In God We (Still) Trust: Electoral Thoughts on Faith

Yale Divinity School alumni

What ails the nation? What values are at risk of neglect in this election cycle? What wisdom can faith traditions inject into turbulent times? Reflections invited Yale Divinity School alumni to ponder these questions amid a high-anxiety political season. Here’s a sampling of responses:

World Without End, Amen
By Kazimierz Bem ‘10 M.Div., ‘12 S.T.M.

Someone in my congregation told me he likes the phrases I use in the prayers – “until the ages of ages” and “world without end.” It seemed a curious thing to comment on until I thought about it in light of the question: “What values seem to be lost, neglected, and distorted in our political times?”

For me, what is lost today is a respectful sense of time, or rather the sense of infinity. Our attention spans get shorter and shorter. Services and sermons are shrinking, because an hour of our time nowadays seems excruciatingly long. We seem incapable of sitting through a movie in the cinema without checking our Facebook or Twitter accounts and playing with our iPhones.

Politicians present everything in election cycles of two, three, or five years. If someone proves unable to solve all the problems of the world instantly, we condemn the effort and say he or she won’t be able to solve them at all. Budget cuts, recession, global warming – all have to be solved now or else.

There is something profoundly egocentric about this attitude, something I feel is very difficult to bear. I yearn for someone to remind us – in any election cycle – that it took us generations to break and pillage this planet, and it will take us generations to fix it. I crave to hear someone say that he or she will try to solve one, maybe two problems, and then dare to declare that there are ample things for all of us to work on and try to fix as well. I crave to hear someone tell us that we should think not just about ourselves and our children – for that requires little empathy, really – but about distant future generations to come.

Christianity teaches that we are all part of one very long journey – culminating with the event and person of Jesus Christ. It stretches beyond time and puts our anxieties and insecurities in perspective. It teaches us the humility of patience and gives us strength to make tough choices – sustained by God until he is all in all … until the ages of ages … world without end.

Kazimierz Bem is pastor of First Church (Congregational) United Church of Christ in Marlborough, MA.

The Seven Virtues Revisited
By Caroline Bacon ‘04 M.A.R. 

Reflections’ call for alumni to ponder American values at election time has been an irresistible challenge to sort out many half-articulated thoughts. Most of these concern the shortcomings of the church: its loss of membership and cultural influence, the widespread misunderstanding of its values and mission, and an apparent incapacity for effective self-examination.

Why focus on the church? Because I think that if all people in the land were to act like good Christians, we would not suffer from so many of the ills that beset us, both as individuals and as a community.

What would it be like if all citizens acted like good Christians? Think about that for a while. Well, it might be boring – vice is so entertaining. But possibly we might each of us be so absorbed in doing those things and being those people that God intended, and feeling so deeply satisfied and fulfilled, that we would not miss our vices at all.

I study the Middle Ages because I love medieval art, so I think sometimes about the seven virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love are the so-called theological virtues; Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Courage are the remaining four. The names change a bit according to the source, but always a whole panoply of good character traits are woven around and subsumed under these virtues: patience, self-control, generosity, self-sacrifice, gratitude, piety, affability, humility, thoughtfulness, diligence, respect for others, kindness, self-respect, persistence, bravery, thrift, wisdom, mercy, peacefulness, loyalty, compassion, modesty. But the most important is love of neighbor.

A broad and deep capacity for each of these in each American would go a long way toward bringing civility back to all our conversations and moving the focus away from self and toward the common good, and not just at election time.

These virtues are the native land of the church; we’ve had almost 2,000 years with them. With the utmost urgency and seriousness we should get on with the important business of being the Christian church, fostering these virtues and spreading the good news.

Caroline Bacon, based in Redding, CT, is an independent scholar who studies Christian iconography. She is treasurer of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art.

Give Us This Bread
By Jeffrey Haggray ‘88 M.Div.

I am touched by the sight of everyday people gathering at political rallies, hoping for a change in their circumstances. They resemble the crowds that pursued Jesus while engaged in the perennial human search for more. John wrote that the crowd went to Capernaum looking for Jesus (John 6:24-35). Earlier, Jesus fed them by the thousands, satisfying their physical appetites after he had ministered to their spiritual and moral longings. The human search for food and fulfillment is equally apparent and pressing in our day.

