Bonds behind the fiscal cliff

December 10, 2012 in Featured Question of the Week, Fiscal Cliff: Political or moral?, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Chris Altrock

We are not just facing a crisis of resources.  We are facing a crisis of relationship.

The cliff we are nearing is not just a commentary on cash.  It’s a commentary on collaboration.

The question is no longer “Can we solve our budget problems?”  There are reasonable solutions available which strive to balance stewardship and compassion.  The question is now “Can we work together to solve the budget problems?”

The fiscal cliff debate has shed a bright light on our slowness to team up and quickness to split up.  It’s revealed our sad tendency to grandstand rather than join hands.  Some on both sides of the aisle seem more interested in making a point than in forging a partnership.

Perhaps what we need is a song.  A song sung by the people of God as they traveled to/from Jerusalem for the great feasts of the faith.  One of their favorites went like this: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Ps. 133:1 ESV)  They celebrated not only the journey.  They celebrated the partnerships made along the journey.  This song and their solidarity were so important that they sung about it throughout the year.

I guess that’s what I’d like to see a little more of—from all sides.  A sense that we’re in this together.  A realization that our bonds are stronger than our budgets.  Evidence that what unites us is greater than what divides us.

What I’d like to see is what God made us to do—work together, in spite of our differences, for a cause greater than any of us and for the good of all of us.

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The tools to become world citizens

March 25, 2011 in Featured Question of the Week, Question of the Week, When teaching public school students about religion, what is appropriate and what is not? by Chris Altrock

Should the Bible be taught in our public schools? Should our schools also teach students about the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Vedas and other sacred texts? When it comes to teaching public school students about religion, what is appropriate and what is not?

I grew up in a town where the majority of people actively attended a Christian church, had been born and raised in the same state, and had incomes and skin color that matched mine. That, however, is not the world in which my children are growing up. They’ve had neighborhood friends who attend mosques, have family members who participate in synagogues, know individuals who rarely attend any Christian gathering, have peers who come from countries as far away as Egypt, and rub shoulders with families whose incomes and skin colors are very different from their own.

My children are experiencing the growing diversity of American culture like few generations before them. And this calls for a very different set of tools than the ones I was given as a youth.  In his book Religious Literacy chair of the department at Boston University Stephen Prothero argues that it is critical today for Americans to know more about the religious ideologies (including that of Christianity) than they currently do.  He reveals that while we are historically a religious nation, we are currently a religiously illiterate nation.  For example, he points out that only half of American adults can name one of the four Gospels, 10 percent of Americans believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, and very few know much at all about non Christian religions.  So what?  Prothero argues that religious illiteracy is dangerous because religion is one of the greatest forces for good–as well as evil–in the world.  Most, if not all, conflicts in the Middle East have deep religious roots.  Many, if not most, of the political, social, and economic ties the U. S. has with other nations are influenced by religious ideologies in those nations.  Simply put, to be a productive and fruitful citizen of the world today requires a certain level of knowledge of the religions which influence those with whom we interact.  Prothero argues that each U.S. high school should offer a class on world religions and a class on Christianity to help prepare students for a religiously diverse world.

While we might consider Prothero’s recommendation, it is also important that we not confuse the presentation of religion ideologies with the affirmation and commendation of those theologies.  Daniel Clendenin writes about three types of tolerance: legal, social, and intellectual.  Legal tolerance refers to the idea that all people should be legally protected.  No one should be discriminated against.  It doesn’t matter what a person believes.  Legal tolerance says, “Represent and protect all people.”   Social tolerance refers to the idea that all people should be socially accepted and respected.  It doesn’t matter what a person believes.  Social tolerance says, “Love and respect all people.”  Intellectual tolerance refers to the idea that all beliefs should be accepted.  “Accept and affirm all beliefs.”

Religious education could target Clendenin’s first two types of tolerance: legal and social.  In order to help American students become world citizens capable of promoting legal tolerance and social tolerance in an increasingly diverse world, exposure to and understanding of various religions could be helpful.  This education, however, need not target intellectual tolerance.  World citizens can represent and protect all people and love and respect all people without also being pressured to accept and affirm the truth of all beliefs.

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A Better Way

March 11, 2011 in Are you concerned about legislative efforts to question or restrict Islamic practices?, Question of the Week by Chris Altrock

When I think about the posture we Christians take towards Muslims, I think immediately of Monte.  Monte’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchild recently moved to a country where, as Christians, they are in the very small minority.  Muslims are the very large majority.  This young trio relocated there to serve the citizens of that country and to be a blessing to them.  Monte says “When I hear Christians using inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric regarding Islam, I tell them, ‘My grandchild and her parents live in a country surrounded by Muslims.  Before you say another disparaging word, would you please think about them?’ ” 

Monte’s point is that there’s a better way. He’s a dean of a Christian University, so he likes to think in categories from Scripture. Monte says, “Think of how the Christian God responded when faced with a world of people whose lifestyles, beliefs, and customs were not exactly his own. In essence, God said, ‘I want to be with you.’ That’s what the incarnation of Christ was all about. It was God moving near. It was God saying, ‘I want to be with you.’ And then God said, ‘I will lay down my life for you.’ That’s what the crucifixion of Jesus was all about. It was God sacrificing himself for others.” 

While we were together at a recent retreat, Monte said to me, “I wonder what would happen to Christian-Muslim relations if those two messages were the ones Muslims heard from Christians? What if the way Christians responded to Muslims communicated something like ‘I want to be with you. I’m not going to isolate myself from you. I want to do life with you.’ And what if the way Christians responded to Muslims communicated something like ‘I will lay down my life for you.  I’m here to serve you even if it costs all I have.’ ” 

That was God’s way. It was a way which said “I want to be with you.  I want to lay down my life for you.” Perhaps it should be our way.

