David Hempton: Values to Live By, Even in College

David Hempton, Dean of the Faculty of Divinity, Alonzo L. McDonald Family Professor of Evangelical Theological Studies, John Lord O'Brian Professor of Divinity, speaks at Morning Prayers Sept. 10, 2018.

Values to live by, even in College

The eulogies and tributes surrounding the passing of Senator John McCain and Aretha Franklin got me thinking about the values we live by and die with. Maybe this is just a self-induced mortality crisis for a person of a certain age, but I think it is more than that. The truth is that most of us are more comfortable talking about values in the context of sad and tragic events, where even the most cynical fear to tread. In other contexts, however, talk about values either gets you into complicated philosophical arguments with smart ethicists or risks all the perils of overt piety, sanctimony, and even hypocrisy. Beware the person who sets themselves up as a paragon of virtuous values. As the careers of any number of religious leaders in the news make clear, what you see is not always what you get, and what you get is sometimes pretty awful.

If you go on websites to find out about values, you often get definitions or descriptions that arise out of the dual meaning of the word value itself. On the one hand values are “Important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values have major influence on a person's behavior and attitude and serve as broad guidelines in all situations. Some common business values are fairness, innovation, and community involvement.” This slide from values to business cultures also slides into another definition of value, namely “The monetary worth of something in areas such as accounting, economics, marketing or mathematics.” All this reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s quip about people who know “the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

So, how should we begin thinking about values at an elite university like Harvard? The first thing to say is that all the Schools at Harvard have statements of community values, which you should read at the beginning and end of every semester, just to see how we did—a kind of Atul Gawande style checklist. At the Divinity School, we organize our statement of community values around four propositions: respect for the rights, differences, and dignity of others; honesty and integrity in all our dealings with one another; consistent pursuit of excellence in one’s work; and accountability for actions and conduct in the workplace. Each proposition has a little amplifying comment. The first one, for example, on respect for others, goes on to say that “We seek to respect, understand, and learn from the cultures and beliefs of the members of our diverse community. Conscious of our own levels of privilege, we seek—with kindness and compassion—to engage in open and active dialogue that broadens our perspectives, increases our knowledge and awareness, and fosters mutual understanding and empowerment.” Of course, that’s a lot to live up to, and we fail more than we care to admit.

Nevertheless, one phrase in that description, caught my eye, namely “Conscious of our own levels of privilege....” That got me thinking about how communities without privilege try to construct their values. Now obviously communities at the raw end of power and discrimination rarely get the chance to articulate their values; they have more urgent things to be doing to survive.  But every now and again we get a few glimpses of how values seep in and out of such communities. Two recently caught my attention. The first comes from the pen of a woman who founded Asha India, an organization that has worked for over a quarter of a century with over half a million slum-dwellers in the Delhi slums to improve sanitation and public health, education and opportunity for unimaginably poor and disadvantaged people. Her list of values to instill into her organization and the people they serve are at first surprising: simplicity, compassion, gratitude, affirmation, heroism, trust, optimism, leadership, generosity, non-violence and peacemaking, and non-judgementalism. As she writes about these values, it is clear that she knows very well that there is no immediate panacea that is going to transform the living conditions of slum-dwellers. Her organization has done remarkable work in improving public health and self-esteem in these communities, but they are not living in opulence. She is as talented as anyone I have ever met at recognizing the political and economic reasons for the existence of slums, and combating them in sophisticated ways, but her chosen values are more interpersonal than structural, and have to do with what I might call parity of esteem and respect based on gratitude, affirmation and generosity. Structures need to be changed, but people are more than the sum of their structures.

Another value system that got me thinking is from an old CD I picked up in a charity shop in Ireland by the brilliant jazz musician, Wynton Marsalis. The CD is called The Majesty of the Blues and the third track is a three-part musical sermon on the “death of jazz,” “premature autopsies,” and “but on the third day.” It is a beautiful sermon, part lament and part celebration of the black experience in the United States, framed as a blues and jazz riff on the threat to centuries of black musical traditions. The values celebrated are nobility, majesty, heroism, grace, integrity, beauty, purity, a fair chance, and soul. He sees jazz as “charismatic sophistication,” as “elevating through elegance,” as “the sound of human glory in an era of flash and cash,” and as the translation of human potential into rhythm and light. This music is a candle of light in a dark cave of silence.

So, there you have two value systems, minted not in places of privilege like ours, but out of the slums and out of slavery. I find them compelling and hope you do too. Worth pausing over and maybe even worth suffering for.  Marsalis states that a burning candle drips over the hand that holds it; light and pain sometimes go together. Values are not vacuous platitudes, they are revelatory symbols of the kind of people we are and choose to be, both as individuals and as communities.