(RNS) In one of his last official acts, President Obama has designated Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other civil rights landmarks in Birmingham, Ala., as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
The designation protects the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in that city, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had their 1963 campaign headquarters, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, where police turned hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters.
And it includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls died in 1963 after Ku Klux Klan members detonated more than a dozen sticks of dynamite outside the church basement.
“This national monument will fortify Birmingham’s place in American history and will speak volumes to the place of African-Americans in history,” said the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the church, in a statement.
Obama’s proclamation also cites the role of Bethel Baptist Church, headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and St. Paul United Methodist Church, from which protesters marched before being stopped by police dogs.
In his proclamation Thursday (Jan. 12), Obama said the various sites “all stand as a testament to the heroism of those who worked so hard to advance the cause of freedom.”
In other acts, all timed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be observed on Monday, the president designated the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in coastal South Carolina.
He cited the role of congregations in all three areas — from sheltering civil rights activists at Bethel Baptist Church to hosting mass meetings at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., to providing a school for former slaves at the Brick Baptist Church in St. Helena Island, S.C.
The designations instruct the National Park Service to manage the sites and consider them for visitor services and historic preservation.
“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Well, this year we vote. At some point, perhaps in the early morning hours of the day after the election, perhaps not for several days, we will find out who has been selected by our Electoral College system to serve as President for the next four years. I expect that the winner will not fulfill all the promises they have made. Nor will their presidency be as apocalyptic as the prophets of doom have predicted. Both of these candidates have virtues that are worthy of our admiration, and weaknesses that merit our concern. Nonetheless, based on the deluge of Facebook posts by my friends, I expect that while somewhere around a third of you will be ecstatic over the result, another third will be bitterly disappointed.
But this post isn’t really about who is President for the next four years. We’ll all survive that. This post is about our friends, our neighbors, the stranger we see on the street, the person driving in front of you whose bumper sticker you disagree with. It’s about all of us. For no matter who wins this election, the last election, the next election — most of us will still be here. There is an old saying that we get the government we deserve. And frankly, based on the vitriol and animosity I have seen in social media surrounding this year’s presidential campaign, we don’t deserve much.
The Facebooking of Politics
I have heard friends accuse friends of being bigots and racists because of who they are voting for. I have seen friends accuse friends of being “uninformed, misinformed, communists or opposed to this country’s values” if we vote for specific candidates. I have seen friends accuse friends of being haters, homophobes, misogynists, etc., if they vote for others. I have seen friends “unfriend” friends. Frankly, I’ve been tempted to unfriend some folks myself, although I have resisted the urge. I don’t know if we are reflecting the polarization of Washington, or if the Beltway reflects the hatred and spite of the American citizenry.
Here’s what I rarely, if ever, observed: People truly listening. People asking questions of people who view the world differently than them. People seeking to understand.
To paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, it’s not that we have tried to engage in gracious, thoughtful political dialogue and found it wanting — it’s that we have found it difficult and not tried. We have told people what they think rather than asking them. We have refused to believe their reasons, choosing to trust our own stereotypes. We haven’t listened to their stories — we’ve made them shallow caricatures in a story of our own creation.
I expect I have noticed this acutely the past several years during the 2008 and 2012 elections, because those were the first elections when so many of us were on Facebook in a presidential election year. But of course, politics, not to mention religion, has been a taboo topic of discussion for years, long before the Internet. It is tragic that those two disciplines that capture the depths of human values and meaning — religion and politics — are considered off-limits for many of our conversations. I expect much of this revolves around our need to be right, and our fear of people who see the world differently.
I’ve given this a lot of thought, as a friend of mine has continually jabbed at supporters of the other candidate, goading them to respond to some of the more troublesome aspects of their candidate’s platform. Always done in a shaming, blaming way. Not surprisingly, no one took my friend up on the offer to explain.
But let me make a few friendly suggestions about how we might do this better four years from now.
The Wisdom of Listening
First, ask questions. And listen. Really listen. Don’t just wait for the person you disagree with to take a breath so you can shoot down their position. Listen seeking to understand. Assume that they are a person of good faith rather than an evil, bigoted hater. Don’t tell them why they’re wrong. Try to understand why they view the world the way they do. Affirm aspects of their values and perspectives that you can respect and admire, even if you might view things differently. Make it safe for them to share their deepest hopes and fears with you. In the Old Testament, Proverbs 18:13 says, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (ESV). Are we practicing the wisdom of listening?