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Let their voice be heard

March 4, 2011 in Featured Question of the Week, How should our faith inform our vote on school issue?, Question of the Week by Chris Altrock

Memphis city voters will go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to transfer administration of the Memphis City School System to the Shelby County School System. What are the ethical and moral considerations here? How should our faith inform our vote?

One of my deepest regrets stems from a time when I failed to speak up.

Russell and I were sophomores in high school.  For some reason, Russell was hated by a fellow student named Kevin.  One day in the locker room Kevin asked a group of us to create a human wall to shield him from the view of the coaches.  We obeyed.  Kevin then got Russell behind that wall and punched him in the mouth.  I had every chance to stop it before it started.  I could have stood up for Russell.  I could have spoken up for him.  But I didn’t.

I still regret it.

That failure is at the heart of what the Christian faith seeks to resolve.  Christianity presents, above all, a God who does stand up—a God who speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves.  Widows.  Orphans.  The blind.  The lame.  The poor.  Again and again the God of Scripture speaks up for those whose voices have been quieted or silenced by discouraging circumstances or dangerous powers.

Our response, according to Scripture, is to follow suit.  In the words of a wise and ancient King, we are to “speak up for the people who have no voice” (Prov. 31:8 The Message).  The God who spoke up for us when our voice could not be heard now asks us to do the same for others.  At its core, the Christian ethic is about acting on behalf of those who may not be able to act on behalf of themselves.

There are 105,000 students in Memphis City Schools.

Not one of them is permitted to vote this Tuesday.

There are 48,000 students in Shelby County Schools.

Not one of them is allowed to vote this Tuesday.

There are over 400,000 registered voters in the city of Memphis.  Theirs is the only voice that will be heard.

Perhaps you are one of them.  How might the Christian faith inform your vote?  In broadest terms, it challenges you to do this: speak up.  Not for yourself.  Not for your church, synagogue, temple or mosque.  Not for your friends or family.  Not for a politician or administrator.  Not even for your city.  Speak up for the children of Memphis and Shelby County.  Whatever your decision in the voting booth, let it reflect what you believe is best for the children of this great city and this wonderful county.

This Tuesday, don’t let your voice be heard.  Let their voice be heard.

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Love has a prayer in Memphis

February 25, 2011 in Question of the Week, What do you want to say to the community about the subject of race? by Chris Altrock

As a religious leader in Memphis, what do you want to say to the community about the subject of race?

In his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam writes about two kinds of relationships: bonding and bridging.[i] Bonding refers to relationships built between people who are similar to each other.  Bridging refers to relationships built between people who are dissimilar to one another.  Putnam argues that both bonding and bridging are necessary for a healthy society.

For many of us, bonding comes easily.  Bridging, however, does not: “The problem is that bridging social capital is harder to create than bonding social capital—after all, birds of a feather flock together.  So the kind of social capital that is most essential for healthy public life in an increasingly diverse society like ours is precisely the kind that is hardest to build.”[ii] The kind of relationship essential for vigorous public life is precisely the kind hardest to build.  Bridging is what we seem to fail at most quickly.  That’s partly why our public and private schools, neighborhoods and congregations remain segregated and why racial tension remains prevalent in places like Memphis.  We can bond.  But we can’t seem to bridge.

The solution, according to authors Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren is a “contrast society.”[iii] A contrast society is a community which gives the watching world a vision for something different.  If people experience racism, intolerance, and division in the world, the contrast society offers acceptance, tolerance, and unity.  If bridging is rare in the world, in the contrast society it’s common.  And like leaven in yeast, the tiny contrast community begins to affect the larger society.

What Memphis needs more of are these contrast communities.

But how do we build them?  What gives life to them?

As unexciting and “unproductive” as it may sound, they begin with prayer.  Facing the hour of his death at the hands of an intolerant and hate-filled world, Jesus prays for the birth of a contrast society: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (Jn. 17:20-23 ESV emphasis added)

Jesus says there’s one thing that’ll convince a watching world that God exists—a community in which people experience the kind of intimacy with each other that the Son experiences with the Father.  In a world characterized by bigotry and prejudice, the existence of a community where acceptance and charity reign is the ultimate apologetic.  Why?  Because only God could bring such a society about.

Thus, Jesus prays.  He prays for what seems humanly impossible but what remains divinely possible.  He prays against the qualities that dominate far too many hearts across the globe.  He begs for the creation of a society where bonding and bridging flow like the mighty Mississippi.

It begins in prayer.

Marc Cohn reminded us this when he sang, “Walking in Memphis.”  At one point Cohn remarked, “They’ve got catfish on the table/ They’ve got gospel in the air/ And Reverend Green be glad to see you/ When you haven’t got a prayer.”  The image of someone who is glad to see you when you haven’t got a prayer.  That’s a contrast community.  Cohn imagined Memphis as a contrast community.  And he ended with this line: “But boy you’ve got a prayer in Memphis.”

At times, especially in Memphis, it can seem like unity and love don’t have a prayer.  But they do.  Boy do they have a prayer!  They’ve got the prayers of Jesus.

But let’s not let it stop there.  Let’s give them our prayers as well.  Let’s pray for Memphis to be peppered with little groups and gatherings in which bonding and bridging are as common as breathing and eating.

And while we’re at it, let’s also ask that we might become the answer to those prayers.  It only takes two to make a contrast community.  Let’s pray for it to begin with us


[i] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (Touchstone Books, 2001), 22-23.

[ii] Robert Putnam, Lewis Feldstein and Donald J. Cohen, Better Together (Simon & Schuster, 2004), 3.

[iii] Alan Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren , Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (Allelon Missional Series) (Baker Books, 2009).

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