I pray that candidates for elective office will have the wisdom and integrity to perceive that most voters are searching for something more than a charismatic personality. Political campaigns often behave as though elections are purely about personalities. A fixation on the candidates’ private religious beliefs, bank accounts, and personal tastes reveals a fundamental ignorance about the human craving for survival and security. Jesus engaged in the kind of straight talk with the crowds that revealed his awareness of the banal realities underlying their searching. You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Though tempted to infer that he was the object of their desire, Jesus recognized that on the most existential level they were returning to the divine hand that fed them the fish and loaves. He challenged the crowds to seek something greater than basic survival.  Pursue what makes for lasting meaning, community, wholeness, and shalom, and the basics will follow.

I pray also for those who seek political office that they will make people more conscious of the values and valuables that we truly need as a society.  Our nation is filled with frightened people who worry about whether they will enjoy a certain social and economic quality of life in the future. We need to replace fear-mongering with a renewed commitment to seeing the importance of diverse people from all walks of life co-existing in a spirit of peace, community, and faith in God and one another. I challenge us all to learn anew the importance of caring for one another as human beings who are made in God’s image and who deserve a quality of life that reflects that identity.

Jeffrey Haggray is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C.

Republic of Hospitality
By Kathleen O’Toole Peters ‘94 M.Div.

Mr. H. Jones Jr. has lived all of his seventy-plus years in the same small town and always been a member of the same “small church on the hill.” He admits he has a small-town view of the world and that is just fine with him.

When the church community was considering the issue of becoming an Open and Affirming congregation, Mr. Jones had something to say about it. He admitted to living a sheltered life here and that he does not understand much about being gay or lesbian. “But I do know that if anyone felt that they would not be welcome at my church, it would break my heart. … We need to do this!” Radical hospitality is an amazing gift that Mr. Jones always offers.

What is often missing in our current political and polarizing climate is any sense of hospitality. We no longer seem able to talk to our neighbors before we first determine their political or religious affiliation or even sexual orientation, so we can decide whether to be open to any opinion that they might express. Respectful debate is becoming a thing of the past. We can no longer agree to disagree. An attitude of compromise or ever trying to walk in another’s shoes is in serious danger of extinction. We know what we know and you don’t … especially if you are one of the “other.” It has become easier to vilify “those people” than to dare to get to know them as people.

Some renounced their church membership after we did indeed vote to declare ourselves an Open and Affirming community of faith. Yet, because we know each other as individuals and not just as labels, we can often get beyond the dividing walls and listen to one another. When you know another’s whole story, their dreams, their struggles, their joys and concerns, you are able to hear what they are saying even if you don’t agree with it all. Some voted no and still remain faithful members. Relationships mean genuine hospitality and a willingness to meet halfway or even more than halfway if that is what the good of the community calls for.

For Mr. Jones, hospitality means putting aside any preconceived notions in favor of welcoming, listening to, and caring for the human being that is before him. If we want to be the nation that truly is “the land of the free and the home of the brave” – the community that cares for one another, no matter who you are; the church on the hill that does not hide the light of radical hospitality that Jesus taught – it is critical that we learn to keep up with the Joneses … Mr. H. Jones Jr., that is … We need to do this!

Kathleen O’Toole Peters is pastor of the United Church of Chester, CT (United Church of Christ).

God the Priority

By Walter Riedel ‘67 B.A., ‘71 M.Div.

Isn’t the value and priority of God in our lives most at risk of distortion and disappearance in our moment?

Even those who claim to be Christian persistently act – and vote – as if Mammon – money – were not only more important but exclusively important. Otherwise the stubborn objection to things like universal healthcare, available in other industrialized countries, could not persist. Any time we say, “that’s too expensive, it’s unnecessary,” it seems to me that we are really saying “money in my pocket is more important than accomplishing that goal.”

The God I know is not just one value among many to be prioritized. God is the central value. The esteem in which we hold God (and the tasks God asks of us) is prior to all other values. When we can rationalize our selfishness and imagine that God does not suffer when we complain about helping the poor, and most especially when we deliberately vote against giving “also the tunic,” we are showing we have not repented. We are showing we still have other gods before the One God. How can one ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy when we are not ourselves willing consistently to be a neighbor to anyone in need? 

