Coexist is not enough

A stair-step path to a better world. (Source: the author)
A stair-step path to a better world. (Source: the author)

Our holy books do not tell us to “tolerate the stranger.” They tell us to love them.

The Torah is clear about how we should deal with people who are different from us. “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”[1]

The Gospels reiterate the point. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Jesus tells his followers.[2]

The Quran makes sure that we are completely clear that they mean everyone: “to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess.”[3]

Yet our current cultural lingo says we should strive for “tolerance.” Everywhere, bumper stickers tell us to “coexist.”

“It is fair to say that the project of ‘tolerance’ has failed us. Being able to tolerate the presence of another is the very bottom of the barrel of ecumenism. No one wants to know that they are tolerated. We can do better. We can do better than tolerance. We can do better than mere coexistence.”[4]

The path away from hatred

We can describe the path to genocidal violence as a series of steps. Each step in the direction of prejudice makes the next step toward hatred just a little bit easier.[5] To prevent bias-motivated violence, we need to stop the walk at the first step, biased attitudes. We cannot wait until the violence starts.

But not walking in the direction of prejudice is not enough. We must consciously walk in the other direction, following a path toward mutual respect. The goal of this path is to reach the point where everyone is treated as an equal member of our community.

Tolerance and coexistence move us toward that goal, but they are a long way from making people feel like members of our community. Tolerance is closer to putting up with unwelcome visitors. Coexistence allows us live side by side without ever getting to know each other. We should not be satisfied with either.

The steps toward respect

I would like to propose a stair-step path towards enlightened respect. I know that I routinely fail to take all of these steps in my personal life, but they are my goal. By enumerating them, we give ourselves targets to which we can aspire.

1) Rejecting prejudice: At this step, we avoid insensitive remarks and stereotypes. We do not make jokes, and we reject biased ideas about groups of people. This is an important step, but we can do this without ever including people from these groups in our communities.

2) Tolerance: Tolerance is allowing groups of people into our communities without interference, but without necessarily accepting or approving of them. Unlike the previous step, tolerance requires us to include people in our communities. However, we can tolerate things we do not really like. We can tolerate people without accepting them for who they are.

3) Coexistence: Coexistence means live and let live. Coexisting with other people implies that we do not disapprove of them. This is a step up from tolerance, where we allowed people into our communities in spite of our disapproval. However, we can coexist with another group without ever getting to know them, or making them feel welcome.

4) Acceptance: Acceptance happens when we welcome groups of people as members of our community. When we accept people, we treat them as equals, without judgement. Unlike coexistence, acceptance requires us to interact with other groups. Acceptance means welcoming people from these groups into our communities as neighbors and friends.

5) Respect: Respect involves paying attention to the feelings, needs, and traditions of others. Unlike acceptance, where we can interact with people as a group, respect requires us to get to know people as individuals. Respect happens when we learn to see the world through each other’s eyes.

How we get there

How do we move beyond coexistence to acceptance and respect? We have to do more than let people live in our communities. We have to actively get to know them.

Interfaith events like the vigils that were held around the world in the shadow of Christchurch are a good start. People from many different groups came together at those vigils to express their solidarity. We shared our grief; we prayed together. We were a single, respectful community.

Sharing our celebrations is another good way for groups to get to know each other. In the aftermath of the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, two Jewish women created a program called 2 for Seder. If you are holding a Passover Seder this year, they suggest that you invite two friends or acquaintances who have never attended a Seder to join you. In this way, we can help the community to get to know us, and in the process, take steps on the path towards mutual respect.

Educational efforts that bring together people from disparate backgrounds are another great tool. This is why I teach the Holocaust in churches. Efforts like the Slave Dwelling Project, which brings together people to talk about difficult topics surrounding history and race, can have a substantial impact on community relations.

Coexisting is easy. All we have to do to “coexist” is let people be. Acceptance is harder: it requires us to try to understand and appreciate other people. Only when we rejoice in our differences, rather than simply tolerating them, can we build the kind of world we all want to live in.

[1] Leviticus 19:34

[2] Matthew 25:40

[3] An-Nisa 4:36, The last phrase refers to slaves. Although (fortunately) no longer directly applicable, this last injunction makes it clear that we have a responsibility to be good even to people who are far below us in status.

[4] Jake Clawson, Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church of Flower Mound, Solace after the Storm vigil, 22 March 2019.

[5] The ADL describes this as a Pyramid of Hate: See also my earlier blog: For resources for teaching about this and other related topics, see

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. You can sign up to hear about her new blogs at
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