Apparently, in the minds of many Memphians, He would scream, hurl epithets, demean and bully.

In fact, if we’ve ever seen the antithesis of Christ-like behavior, it was in the reaction by too many Memphians following the death of Memphis music legend Isaac Hayes, who just happened to be a Scientologist.

While a guiding principle of the Gospel supposedly is “love the sinner and hate the sin,” apparently, in Mr. Hayes’ case, his main sin was being different, having the audacity to pick his own religion, one admittedly wide of the mainstream.

The Post

There’s talk that Memphis has entered its post-racial era. We’ve suggested that it’s certainly entered its post-Republican era. Now, if only it could enter a post-religiosity era.

At a time when tolerance is a competitive advantage for cities attracting and retaining talented workers, the headlines across the U.S. about the over-the-top complaints of alleged Christians about Isaac Hayes’ funeral are a damaging blow to our image, once again reinforcing the widespread opinion that we don’t appreciate our music legends and that this is a place where bigotry often knows no bounds.

That’s because the national news about the outcries by many Memphians to the fact that the memorial service for Mr. Hayes, a Scientologist, would take place in a Christian Church, Hope Presbyterian Church, plays into the narrative about Memphis that is too widely held, a narrative that acts as a barrier to our civic maturity, not to mention our economic competitiveness.

Throwing Stones

There’s nothing quite like the spectacle of Christians when they so defiantly act unChristian. If those without sin should cast the first stone, we are blessed in Memphis with an awful lot of people with a firm sense their own perfection. Of course, many of them are emboldened by their own anonymity, too – the main reason that we avoid reading comments posted to articles in The Commercial Appeal.

There are reports that the funeral of Mr. Hayes may even attract the underbelly of Christianity, Frank Phelps, whose Topeka-based Westboro Baptist
Church members stage anti-gay protests at the funerals of Iraq soldiers. Judging from some of the comments made about Mr. Hayes and his chosen faith, there are clearly some Memphians who’d feel right at home.

So far, the pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church, Rev. Craig Strickland, has been vilified by people who’ve never met him, nor do they have any conception of the way that his faith is put into action, but they are certain that he is an agent of the devil. Meanwhile, the grieving family and friends of Mr. Hayes have been assaulted with hateful broadsides that must make them question why he ever moved back here from Atlanta.

Get A Life

We’re hard-pressed to understand why anyone should care what Mr. Hayes’ religion was, even one as curious as Scientology. We are even more hard-pressed to understand why we should be outraged that Hope Presbyterian Church is being Christian enough to allow the singer’s many fans to celebrate his life there.

Back to the subject at hand, tolerance, it’s worth remembering that in surveys of young, college-educated workers, they say they want to live in places that are clean, green, and safe, and that allow them to live the life they want to live. In other words, they want a place that is tolerant of others – different lifestyles, sexual orientations, and races and ethnicities. It’s an issue that we seem to struggle with, owing perhaps to our Bible Belt traditions.

Sadly, the venom unleashed at Mr. Hayes’ funeral killed any euphoria from the message that African-American voters sent to the nation by voting overwhelmingly for white Congressman Steve Cohen over his African-American challenger, Nikki Tinker.

The Pot Boils Over

Incidentally, the percentage of women who say they want to live in a tolerant city is slightly larger than the percentage of men, a fact made more important by the fact that women are now 20 percent more likely to be college-educated than men. In that regard, economic growth today is powered by the 25-34 year-old college-educated demographic, but cities getting on the front of the wave also have are figuring out ways to attract women in particular.

All in all, the Isaac Hayes controversy is a troubling commentary on Memphis’ inability to come to grips with the simplest of principles – live and let live. Rather, we are capable of jumping on any disagreement to launch into the kind of vitriol that undermines a sense of civility in our community. (The media’s codependency with this culture of crassness is problematic in this regard.)

A few days ago, we were talking with a psychiatrist friend about dysfunctional families and the difficulty that its members have in breaking away from the abusiveness and antagonism that are their constant companions. Ironically, in the midst of a destructive relationship, members fear – and fight – any change to things.


The problems are twofold: one, the family members think all families are like theirs, and two, the dysfunction becomes familiar and comfortable albeit it hostile and painful.

In this environment, communications are raw and attacks are common, and communications has been used as a weapon so often that family members can no longer interpret each other’s dispassionately or react proportionally. Instead, every one is forced to take sides in every disagreement, escalating every issue into a controversy that bursts the family at its seams.

As he talked, we forgot for a moment that he was describing dysfunctional families. We thought he was describing Memphis.

Now What?

We asked: What does someone do to change the dysfunction?

He said that it’s no easy or quick. The people who use the dysfunction to have power resist change the most. They immediately feel threatened and set up roadblocks and obstacles. We thought of some old guard political leaders.

If people are serious about changing things, he said, there are several things they have to do:

1) They have to realize that one person’s not in charge of another person’s life, and every one has the right to make their own choices free of attack;

2) They have to quit fighting old battles, because there are no winners, because every one loses;

3) They have to identify what they want to happen and then change their behavior to make it happen; and

4) They simply refuse to respond to the dysfunction or engage in the old combative ways of communicating.

Paying Attention

Most of all, for change to happen, it requires constant attention to positive behaviors and improvements in relationships, until the people who try to perpetuate the dysfunction find no reward or power in it. Perhaps, then, we could actually attract some national attention for our ability to transcend our differences and abandon the bomb-throwing behavior that attracts national press.

As we said, it’s much more than simple decency (although that would be reason enough). Rather, it’s an economic necessity.

In a world of multitudinous ethnic groups, an assortment of religions, different sexual orientations and a polyglot of cultures, a city that can’t respect its own differences can never connect – or compete – in a world whose overwhelming characteristic is its diversity.