I think any definition of faith that does not mean staying always mindful of God’s will is a fraudulent distortion of religion. Faith is absolute commitment to God and to all God’s people, all the time. This is rarely extolled or embraced as the meaning of the Christian life. These days it’s fair to say it is not even taught by those who call themselves Christians.

Walter R. Riedel is interim pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Stuart, FL. In his ministerial career he has led congregations in Florida and, for eight years, was a missionary in Papua New Guinea. He now does long-term interim pastoral work.

It Takes A Village …To Teach a Nation
By Jeffrey Oak ‘85 M.Div.,’96 Ph.D.

What gives me hope at this political moment is a vision of community embodied in a village 6,000 miles from Washington, D.C.

Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam (NSWAS), or “Oasis of Peace,” is a village of some fifty-five families located on 100 barren, hilly acres midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv where Jews, Muslims, and Christians have chosen to live together in a spirit of equality and respect. Founded in 1972, NSWAS was the vision of the Rev. Bruno Hussar, a Jew born in Egypt who converted to Catholicism as a young adult and became a Dominican priest in his thirties while living in France. In 1953, at the age of forty-two, he moved to Israel committed to a vision of bringing diverse peoples together in a democratic, pluralistic community.

At the center of NSWAS is a K-7 primary school serving more than 200 children from the area in a bilingual, bicultural learning environment. Each class has one Jewish and one Arab teacher, who follow a team-teaching model: Roughly half the Arab teachers are Muslim, the other half are Christian. Children first learn to read and write in their own language, and all eventually learn Hebrew, Arabic, and English.

Most importantly, children are nurtured in their own cultural traditions, while being fully exposed to those of other students. The aim is to nurture each child’s unique social, cultural, and national identity, while also cultivating her capacity for co-existence, respect, and friendship with those whose identities are so very different.

Maintaining the balance between cultural particularity and pluralism is a difficult, sometimes excruciating task at NSWAS. At a time when commentators maintain that we are more polarized than ever, when healthy and robust public discourse is so rare, I believe the vision of NSWAS is instructive.

The adults and children of NSWAS embrace a mission and vision larger than their own individual self-interest: They are committed to the common good in a deeply pluralistic world. They share the rhythms of daily life together: working, playing, going to school, grieving, celebrating, and sharing meals together. Rather than avoiding or downplaying differences, they engage each other at the very center of their differences, which are often profound.

I draw three lessons from NSWAS that I believe are helpful to our own political climate. The first is a commitment to something larger than ourselves. At its most fundamental level, political community is about the life and welfare of the polis, the citizenry. The first order of business in any polis is learning how to share public space without doing violence to each other. Rodney King’s plea twenty years ago in the midst of rioting in Los Angeles comes to mind: “Can we all get along?”

Second, we cannot engage in public dialogue about the common good if the daily rhythms of our lives are never shared. The bonds of civic friendship are strengthened when we share the ordinariness of daily life together. This defies current patterns, where so many aspects of our lives are organized around preserving and maintaining, even defending, separateness.

Finally, what is most striking about NSWAS is that it was founded on difference – deep-rooted differences among Muslim, Christian, and Jew, among Arab and Israeli. The goal at NSWAS is not to smooth out these differences but to honor the cultural particularities that give rise to difference and still find a common purpose. Our nation’s recent history shows how rare it is to sustain genuine public dialogue. Since dialogue is a skill, an art even, I worry that the competencies that make it possible are diminishing.

One NSWAS teacher put it well: “I enjoy teaching here very much. It is good to have dialogue and to show how things can work between Arabs and Jews. It is difficult but it works. … We have to try to live together side by side. If it’s happening here, then it can happen elsewhere. The big thing is respect.”

Yes, the big thing is respect.

Jeffrey Oak is Senior Vice President at Bon Secours Health System, Inc., a faith-based, non-profit health system based in Maryland that is committed to building healthy communities. He profiled NSWAS in his Yale dissertation, called The Just Nurture of Children.

Who’s Wrong, Who’s Right
By Susan R. Beebe ‘02 M.A.R.

