On February, 7, a group of local community members joined me at Temple Beth-El to discuss selected letters (sent to our new national leadership each day) as part of the American Values/Religious Voices campaign (www.valuesandvoices.com) that I featured in my article last month.
To begin the program, I told about being the chair of an elementary school site council in Topeka, Kansas that dealt with school environment as directed by state standards in the early 1990s. Our charge was to ensure that the school was doing a good job of building community and maintaining morale at a high level among faculty, staff, parents and students. As the father of a first grade student at that school, I was happy to serve in that position. I worked closely with the school principal, who was very active in her church. I always felt that there were values from our service to our respective religious congregations that translated into positive community building.
I asked the participants present on February 7 to suggest values which the principal and I might have shared. They listed the principles of consideration, equality, lovingkindness, justice, hospitality, honesty, family, respect, acceptance, love, learning, and teaching. These are tenets that lie at the foundation of most any productive and purposeful community. Our February conversation about several of the "American Values/Religious Voices" letters yielded a list of values that bore many similarities to the one that emerged from my beginning story.
The writers of the letters at www.valuesandvoices.com teach religion at universities and seminaries in the United States. Most of the letters (more than 30 now) include a quote from sacred teachings or stories. As we read the letters as a group, we listed their central principles, which, at that session, included justice, mercy, humility, self-control, support of the vulnerable, compromise, diversity, a focus on the common good, creating common ground, seeing the whole as greater than its parts, responsibility, religious freedom, respect for all people, forgiveness, charity and building bridges.
The “building bridges” reference came from a post by Jean-Pierre Ruiz, Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John’s University in New York City. Professor Ruiz noted that the Rev. Robert Jeffress, who delivered a sermon in conjunction with this year’s presidential inauguration, quoted a passage from the book of Nehemiah that referred to the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its walls. Nehemiah encouraged the people: “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem!” (Nehemiah 2:17). To this, the people of Jerusalem responded, “Let us start building!” Then “they committed themselves to the common good” (Nehemiah 2:18) and together rebuilt their city.
Professor Ruiz noted that, for the people of Jerusalem, building a wall was not about division, but about creating a physical and communal infrastructure. It was about building bridges towards one another as well as adding gates to the city walls (likely 10 gates) where visitors would be welcome to enter.
The values that we share offer us a moral infrastructure that can enable us to act in concert with each other for the common good. I, for one, hope that can be our goal as fellow citizens in our community and nation.