One of the great challenges for our nation today is the question of the role and place of religion in American public life. Those of us who are people of faith engage in, or at least puzzle about, the challenges for religious faith in the place of public life, whether in academe, or the work place and politics, the courthouse or town halls. The modern view that has been growing, particularly in the latter decades of this century, has been the idea of creating separate, distinct spheres of meaning and value for various arenas of public life. We call this secularity, meaning such things as that which is of an age or a generation, or that which is limited to only a certain time, a certain place. Secularity then is countered by what theologians call transcendence. Transcendence is the claim that all great faiths hold that there are values and truths that transcend age and generations, that apply to every aspect of our public life and our personal life.
I hasten to say that transcendent values do not assume that there are easy answers to life’s moral dilemmas. Rather, transcendence provides a moral framework that informs our lives and calls us to aspire to do that which is not only expedient but that which is also moral and right. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is one such example, for it always begs the question, “who is my neighbor?” Whether talking about immigrant peoples, or people with different ideas or life styles, or of different races or colors, we are confronted by the ever expanding question of faith: “Who am I called to respect as someone who is loved by God?”
I had a conversation just the other day with someone who was struggling with a conflict in her company. And after talking about the struggles and the differences, she finally said, “The truth is, I just don’t like her, and I know I need to do something about that.” The power of transcendent values is that we know when we are wrong, when we are wrong in our attitudes, if not in our purpose. Religious faith then helps us to frame the morality by reminding us of the higher expectations that, no matter what there is to be gained–power, status, money or personal satisfaction–we are called to be those who reach for the higher ideals.
I was talking with a man the other day of significant fortune. He was giving some humorous advice. He said to me, “Nathan, remember that people will do more for pride and for good conscience than for money, if they have enough money.”
Well, Christians are people who are called to pursue the good because we believe deep down within our hearts that such love of fellows, as an example, is transcendent even though we often fall short. Therefore, we are called to respect all people, as the prayer book so guides us, and to respect the dignity of every person. For whenever we disrespect others, even those who stand in conflict and contradiction to things we hold precious; when we allow hate and disrespect to fill our lives, then we find a diminishment of human values. For hate or disrespect, even when socially acceptable or politically reasonable, always makes sick the soul and diminishes us. And we can see as we look to places such as Yugoslavia, Rwanda and other places how the climate is set when we allow ourselves to disregard and disrespect others because they are different.
But transcendence is more than a philosophy. It is also a theology, because we truly believe that these are ideals of God. God embodies the higher ideals to which human community is called. In the lesson from Deuteronomy, the writer tells us, “God is mighty because God is just and because God is equitable.” God cares about those who are most vulnerable. God even loves the stranger, the one who is different, the one who is sings odd. Remember, the writer says, in some ways we all have been strangers or oddities.
Back in 1991 I had the opportunity to go to Haradi, Zimbabwe. I was quite excited to return to Africa, and I thought how wonderful it would be to go to what I’ve always thought of as the Mother Land. There I was in Haradi, that beautiful, bustling city, the hotels, the big business buildings. I sat in front of the Cathedral, watching the people walk back and forth; and they all looked like me. But as I watched and reflected, I came to realize that I was culturally and psychically a stranger. I had not come home unless they made me feel at home.
That is the challenge for America. As America strains and stretches with so many new peoples coming into their lives, clamoring to be a part of the freedom and liberty that we share, we must be mindful of the experiences in our own lives that remind us what it is like to be a stranger.
But more importantly, we must remind ourselves that God calls us to care for the stranger.
We are also in a time when we must ask ourselves, Are there values which transcend every segment of our life? I often think the faith community must stand and remind our nation that the Ten Commandments are not a trap; they are a map. They are those ideals, those convictions given by God, regardless of our faith tradition, that guide us toward happiness, toward a healthy society, toward respectful relationships and even good government. The commandment of Jesus is that we love one another and do what is just and what is equitable, that we know that there is always forgiveness of sins when we fail, but that we can be made aright in the pursuit of good community.
American is a good nation. America is a beautiful nation. But morally, we are slipping. And we must ask the question in the midst of our prosperity, What kind of world are we leaving for our children? There’s a wonderful scene in West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s modern version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It takes place on the west side of New York City. After the shooting of a rival gangster, the teenagers gather at their hangout, which is a drug store. They sit there boasting about their exploits. The storekeeper has had more than he can take, and he lashes out at them with frustration and anger, “You know, you boys make this a lousy world.” And one of the gangsters looked at him and said, “We found it this way. We found it this way.”
In the tragedy of Columbine High School, Conyers, Georgia, the gang violence in our own communities and cities or when we hear the stories of road rage, and the violence we inflict one upon another, we are reminded that we are all responsible for the serious spiritual problems we are bequething to our children. We find them inheriting a world in which we debate the banning of assault weapons, the need for background checks in the availability of guns and the cost and inconvenience of locks for manufacturers. And all of this because we say we are concerned about the right to bear arms. All of our children–mine, yours and theirs–live in a world in which violent entertainment is the norm; where violence and gratuitous sex is celebrated and commercialized. It is accepted as a sign of a nation come of age. We feel we are mature enough to take away the fig leaf. And so we must ask the question, What kind of world are we leaving to our children? Will we have the courage to change the world that we leave to them?
What kind of world is it when our politics represents some of the same kind of behavior that we find despicable in gangs; when our political gatherings and our community leaders act like partisan gangs with wars of polarization, moral charades and character assassinations? When we trivialize scriptural quotations and moral ideals with thinly veiled political rhetoric? When our religious and moral leaders, including teachers and parents and preachers, are afraid to stand up and to speak out about what is right for our children and our nation? What kind of world are we leaving them?
We have much to think about as citizens, but particularly as citizens who have faith. For we must ask what the role of our faith is in this nation, and how we find the courage to stand and to join hands with others of faith to make America spiritually and morally healthy. I love the hymn “O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain; for purple mountains majesty above the fruited plain. America. America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea. America. America. God mend thy every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”
We live in a beautiful country. We live in a prosperous time in our nation’s history. Many have sacrificed that we might enjoy the liberties we experience and others seek. But the work of brotherhood still remains unfinished business for America: the flaws that need to be mended, the spiritual discipline that needs to shape our soul. And as people of faith we know that it will take more than simply the hard work of humanity. It will also take the grace of God.
So I trust as we leave this day that we will be mindful of the importance of our faith, the commitment to higher and transcendent values that will shape the way in which America steps into the future. And that the world we leave our children will be one that is filled with grace—that as the song has said, “America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”