Last week I attended part of a lecture series on cultural understanding and tolerance at Lehigh University. The speaker was the esteemed Former Secretary of State of the United States, Dr. Madeleine K. Albright. The surrounding was academic, her tone congenial, her theme: Truth.
Albright told the audience of students and community members, “You will be asked in your life to identify or defend what you believe… No one is born prejudiced; ugly attitudes are almost always taught as truth.”
The author and human rights advocate was quite comedic at times, but when she delved into the “highly contentious arena of religious faith,” she stated soberly that, “Doctrines divide with unholy results. We claim to know more than we actually do.” She compared religion to a knife, which can be used to butter bread or to stab someone. “Choice determines outcome,” she reasoned.
Albright challenged her hearers to stop venting for a month, to think critically, and to engage in dialogue to stretch their minds. She cautioned against always being a part of conversations with those who think exactly the way we do. (What good is that, really?) “Study those who make you most upset,” she coaxed.
In no way did Albright imply that truth is relative. On the contrary: “I’m not asking you to cast aside your opinions,” she said emphatically. “The only completely open mind is an empty one,” she warned. Rather, she prompted the overflowing hall to think and to develop respect for others as people.
The diplomat told her attentive listeners that how they perceive people or situations depends upon their vantage point. She explained, “Thoughts about world hunger will depend on if you are in a country where your family struggles to buy bread, or if you are in a country where diet books are best sellers.”
Albright’s final illustration was her reference to South African activist and former president, Nelson Mandela. Mandela devoted his 27 years in prison to learning about the people who imprisoned him, and ultimately led them “He was not nurturing bitterness,” she pointed out.
I’m sure that Secretary Albright had persuaded many with her powerful talk. Her statements later caused me to recollect the wise words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi.
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8 NIV)
Jesus is the supreme example of someone putting themselves in another’s shoes. He was the most tolerant man in the entire world. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Having faced common trials and fundamental issues of life Himself, Jesus is more than willing to forgive. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way – just as we are – yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Dear Readers, I too encourage you to pursue truth. Moreover, I urge you to pursue Jesus.
Albright, Dr. Madeleine K. Lecture on Cultural Understanding and Tolerance. Lehigh University. Bethlehem, 12 February 2013.