You will find that when you have asked questions, listened actively seeking to understand, and affirmed common ground, that you will develop trust. You will also have created a space where they may ask you questions and give you the same respect that you have shown them. They may even be willing to express respect for some of your values and vision.
Confession Is Good for the Soul
Then, admit to them the concerns you have about your own candidate/party, acknowledging that candidates, like the rest of humanity, have their weaknesses as well as their strengths. Then, and only then, might they feel safe enough to address the weaknesses in their candidate/party that trouble you. Few of us embrace the entire platform of the candidate we vote for. You may not change your friend’s vote. But you will have deepened a friendship. And opened a mind. You cannot wait for them to take the first step; you have to do it.
And whoever wins this election, be open to the possibility that some of their policies, all of which have been informed by advisors and embraced by close to half the population, might actually succeed. Hope and pray for the success of the candidate, even if you’re skeptical. Be more concerned about the good of the country than the success or failure of political parties.
When we remain open to the virtues and vision of our elected officials’ leadership, they may be more willing to listen to our legitimate concerns about those who might get left behind by their policies.
And maybe, just maybe, this sort of political engagement will catch on.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, speaks to students during the National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Awards Public Forum at Temple Deliverance. (Photo: Mike Brown/Newscom)
Last week, I was excited to read the Washington Post article stating that Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers, was going to deliver the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration later this month. This was a historic announcement, since Evers would be the first female who wasn’t a clergy member to deliver what has been deemed “America’s most prominent prayer.” Add to that the fact that she’s a black woman and you can sense the pride I felt reading those words. In a month that marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, to deem this a special occasion wouldn’t do it justice. Not to mention that this is just the second time that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has fallen on Inauguration Day. Later this year we’ll also mark the 50th anniversary of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In a matter of weeks, an African American man will be sworn in for a second term as the president of the United States. For me, there’s a sense of divine providence in the events leading up to this day. Ms. Evers will stand atop the same steps on which King stood to decry our nation’s treatment of African Americans in this country.
Today, I received some disheartening news. Louie Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta,
was removed withdrew as a participant in Obama’s inauguration program. According to an inaugural planner, he withdrew over remarks about homosexuality he made in a sermon he preached in the mid-’90s. The sermon was titled “In Search of a Standard—A Christian Response to Homosexuality.” Man, it must have taken a Herculean Google effort to find that one. But that’s how the public vets people nowadays. Google searches produce “little nuggets” about people that others may use against them. President Obama didn’t have to Google Pastor Giglio, though: He had become aware of Giglio’s work combating human trafficking last year after students at the annual Passion Conference in Atlanta raised millions of dollars for the cause. This year the campaign raised over $3.3 million dollars.
In the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I attended Giglio’s church for over a year when we lived in Atlanta. We loved it. Giglio was genuine, Christ-centered in his preaching, and humble. Today, he’s been called everything from an unrepentant bigot to a pastor on the outlier of mainstream religious thinking (which might not actually be a bad thing). My dream of seeing a representative of the Civil Rights Movement share the platform with someone who genuinely cares and is doing something about modern-day slavery was crushed today. With more people enslaved today (approximately 27 million) than any other time in human history, this monumental occasion could have had a significant, visceral impact for African Americans. Most of these modern-day slaves are “people of color.”
Instead, we revisit an issue that cropped up in 2009 when Rick Warren was selected to give the benediction—a similar outcry that yielded different results. The difference? The President hadn’t expressed his evolving view on homosexuality at that time. But is this really a civil rights issue? I need not go into the matter of civil rights. I think Voddie Baucham does a pretty good job of addressing the issue here. Dr. Russell Moore suggests that what we may have is a de facto establishment of a state church.
As Moore points out:
The problem is not that [Giglio] wants to exclude homosexuals or others from the public square or of their civil rights. The problem is that he won’t say that they can go to heaven without repentance. That’s not a civil issue, but a religious test of orthodoxy.
The truth is that politicizing prayer is the first essential step to creating a state religion. We’re starting to enter the politically correct season of public prayer. So what’s the new standard? What’s the prerequisite when vetting someone to pray for our nation? Offending no one? We know from Scripture that’s impossible. Someone will always be offended. In fact, held to this standard, Jesus Himself would have been disqualified. Were that the benchmark, we’d have an empty podium on January 21st.
