In "Voices of Faith," religious leaders answer readers' questions.
The Rev. Betty Hanna-Witherspoon, pastor of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, Kansas City, Mo.: I believe we are the government. We determine by the representatives we choose the values that become a part of government decisions. For me, those values are embodied in social justice prophets such as Amos and Micah.
Amos condemns Israel when the nation "tramples the heads of the poor into dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way" (Amos 2:7). The prophet Micah asks, "...what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)
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Jesus further defines justice and kindness in Matthew 22:34-40. When Jesus is asked to which is the greatest commandment, he responds "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
This second commandment, which quotes Leviticus 19:18, gives us a world where justice and kindness undergird all decisions. We are commanded to love God and to love our neighbor just as we love ourselves
If we desire "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," we would assume that our neighbors would like these things also. What would such an assumption mean to our discussion of health ca re, education, housing and a secure old age? What would such an assumption mean to our design of prison programs or our view of undocumented workers? Amos would say it would mean that "justice would roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).
Philosophy helps, too
Rabbi Mark Levin of Congregation Beth Torah, Overland Park, Kan.: Decision-making inherently involves values. In deciding we demonstrate preferring one course of action over another. To do so, we choose what we most value.
All values may be religious. Each religion expresses preferences regarding every decision in life for its adherents. Therefore, all decisions we make for ourselves may well be derived religiously.
But government workers, including elected officials, represent the entire body politic, including a multitude of religions.
Fortunately, values need not be derived exclusively from religious postulates. Philosophy also engages us in moral reasoning. But philosophy possesses a distinct advantage over religion in a country that advocates the separation between religion and state. In a religiously neutral environment, values argued in the public square should also possess valid, philosophical underpinning to be discussed and embraced by members of differing religions.
Consider abortion: We are debating the value of life, autonomy and when life begins. If I argue based on a revealed text, like the Bible, I exclude non-believers from the debate. But, having derived my conclusion personally from my religion, I can choose to argue philosophically in the public square.
Gaining the agreement of people with differing religious commitments that life is the ultimate good, we can reason our way to mutual understanding of the issues of autonomy and life's beginning moment that are involved in abortion.