I was waiting in line at the airport to board a flight home. On a nearby television, politicians argued with one another – loudly. “Democrats, Republicans,” grumbled the fellow beside me. “They all sound alike to me.”

Really? I wondered. The parties advocate very different policies; it’s odd they would sound the same to my fellow traveler. But political debate has grown so strident, many Americans are disillusioned with the entire process.

What spiritual hope does the church offer in the face of such cynicism?

Good question. We followers of Jesus struggle with partisanship, too. Our places of worship are fragmented: One congregation is for traditional music, another advocates traditional views on sexuality, and the social justice crowd meets over there. Suspicions between the groups run high. There’s certainly not much friendly interaction or even-tempered debate. My own Episcopal Church has splintered over theological issues. Now we communicate, not over coffee, but by serving lawsuits. Things can get pretty fractured in the Body of Christ.

Church historians will remind us ‘twas ever thus. Of course, sometimes divisions are unavoidable. I don’t advocate a lockstep church any more than I promote single-party politics. But the fact that unity is difficult doesn’t mean we give up on Jesus’ desire that Christians “all might be one.”

In fact, recent research bears out the truth that churches and politicians benefit when we remain civil and connected with those we think are plain wrong. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores how we arrive at our moral convictions in the first place. It seems we humans decide what is good and right based not on logic but intuition. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians – we listen to our gut first, then construct rational arguments to defend our positions.

But that’s not the end of the story. The good news is, our political and religious beliefs aren’t relegated to a series of hunches. As Haidt argues, when people with differing views emphasize a common bond and interact with kindness and respect, they influence one another positively.

“This is why it is important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find the truth,” Haidt explains. We won’t all agree, he suggests, but together “we can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.” To be our best, it seems we need each other.

Jesus’ prayer that his church would live in harmony is an outrageously tall order. Yet it is exactly what our broken, disheartened culture – political and otherwise – needs to see. When followers of Christ do the hard work of honoring one another, even when we disagree, we offer salt and light to a fractured, contentious world. And we sound very different indeed.

Susan R. Beebe is a Priest Associate at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, FL. She is the author of Meditations for Church Staff (Morehouse).

The Golden Triangle
By Clyde Tuggle ‘88 M.Div.

I’m often asked how a divinity school graduate ended up in a beverage company. It was simple, really. In my final semester at YDS, I did my CPE unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where I counseled people from all walks of life. Some were dying. That experience helped me realize that I wanted to continue making a difference in people’s lives, only a lot sooner. I found I could fulfill that goal by helping create moments of happiness and optimism by joining The Coca-Cola Company. That was nearly twenty-four years ago.

Today, my responsibilities include overseeing and maintaining relationships with governments, media, bottlers, customers, and many other stakeholders around the world. We operate in more than 200 countries, which helps put the dynamics of this country into perspective. What gives me hope both here and abroad is that more and more governments are recognizing that large, seemingly intractable problems can’t be solved by government alone, and they can’t be solved by finger-pointing and name-calling. Instead, effective leaders increasingly understand that complex problems require collaboration among business, government, and civil society, what our Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent refers to as “the golden triangle.”

Take the AIDS epidemic in Africa, for example, where getting medicines the last mile to people’s homes is often a monumental challenge. Through a partnership with the government of Tanzania, the Gates Foundation, and The Global Health Leadership Institute at Yale, we used our supply chain expertise to identify bottlenecks, offer practical solutions, and just as importantly, build the capabilities needed to sustain and enhance the progress we achieved. The results have been far more significant and enduring than anything we could have done alone. That’s the power of partnerships.

It is projects like this one and many others that give me hope in our political system, at home and around the world. Every day I rise, full of optimism that by the grace of God and by the power of our faith and drive, we can all live lives that matter and make a difference.

Clyde Tuggle is Senior Vice President, Chief Public Affairs and Communications Officer for The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta. He also serves on Yale’s President’s Council on International Activities and the Yale Divinity School Board of Advisors.

Scripture Speaks
By A. Ralph Barlow ‘59 B.D., ‘64 S.T.M.

This year’s elections have reawakened a classic conflict in Western society. The biblical tradition – from Second Isaiah through the New Testament – identifies it as the conflict between control and servanthood. Other traditions speak more generally of the tensions between the interrelatedness of people and the instincts of individualism.