Giglio released this statement today:
I am honored to be invited by the President to give the benediction at the upcoming inaugural on January 21. Though the President and I do not agree on every issue, we have fashioned a friendship around common goals and ideals, most notably, ending slavery in all its forms.
Due to a message of mine that has surfaced from 15-20 years ago, it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration. Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years. Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ.
Neither I, nor our team, feel it best serves the core message and goals we are seeking to accomplish to be in a fight on an issue not of our choosing, thus I respectfully withdraw my acceptance of the President’s invitation. I will continue to pray regularly for the President, and urge the nation to do so. I will most certainly pray for him on Inauguration Day.
Our nation is deeply divided and hurting, and more than ever need God’s grace and mercy in our time of need.
My greatest desire is that we not be distracted from the things we are focused on…seeing people in our city come to know Jesus, and speaking up for the last and least of these throughout the world.
In my opinion, a grace-filled response to critics. In the coming weeks, the nation will be watching intently. Forget the replacement refs controversy last fall with the NFL—Giglio’s replacement will likely get tons of attention from the faith community, and the nation in general. Not because this person prays more eloquently than Giglio. Not because there’s a symbiotic relationship between this person’s prayer and Ms. Evers-Williams’ prayer. But because the selection will likely represent the evolving ethos of our pluralistic society. Disheartening? Yes. Unexpected? No. When it boils down to it, the words of Robert Godfrey ring true: neither the Republican Party or Democratic Party care about the cause of Christ. But I’m glad there are people like Pastor Giglio in this world who do.
RIDING THE THIRD RAIL: Rev. Jesse Jackson says politics isn’t enough.
With one day left until the election, the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has the presidential candidates “deadlocked.” But no matter who wins, Christians must stay engaged in the political process, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said last week at Columbia University. Our faith demands it.
“It is not the politics of the two parties that take us far; it is the protest and conscientious objection of the third rail that takes us far,” Jackson said October 25 during a conversation about “Politics, Religion, and the Presidential Race. (The other two participants were The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Columbia University visiting religion scholar Obery Hendricks.)
Hearkening back to his own historic 1988 presidential run and to his work during the civil rights movement, Jackson said, “Change comes from the third rail. … We must discuss what was not discussed on the agenda, and that means we must not be so co-opted by politics … or so absorbed by it to lose the distinction.” In fact, President Obama was a student at Columbia when Jackson debated Water Mondale and Gary Hart, Jackson said, and Obama concluded from the debate that a black man could become president.
“Part of our movement has been to raise the issues not raised,” he said. “Those are issues of the inconvenient, issues of conscience.” Difficult questions have made past presidents better, Jackson explained, and if this president is reelected, as Jackson hopes, supporters must not “let him down” by failing to raise “the right questions of conscience so as to give him the right options from which to make choices.”
Asked what role spirituality can play in politics, Jackson said, “You can be spiritual but have no moral mandate and substance. … Those of us who are Christians have a leader who is spiritual with a concrete agenda.” That agenda is to love the Lord our God and treat our neighbors as ourselves, he said. ‘The Spirit gives a mandate to do something, … It means feed the hungry. It means care for those whose backs are against the wall. You can be spiritual and not do anything. You cannot be a Christian without doing that.”
Jesus was born under death warrant from a regime that was trying to stop the rise of leadership in an “occupied zone,” Jackson said. His mission was not about the middle class, but about preaching the good news to the poor and challenging religious complicity with Rome and its oppressive tendencies. “Our morality is measured by how we treat not the middle of these, but the least of these,” Jackson said. “I was hungry and you fed me, not I was not hungry and you gave me a vacation.”
Jackson complained that when the moderator of the vice presidential debate asked candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan how their shared Catholic faith informs their positions on abortion, both men gave political answers to a religious question. “They gave an American answer to a Christianity question and the moderator accepted it and didn’t delve deeper,” Jackson said.
Likewise, concern for Obama’s reelection has meant that some questions of conscience that could lead to his greatness are not being raised by his supporters, Jackson said. Questions must be disciplined, not hostile, though, if they are to be heard. “To me, that is the progressive tension,” he said. “How do we raise the right questions to our friends?”
What do you think?
If your candidate wins, will you keep riding the third rail?