COMMENTARY: Why we don’t value values

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KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. (RNS) “Turn left at the airport exit,” said the car rental agent at the airport in Norfolk, Va., “and go four lights to I-64 West.”

She meant straight at the exit, of course, not left, and she meant I-64 East, not West. Or so I discovered after I had crawled 20 miles in heavy traffic and stopped at a Citgo to ask directions.

I steamed for a while but then realized that, in the day’s hierarchy of values, a missed walk on the beach didn’t rank nearly as high as safe arrival, the good company of friends and ministry to be offered as teacher and preacher.

Some things, it turns out, actually are more important than others.

That concept of a hierarchy of values seemed deeply rooted at All Saints Church, a remarkable Episcopal parish in Southern Shores, N.C. They change direction constantly, as needs change. They put children first, even though the community is mainly retirees. They don’t waste any breath on religious squabbles. They don’t fret about time or tradition in worship. If someone needs to speak, they listen. If someone needs healing, they lay on hands.

Like I said, some things actually are more important than others.

I wish a hierarchy of values played a larger role in the strange political snake pit that is shaping U.S. politics. Not my hierarchy, necessarily, but the idea that not all values are equal, and when we disagree, we need to discuss and seek common ground.

Instead, we’re fed a round-the-clock diet of vitriol and distortion, pandering to people’s fears, demonizing the opponent, all in a moralizing fervor that seems untethered from any morality deeper than enemy bashing.

Jab here, jab there, take any event and turn it nasty for the 24-hour news cycle. The point isn’t to address important issues and to debate actual values. The point is to turn issues into weapons that erode credibility and cripple a leader’s ability to lead.

Don’t we even see how profoundly unhealthy this is?

When our political and journalistic gladiators attack any action taken or untaken, and when people cling to fears and anger far beyond their due, they poison the common well.

I fault organized religion, in part, for allowing this moral vacuum to develop. When we should have been training people as moral agents, we were building an institution and baptizing our cultural preferences as God’s will. When we should have been training people how to recognize serious issues and how to discuss them when opinions differ and feelings are high, we were issuing press releases and taking high-profile stands on any issue that came along.

I think it’s time we saw that our people are asking life-transforming questions about God. Who is God? What does God want? What is the purpose of their lives? Is there hope for the future in God’s providence? Can love make a difference? What should they care about?

We must train our people how to make ethical decisions, not fire moralistic broadsides. We must teach people how to manage their own lives by standards of justice, mercy and integrity, and how to seek God’s guidance.

Out of that moral formation will come an ability to deal maturely and lovingly with a dangerous, fast-changing world. We need more collaboration, less caucusing. More wisdom, less right opinion. More sanity, less saber rattling. More courage, less helpless rage. More self-sacrifice, less conniving.

Like I said, some things actually are more important than others.

Demanding better of our political and corporate leaders will only happen when people see values as more than slogan — both for ourselves and for the troubled world around us.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project, http://www.churchwellness.com. His Web site is http://www.morningwalkmedia.com.)

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