Last Tuesday morning, I was invited to attend a meeting of clergy with senatorial candidate Sam Brownback. As I sat down at the table, I looked around and realized that I only knew two of the pastors present. Not only was I the only rabbi there, but I was also the only non-evangelical clergy person in the room!
Representative Brownback asked the group what the religious community can do to take care of people in need in this era of welfare reform. On the issue of church burnings, he stated that the government can do a great deal to create standards that indicate zero tolerance for hate crimes and other violent acts. He lamented that those laws do not reach the heart and soul of people to change them for the better.
You can imagine what the pastors sitting around the table with me claimed would offer a renewed sense of values. At first, there were calls for the candidate and more citizens to take a firm pro-Christian stand (the exact request was, “You should stand up for Christ!”). As the discussion continued, I spoke up several times to emphasize that we do hold many values in common, and that when we combine our energies, we make a stronger impact on our community than we can make alone.
For example, some of the ministers were concerned about how separation of religion and government prevents their churches from helping the poor and the hungry. I reminded them that many congregations in Topeka regularly unite to provide food, clothing and shelter through Doorstep, Let's Help, Cornerstone and other agencies that receive funding from a variety of sources.
During our discussion, we outlined the partnership between government, families, non-profit organizations, businesses, faith groups and schools that can enhance the well-being of our community. One minister suggested that schools house Youth for Christ programs. I immediately commented, "I don't think my family would be too happy about that!" I explained that a program advancing one particular faith group in school would create an "in" group and an "out" group. Such a plan could ostracize non-Christian children and some Christian students as well. I also mentioned that Rhonda and I have successfully worked with teachers and a principal who are deeply religious Christians who apply their beliefs as we do - by engendering cooperation, respect and self-discipline that can enable a student to grow in knowledge and contribute positively to any class, group, or community.
At the end of the meeting, one participant called for a prayer before we adjourned. Another pastor suggested that I deliver that benediction. I prayed that the God whom we love and who loves us be with us and with our government and community leaders so that we can provide all people with a sense of belonging and hope.
It was clear that my presence changed the entire complexion of that meeting. One minister said that he and his colleagues tend to be too parochial at times, thinking only about their own beliefs. I replied that we all have our particular beliefs that we can use for universal purposes, to make a positive impact on the world outside our homes and beyond our houses of worship.
Postscript – October 14, 2012
Several months later, I saw Senator Brownback at the Kansas State commemoration of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I reminded him of the meeting held at what was then the Village Inn Pancake House at Fleming Place Shopping Center. I remarked that his staff called to together quite a meeting. He said, “Well I was surprised.” I asked him why. He responded, “Well, for me, Christianity is love, and that was not love that was being expressed by the ministers present.” I replied that he should only know that I was used to hearing calls for one religion to be considered primary over all others.
It has been six years since Rhonda and I moved away from Topeka. The last time I saw Senator Brownback (and his wife Mary) was when he appeared at the University of New Hampshire Student Union (the “MUB”) in September of 2007 on a campaign stop. I lived six miles away in Dover, New Hampshire where I served the at the local Temple (2006-2011). I knew that the Senator had been through many changes both in his faith and in his politics. We did get a chance to speak for a few minutes in what was a very congenial conversation. We discussed the campaign trail, and about being the parents of children in their late teens and early 20s. I was glad I took the time to see him.
The policies of the current Brownback administration in Kansas do not surprise me. I always knew that the Governor had the potential to move in the direction of the wing of the Republican party that does not know about or care about moderation or about representing all Kansans, not just their ideological peers and partners on the right wing of the political spectrum.
During a sermon on civility to my congregation in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Yom Kippur evening this year, I referred to a story in the Talmud that relates to how we can constructively deal with diverse views in society. The Talmud tells of how the schools of the great sages Hillel and Shammai were in regular conflict. In one instance, the debate became so heated that only a heavenly voice could stop their verbal confrontations. The voice declared, “Both of your positions are the words of the living God – both are valid – EILU V’EILU DIVREI ELOHIM CHAYIM – but the law is in agreement with the students of Hillel.” “Why one side and not the other?” the Talmud asked. The passage explained that the students of Hillel were kind and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of their opponents, and they were so humble that they would mention the opinions of Shammai before stating their own views.
I didn’t speak about the meeting held at the Village Inn sixteen years ago when I wrote that sermon, but I did think about that encounter. I am sad to see the direction in which my former state of residence is going on the level of politics and policy. If I had the chance, I would ask state government leaders, at the very least, “Where is respect for diverse views?” However, in light of my conversation with then-new-Senator Brownback in the Kansas Capitol rotunda, I have to go one step further and ask, “Where is the love?” Respect, love, and concern – that is what community is about. It is not about “me” or “my kind only.” It is about “us.”
I pray that respect, concern and love will overcome any obstacles that may be placed in their way in any state in our union and in every corner of the world.