From the trash can to the White House

August 26, 2011 in Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers, What is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s spiritual legacy and influence? by Chris Altrock

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial will be dedicated Sunday in Washington. It will be the first monument on the National Mall to honor a non-president.

What is Dr. King’s religious and spiritual legacy? How did his ministry influence your own?

When I think of Dr. King’s legacy, I think immediately of Herbert Parson.  Herbert and his wife Margaret attend the congregation where I preach.  He’s the only individual I personally know who has been in the White House at the invitation of the President.

At the end of last April, Herbert was pictured as one of eight African American men standing in the White House with President Barak Obama.[i]  President Obama told these men, “If it weren’t for you, I might not be President.”  The President was referring to the fact that he was the first African American President and that he owed these men a debt for making that possible.  The President then thanked these men for changing not just his life, but the life of America.

Who is Herbert?  Where are his colleagues?  They were part of the 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers whose 1968 strike, wrote U. S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, “inspire[ed] a movement to help end the era of Jim Crow and de facto segregation.”[ii]  Herbert was nineteen years old when he joined his coworkers’ protest against low pay, poor working conditions and safety issues.  In that time in Memphis, sanitation workers were treated like dogs.  According to Herbert, they were called “buzzards.”  They were the nobodies of the day.  But in February 1968, Herbert and others made a stand.  They marched in the streets.  They confronted City Hall.  And Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—Baptist minister, civil rights leader and winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize—joined them.[iii]  He led a protest in Memphis on March 28 with 5,000 people.  Herbert remembers meeting Dr. King and the inspiration King gave to him and his fellow workers.  The U.S. Secretary of Labor wrote that “The 63-day strike marked an important turning point in the fight for civil rights and workplace equality across America.”[iv]

Herbert and his coworkers had no power, no voice, and no great influence.  Yet inspired by Dr. King, they did what little they could.  And through them, a nation’s entire culture was changed.  These ordinary people would wind up in the White House with the President thanking them for their tremendous impact.

Herbert’s story reminds me that God does his greatest work through everyday people doing the little they can.  We might think that it’s only the Presidents and Governors and CEO’s and celebrities who get things done in this world.  It’s not.  It’s the children, the teenagers, the college student, the single man or woman, the mother of two, the father of four, the secretary, the janitor, the cashier, and the intern.  It’s the sanitation workers.  It’s the people with no names.  It’s the people with no power.  Those are the ones whom God uses to accomplish his purposes in the world.

There are many ways in which Dr. King was used during his life.  But to me, this was one of the most important ways.  He was used to help a group of nobodies change the country.  He made it possible for Herbert, a nineteen year old “buzzard,” to pave the way for the end of segregation.  He made possible Herbert’s long journey from the trash can to the White House.



Having mixed feelings is acceptable

May 5, 2011 in Osama bin Laden’s death, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Chris Altrock

How should Christians respond to the death of someone like Osama bin Laden?

Upon news from President Obama that Osama bin Laden had been killed by American forces, people responded with more 4,000 tweets per second speed, making this one of Twitter’s busiest usage periods in history. Many of these tweets and accompanying messages on other social networks quoted Scripture. Stephen Smith, who analyzes data on Scriptures quoted online, compiled a list of the most popular verses quoted in the twelve hours after bin Laden’s death. Here are the top ten:

Proverbs 24:17: “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.”
Psalm 138:8: “The LORD will make PERFECT the things that concern me”(KJV). (NIV: “The LORD will vindicate me; your love, LORD, endures forever—do not abandon the works of your hands.”)
Proverbs 21:15: “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.”
Ezekiel 33:11: “Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?”
Ezekiel 18:23: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”
Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
Proverbs 11:10: “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”
Proverbs 24:18: ” … or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them.”
Proverbs 24:1: “Do not envy the wicked, do not desire their company;”
Proverbs 28:5: Evildoers do not understand what is right, but those who seek the LORD understand it fully.”

It’s not hard to see the tension which Christians felt in the hours after bin Laden’s death. One the one hand some Christians quoted “when justice is done it brings joy to the righteous” and “when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy”. On the other hand, some quoted “Do not gloat when your enemy falls” and “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” On Monday morning the staff I serve with gathered to pray about bin Laden’s death and we struggled to know what to say. In our hearts, we felt the tension expressed in these contrasting Scriptures.

Which “side” is right—taking joy or taking no joy? John Piper, a popular author and preacher, argues that both are right. Writing in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death, Piper suggested that, “God approves and disapproves the death of Osama bin Laden… My suggestion is that the death and misery of the unrepentant is in and of itself not a pleasure to God…The death and suffering considered for itself alone is not his delight. Rather, when a rebellious, wicked, unbelieving person is judged, what God has pleasure in is the exaltation of truth and righteousness, and the vindication of his own honor and glory.”

There is thus a strange mixture of righteous joy and somber humility upon the death of someone like bin Laden.

New Testament scholar Timothy Dalrymple urged readers to consider the wrong things and the right things to celebrate:
“1. FIRST, Christians do not celebrate the loss of a soul. Osama bin Laden did not enter the world as a terrorist. He entered as a child of God…The story of the loss of his soul is tragic…

2. SECOND, I don’t think that Christians should celebrate Osama bin Laden’s death in itself…It is tragic that such a thing, in this case, was necessary…What, then, might be rightly celebrated about 5/2? 1. I think it is perfectly permissible to celebrate that justice was finally done…2. I also think it’s perfectly permissible to celebrate the consequences of Osama bin Laden’s death. The world was made safer… 3. Finally, I think it’s possible to celebrate that America has accomplished something difficult and complicated…”
Once again, there is this unlikely mixture of celebration and solemnity.

That is where I find myself, now days removed from the event. I am filled with remorse at the violence bin Laden caused and inspired others to cause. I am filled with soberness as I consider the many lives lost in pursuit of bin Laden and the way bin Laden lost himself and his own soul due to his wicked choices. But I am also filled with relief and gratitude that indeed, justice was done. I am thankful for those who gave or risked their lives to make our world safer. And I celebrate a God who is passionate about righteousness and justice.