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.



TV world vs. real world

May 27, 2011 in Question of the Week, What are your thoughts on the 'Don't say gay' bill? by Chris Altrock

Last week, the Tennessee Senate passed a bill that would forbid public school teachers and students in grades K-8 from discussing the fact that some people are gay.

What’s your reaction? How should our schools public and private deal with the subject of human sexuality, and in particular homosexuality?

I watch the television show Glee with my wife and my teenage daughter.  Being members of a religious tradition with an emphasis on congregational singing, and having a daughter who sings in a middle school chorus, we love the musical performances on Glee.  We also appreciate the show’s attempts to deal with social issues—including the bullying encountered by high school students on the show who are homosexual. 

I believe homosexuality is contrary to the life God created us to live.  But I want my daughter to know that bullying is never appropriate, no matter the beliefs or lifestyle of the victim.  I want my congregation to love and respect all people.  I want our congregation to be a place where all who genuinely wish to seek God and his way are welcome to do so.  The same Bible that speaks against a homosexual lifestyle also speaks against the oppression of any other human being and indicates that Jesus befriended the outcasts of his society.

But one thing has become increasingly troubling—Glee’s ceaseless push to show that the homosexual lifestyle is normative and healthy.  Several main characters are homosexual or bisexual, and many of episodes this year have focused on casting these lifestyles in a positive and appealing light.  This is one of the many areas in which TV world is contrary to real world. 

For example, according to a recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 1.4 percent of the American population identifies themselves as having same-sex attraction.  Well over 80 percent of those who may have experimented with gay relationships at some point explicitly renounce homosexual self-identification by age 35.  The TV-world of Glee simply does not exist in the real world.  Homosexuality has a large presence on the screen but a small presence in real life.

The large presence of homosexuality on the screen means that schools cannot ignore the issue.  At least by middle school, many public (and private) students are aware of individuals who are not heterosexual.  Given its large prevalence in TV world, schools can hardly ignore homosexuality (this makes the Tennessee legislature’s mandate that schools must not discuss homosexuality seem somewhat unrealistic).  But the small presence of homosexuality in the real world ought to inform how schools address the issue. 

Schools should not be expected to discuss homosexuality in a way that makes it normative.  One can hardly call a lifestyle lived by 1.4 percent of the population normative.  Neither should schools be expected to discuss homosexuality in ways that present it as a healthy alternative. A twenty-something man recently met with our staff.  He said, “You know the campaign which tells young homosexuals, ‘It gets better’?  I can tell you from personal experience that it doesn’t. The homosexual lifestyle leads to all kinds of choices and behaviors that make life a mess.” 

If there is something that our public and private schools could teach when it comes to homosexuality, it revolves around issues of social and legal tolerance.  It is appropriate for our schools to advocate respect for and right treatment of all people, including homosexuals.  But our schools have no place dabbling in the area of intellectual tolerance—suggesting that homosexuality is normative or healthy.


Loving each other despite differing beliefs

April 7, 2011 in How can we live responsibly as devout and faithful adherents of one religion in a world (or community) of many religions?, Question of the Week, Spotlight Answers by Chris Altrock

How can we live responsibly as devout and faithful adherents of one religion in a world (or community) of many religions?

The recent burning of a Quran by a Florida preacher (and its deadly consequences) reveals just how urgent this question has become. At its core, the question is one of tolerance. How should people of different faiths tolerate one another? I’ve found it helpful to think of tolerance as having three levels. I briefly shared these in an earlier post on whether the Bible should be taught in public schools. Here, I develop them in much more detail.

First, people of different faiths may consider practicing legal tolerance towards one another. Legal tolerance refers to the idea that all people should be legally protected and that no one should be discriminated against, regardless of their religious beliefs. Legal tolerance seeks the legal security of the basic rights of all people. It says, “Represent and protect all people.”

Legal tolerance appears to be consistent with the Christian faith. Christians can support the legal toleration of various faiths. We can work towards guaranteeing the freedom of each person to pursue his or her religious beliefs and practices.

Legal tolerance is an echo of the biblical call for “justice” and the protection of people whose rights are typically ignored. For instance, the prophet Isaiah asks us to “Maintain justice and do what is right.” (Is. 56:1) Paul calls Christians to support the government in its attempt to punish injustice (Rom. 13:4). One of the great summaries of the biblical faith is, “To act justly and to love mercy.” (Mic. 6:8) Proverbs calls us to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” (Prov. 31:8-9) This call for the protection of the abused is closely related to the idea of legal tolerance. Part of living responsibly in a multi-faith world means working for legal tolerance.

Second, people of different faiths may consider practicing social tolerance towards one another. Social tolerance refers to the idea that all people should be socially accepted and respected, regardless of what they believe. It leads us to treat others with dignity and respect. Social tolerance says, “Love and respect all people.”

Social tolerance can express itself in genuine dialogue between those of different faiths. Two individuals could establish a beginning level of dialogue (known as discursive dialogue) simply to better understand each other’s faiths. The dialogue could move deeper so that the individuals come to love and accept each other as fellow humans (known as human dialogue). Eventually, this dialogue could deepen to the point that members of different religious faiths unite to address common ills in society such as poverty (sometimes known as secular dialogue). These kinds of dialogue are forms of social tolerance.

If legal tolerance is consistent with the Christian faith, social tolerance is demanded by it. For Christians, social tolerance grows from the conviction that all people, even those of other faiths, are made in God’s image and thus have inherent worth. Jesus urges us his followers to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44) (The point is not that people of other faiths are enemies to be loved and prayed for. The point is that Christians are called to love and pray for all people.) Similarly, Peter urges Christians to “Show proper respect to everyone.” (1 Pet. 2:17) Part of living responsibly in a multi-faith world is practicing social tolerance.

A third type of tolerance is intellectual tolerance. Whereas legal tolerance calls us to legally protect all people regardless of what they believe, and social tolerance calls us to socially accept all people regardless of what they believe, intellectual tolerance calls us to affirm the truth of all beliefs. Intellectual tolerance refers to the idea that all beliefs are equally true. Intellectual tolerance says, “Accept and affirm all people’s beliefs.”

This type of tolerance is inconsistent with the Christian faith. It is one thing for a Christian to recognize that someone has a right to hold a certain spiritual belief. It is an entirely different matter for the Christian to be asked to affirm that this person’s belief is true. Christians can consider a person’s beliefs to be in error and yet still treat that person with dignity and worth.

Living responsibly in a multi-faith world does not necessitate intellectual tolerance. In fact, we show the greatest respect and honor to one another when we recognize our genuine differences rather than trying to smooth them over. The fact is that each major faith has beliefs which are not consistent with other the other faiths. Living responsibly in a multi-faith world means acknowledging those differences, not pretending they do not exist, and loving one another and working together in spite of those differences