Our explosive disagreements attest to the loss of a basic truth crucial to civil order and well-being – the dimension of concern for the whole society. In each case, an embattled group – immigrants, same-sex couples, or citizens who can’t afford health insurance – is being resisted by an attitude that would deny the crucial dimension of empathy that is necessary for the welfare of us all. At stake is an acknowledgment of the interrelatedness of American society, or – in biblical language – the theme of servanthood, as distinct from the control-dominated motive that refuses to extend to others the rights the majority enjoys.

It was theologian Roger Williams who identified this challenge to American society when he returned to England in 1643 to petition Parliament to grant a colonial charter for the settlement of Providence Plantations on the shores of Narragansett Bay. Banished from Massachusetts, Williams questioned how political entities could ever be successful if people in power keep chopping off each others’ heads. Why shouldn’t people accept each others’ humanity and value each others’ contributions to the welfare of the whole society? And so, aided by Williams’ leadership, the history of Rhode Island began, making its goal to build a more tolerant society. Rhode Island was the first among the American colonies to welcome Jews and Quakers.

Though a staunch Puritan himself, Williams saw how futile it is when any one group tries to control the whole of society by restricting the freedoms and self-realizations of everyone else. In effect, Williams argued that each group should be servant, not master, of a vast heterogeneous order – each group acknowledging its interrelatedness with the whole and willing to commit to the flourishing of others.

History is replete with the ironic consequences that flow from the fear of the loss of political or social control. Winston Churchill, the pre-eminent spokesman for England’s “finest hour” and freedom from tyranny, was so convinced of the absolute need for Empire that he could not tolerate India’s quest for independence from Britain. His intransigence, and the resulting damage to his reputation, point to the tragic consequences of denying people their freedom and self-determination.

Surely at this moment in American history we cannot miss the irony as we watch a nation of immigrants risk losing or forgetting that basic concept of interrelatedness and inclusiveness.

Surely such a pluralistc society will wake up to this danger to its very being as a nation unique in the world and rally around the restoration of something so fundamental.

A. Ralph Barlow is pastor emeritus of Beneficent Congregational Church (UCC) in Providence, RI. He can be reached at

Divinity and Dialectic
By Mick Hirsch ‘03 M.Div.

On my thirty-fifth birthday, I became a Communist. Not since the day I officially declared myself a Unitarian Universalist had anything been more liberating or spiritually uplifting than my conversion to Communism.

It was a true coming-out of my political identity. Just as over time I had come to realize that the Unitarian Universalist Association was a better personal fit than the United Methodist Church for my evolving spiritual and theological values, I came also to see that the Democratic Party was not the best champion of my political and economic values.

In neither instance have I forsaken what I learned from the traditions I left. Wesleyan perfection, sanctifying grace, faith-and-works, and especially the employment of grassroots “classes” and “bands” of renegade believers – all these Methodist-oriented principles and practices remain dear to my faith life.

Similarly, the Democratic Party with its dedicated endorsement of the working class, women, minorities, the environment, and international diplomacy over internecine warfare – these principles undergird my understanding of what makes America the land of the free and home of the brave.

Nevertheless, a growing discomfort with both the UMC and the DNC compelled me to seek other paths that spoke more directly, more openly and honestly to the concerns of my heart and the crises I saw erupting throughout the world.

The Communist Party USA (CPUSA), though historically and by nomination a “party,” is really more akin to a movement – committed to developing strong working relations with liberal political organizers and others who support such causes as the labor movement, an end to racially motivated bias and violence, LGBTQ and gender equality, immigrant rights, and universal healthcare. What makes the CPUSA a viable voice in today’s political climate is the way it supports these causes with more urgency, determination, and consistency.

In the end, my political and my denominational identities fit nicely together. The UUA allows me to live out my faith in a community that, for example, speaks and acts clearly and unequivocally in solidarity with the LGBTQ community for equality in marriage, benefits, and service to God. Similarly, I am called to a vision of communist democracy – to the CPUSA’s unwavering commitment to speaking truth to power, standing with the oppressed in the face of injustice, working for a socialist society in which economic discrepancy is shunned rather than celebrated, and building a future in which our children and our children’s children will “bear one another’s burdens” so as to live in peace and commonality.

