like to clarify, though, that tolerance is not acceptance of sin. John F. Kennedy, the 35th American President, said of tolerance, “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”

You can have a fair and objective attitude toward someone whose beliefs or practices differ from your own, without necessarily agreeing with those beliefs or practices. Tolerance is recognizing that people deserve to be treated with respect and decency regardless of whether we like them or not.

Here’s an excerpt from Peter Amsterdam’s writings, on having tolerance toward others:

Showing love and tolerance for people, and respecting the fact that they were created by God and have an inherent right to be treated with dignity doesn’t necessarily mean that you condone their actions or embrace their beliefs. For instance, I don’t believe that it’s right that countless lives are harmed through the drug trade. And yet, when interacting with people who are either caught up in a moral wrong or who don’t see their actions as wrong, we are called to treat them with respect as individuals who have been created in God’s image, and offer them salvation, hope, and God’s love.

At times you may feel called or convicted to speak up against wrong or evil. The key in doing so, however, is to bear in mind that, as Christians, we are first and foremost instructed to show Jesus’ love to others. Jesus repeatedly taught by His words and example to dispense mercy and forgiveness in judging people and situations. You may have the conviction that someone’s actions are not good or godly, but you are still called to love them. We all need to be faithful representatives of Jesus’ love when interacting with others in any situation, and consider how He would want us to respond.

While Jesus spoke against judgmental attitudes and conduct toward others, it’s clear that as individuals, we still have to “judge righteous judgment,”4 for ourselves as far as evaluating and discerning whether something is a good choice or a poor one for us, or whether something is morally right or not for us. Those decisions don’t always come our way clearly marked and straightforward. It’s natural to ponder the decisions others make or their actions or conduct and to attempt to categorize those decisions as right or wrong, a good choice or a poor choice. However, it’s not our place to judge others. At the end of this life, God will be the judge over all, and He’ll determine which decisions were right and which were wrong.

Not being judgmental doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t evaluate the rightness of things and measure things by the standard of God’s Word and build our convictions accordingly. For instance, if you see that something bad has a foothold in someone’s life, such as drug abuse, you’d probably want to talk to that person about it to help them to see how that action is harming them.

Many things are clearly right or wrong. For example, we know that it is wrong to intentionally hurt others, to cheat people, or to harm a child, etc. We have clear markers for our conduct and what God expects of us, and He’s also given us a conscience, which speaks to us when we do something that is wrong in some way. But there are times, when it comes to our view of others, where right or wrong is not so clearly delineated; the right or wrong choice is not so evident. We can make mistakes in our judgment of others and, of course, learn that it’s not always possible to place a simple “right” or “wrong” label on the decisions of others, or situations or events that occur.5

And that’s the end of the excerpt.

I have always been rather obsessed with fairness and equality. My parents and teachers would probably tell you that “It’s not fair!” was my favorite line. I was a ticking time bomb of judgmentalism, often seeing everything around me through a monochrome lens. But time, experience, mistakes, and failures have taught me to see in polychrome. I’m still very idealistic, but I’ve learned that God is the only judge; He knows the heart of each individual and He understands everything about each one in a way that we would never be able to. He doesn’t need our help to judge people, but He does need our help to show them He loves them. As the apostle Peter said, “Above all, love each other deeply.”6

In my next podcast, I’ll talk more specifically about having tolerance toward other cultures and those with an upbringing that is different than our own.


Footnotes
1 John 8:7 NIV.
2 John 8:10-11.
3 Matthew 7:1-5 NIV.
4 John 7:24.
5 Adapted from The Word of God: Judgmentalism, by Peter Amsterdam, August 2010.
6 1 Peter 4:8.

Read by Florence McNair. Music by sindustry(CC). (CC). Copyright © 2011 by The Family International


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