Mick Hirsch, based in Lowell, MA, is a case manager at the International Institute, a refugee assistance and resettlement organization. He is also finishing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the European Graduate School, located in Switzerland.

We’re All In This Together
By Paul Stroble ‘82 M.Div.

Different authors in recent years have challenged us to recover a sense of civic virtue and the common good. The economist Robert Reich has identified four “morality tales” in American civic and political discourse: the “rot at the top” (government is bad), “the mob at the gates” (the poor/the immigrants/the people on welfare are the problem), “the triumphant individual” (we are responsible for our own well-being), and “the benevolent community” (people’s well-being needs government help). All these tales ultimately fall short, he argues, because each has an “us vs. them” component.

Discussing Reich’s “tales,” the ethicist Eric Mount in Covenant, Community, and the Common Good (Pilgrim Press, 1999) argues for a return to a religious idea in American discourse, the concept of covenant, in which personal faith is expressed through some kind of commitment to social service and concern for others.

The idea of covenant immediately chafes against two tenacious aspects of American thinking about religion. One is the individualism of churchgoing believers who hold ideological beliefs and opinions defiantly at odds with just about any denominational (and sometimes biblical) teaching that speaks to community solutions. The other is the wishful thinking that says if only the churches really stepped up, we could address social problems without government help.

The sport of demonizing government persists even though it is demonstrable that government can provide services on a much larger scale than voluntary organizations alone can. Rather than dismissing government as the problem, we might envision government as one of several ways – along with congregations and service organizations – to serve the public good.

A sense of “audacious openness to the other” – Mount’s term – is a key to inculcating a larger sense of the common good. A “we’re all in this together” narrative, sorely lacking in contemporary discourse, could help us view afresh our pressing social issues and challenge the dominant “us vs. them” view of the world and of each other.

Paul Stroble, of St. Louis, is a United Methodist minister and author of several books. He was principal writer for the “Faithful Citizen” curriculum (available at  

Expanding Our Reach
By Neichelle Guidry Jones ‘10 M.Div.

I recently read about two Republican National Convention attendees being asked to leave after throwing peanuts to an African American camerawoman. “This is how we feed the animals,” they said to her.

This summer, the city of Chicago has been likened to a war zone: More lives have been taken by gun violence in our streets this year than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in the streets of Afghanistan.

These are only two indications of the disposability of the potential of life and the hope of the spirit. Certainly one must name the desperation and frustration that produce the violence and the ignorance that drives intolerance in its myriad forms. But how do we move from naming to overcoming?

In times such as these, congregations and communities that are wholeheartedly committed to social justice encourage me. In my congregational work on the south side of Chicago, I have experienced the transformative power of the Social Gospel. I can attest to the powers of confrontational liturgy and prophetic social action. I do not believe that authentic contemporary ministries can practice one and not the other.

Such congregations and communities have ground-up relevance. In my experience, church leaders have the profound power to convince people of their divine identity and worth, and the weighty obligation of admonishing their congregations to social action. However, this cannot be done if we, as leaders of the church, are not living prophetic lives. We cannot expect to make change if we do not first embody it and live it out ourselves. We can never forget or discount our roles as models before our congregations.

So I place my foremost hope in the God of the Gospels, whose recorded life is a model of selfless and prophetic leadership and whose Word continues to turn hearts toward justice and peace. But I also place hope in the prophetic tradition that inspires my generation of young church leaders.

We cannot say we are without models, and for this, we are immeasurably blessed. We cannot say we are without ingenuity and compassion. We cannot say we are without boldness and fight. How can faith tradition inject some wisdom and perspective into turbulent times? By being visible, loud, and fully present in the midst of the turbulence. This has worked in generations past. I have no choice but to hope that its power yet remains.

Neichelle R. Guidry Jones is Associate Pastor to Young Adults at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. She blogs at

Whatever Happened to Sin?
By Lyn G. Brakeman, ‘82 M.Div.

At my writers group a question came up about sin. One of our members, feeling the strain of a daughter’s critical illness, described how she wanted an inspirational mantra and the Hail Mary came to her – “out of nowhere,” she said.

She’s a lifelong Episcopalian and didn’t remember much awareness of, and certainly not prayer to, Mary. But the Holy Mary mantra felt good to her as a woman and a mother.

Not knowing more than the beginning of the prayer, she consulted Google. “But I don’t want to pray the second part,” she said. “I’m not a sinner.”

“Maybe sin isn’t moral but spiritual – like being out of connection with the goodness in yourself, your neighbor, and God?” I said.

“I can live with that,” she said.

As I pondered our conversation, some dangerous questions about American spirituality came to me – “out of nowhere.” Is sin a neglected moral value? If not original, it’s surely inevitable. Although fallen out of fashion and abused in the church to control others, should not sin, both word and theological concept, be proclaimed as a necessary step toward the downsizing of America’s superpower ego? And the church’s? Can there be true humility, right-sizedness, without admitting the fall into sin? Did we ever leave Eden?

I’ve been in parishes where mention of sin is avoided. I’ve struggled to soft-pedal it to sponsors of baptisands who are reluctant to use the condemned word in their covenantal promises. I find the Sacrament of Reconciliation refreshing. Why is it under-advertised?

Our nation’s founders valued reason to shape a new identity, but they also were humble and self-reflective enough to pose soul-challenging questions based on life experiences of unjust societal structures. New answers, new checks and balances, emerged and turned the world upside down. The whole project was a huge success.

Have we now fallen into the sin of imagining we have no sin, can’t fail?

Lyn Brakeman, a writer and Episcopal priest in Boston, MA, is the author of two books, Spiritual Lemons: Biblical Women, Irreverent Laughter, and Righteous Rage and The God Between Us: A Spirituality of Relationships, both published by Augsburg Press. She blogs at

Huxtable Family Values
By Elijah Heyward III ‘07 M.A.R.

Matt Lauer of NBC’s The Today Show recently asked the cast of The Cosby Show about the show’s impact on the 2008 presidential election. Phylicia Rashad, who portrayed matriarch Clair Huxtable, stopped short of crediting the series with having a role in electing our nation’s first African American president. Instead, she highlighted The Cosby Show’s success at helping the world embrace the realization that families have more in common than is often acknowledged. On television, as in real life, families share meals, have siblings who disagree, and some even sing and dance together like the Brady Bunch.

I’m thankful that I did not grow up as a Brady or a Huxtable but as a Heyward in coastal South Carolina. My hometown is a small town made famous by the Gullah culture, historical remnants of war and the literature of Pat Conroy. My childhood was colored by parents who often debated politics with paint that was neither blue nor red but shaded with compassion. Our dinner table rivaled Meet the Press. Yet it was where my sister and I learned to disagree without being disagreeable. It was where we also learned that despite the issue, people matter the most.

On the pulse of an important presidential election Americans have many questions to engage, a privilege of discourse and disagreement earned by the sacrifices of our forebears. Despite our differences, it is apparent that we all want the same things: safety, provision for food and shelter, education, and the right to live out our birthright on our own terms. Since our nation’s founding, our values have guided how we achieve these aims. Whatever the outcome, we must never forget that we all play an integral role in the American family and must unite to achieve our common goals.

Elijah Heyward III, a Beaufort, SC, native, is Director of the Youth Scholar Academy in Washington, D.C.

Expanding Our Reach
By Robert Mansbach ‘66 S.T.M.

When I use the word “values,” I include approaches that are rights-oriented, principle-oriented, and goal-oriented. For many who still support such value structures, the problem we face today seems to be an unexamined or even intentional shrinking of said values’ ethical “reach.”

Value-laden words like love, justice, liberty, equality, honesty, autonomy, and beneficence are seen as applying to smaller and smaller circles that involve family, religious group, political party, nation, or just “people like us.” This frees supposedly ethical persons and groups from responsibility for anyone or any community foreign to the chosen narrower circle.

Thus, such rights, principles of moral obligation, or ends/goals lose their power precisely because they no longer apply beyond the particular group espousing them. Ironically, persons or groups taking such an approach arrive at the same point as those who espouse no values whatsoever beyond personal benefit, since values narrowly limited without universal “character” are no values at all.

Robert Mansbach, Ph.D., an ordained Lutheran pastor, is an emeritus religion professor at Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY.