Black: ‘We the people’ must preserve ethics in government


U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black addresses the audience during his Interfaith Lecture Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

“Perhaps Chaplain Black’s spirit could best be described by the words that he gave to the president of Oakwood College … he said then, ‘For most of my life, I sought a relationship with God,’” Jane Campbell said in her introduction of U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry Black, the 2 p.m. Friday Interfaith Lecture speaker.

Campbell is the former mayor of Cleveland and was a member of the Ohio House of Representatives. She currently serves as the chief of staff to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Campbell is also one of the parishioners at Black’s Wednesday noon Bible study for heads of staff in Washington, D.C.

She’s also the daughter of Chautauqua’s Rev. Joan Brown Campbell.

Campbell described Black as “the spiritual leader for a hundred senators, their families and their staffs — an extended community of almost 7,000 people.”

Black counsels senators in their daily lives, provides Bible studies like the one in which Campbell participates, officiates weddings and funerals and visits those in the hospital.

Black was a two-star admiral and the first African-American chaplain of chaplains in the United States Navy before he became the U.S. Senate chaplain.

“I came up with the title ‘Running Without Stumbling’ because I believe that one of the responsibilities of government — ‘we the people’ — is to prepare individuals for seasons of emergency,” Black said. “Government, when it is fulfilling its proper function, makes a substantive and significant difference in the lives of people. It will enable them to get through challenging seasons that they would not be able to get through without the ethical force of … a God-ordained government.

“I believe that we depend too much on some kind of institution, which has really no one that we know or can depend on, to bail us out of all kinds of difficulties. I think we need to be reminded that government consists of ‘we the people.’”

Black shared three ways ‘we the people’ can protect the United States by preserving its ethical foundations.

First, fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship. Black cited Romans 13, which instructs the people of God in how to respond to the institution of government.

The first of these citizenship responsibilities is to submit to government. Governmental authorities are ultimately appointed by God, and to resist such authority is to resist God’s authority, Black said.

The only exception to this rule is if the laws implemented by government contradict religious commands. To illustrate this, Black referenced the story of Daniel in the Old Testament and mentioned the civil disobedience and protests in the civil rights movement.

The second responsibility of citizenship is to support government, regardless of which political party is in power.

The third responsibility is to respect government.

“If we’re going to respect government, we must respect those in positions of authority,” Black said.

Words have power, he said, and some of the commonly used rhetoric is inappropriate to achieving a productive end.

Black’s second idea to preserve the ethical foundations of the United States is to pray for government leaders.

“Prayer is probably one of the most underestimated powers on the planet,” Black said.

He cited 1 Timothy 2:1-2, which suggests that peace and quiet, as well as godliness and holiness, may follow prayers put forth on behalf of authority figures.

He spoke of those retired from Capitol Hill who spend time in Washington, D.C., in order to offer intercessory prayer on behalf of government figures.

He cited James 5:16, which says prayer is powerful and effective.

Black shared his testimony about the power of prayer during the looming government shutdown. He led his Friday plenary Bible study, which serves between 100-150 people on a regular basis, to pray that the shutdown would not occur.

“All of a sudden, I heard myself say something which startled me,” he said. “I said, ‘You know, the Bible says that the effectual fervent prayers of the righteous avail much.’ I said, ‘There need not be a government shutdown, with all of these prayer warriors here.’”

Even as the words left his mouth, Black said, he realized he did not know how to keep his promise to his congregation. So he led his parishioners in a prayer citing James 4:2, which states “we have not because we ask not.”

Black stayed up late to watch television to see what the decision was.

“Oh, ye of little faith,” Black said, gesturing to himself.

When the decision to keep the government from shutting down was made, hundreds more parishioners flocked to Black’s Friday meeting, where he led the people in a prayer thanking God for his hand in the event.

“When you think that you are helpless, when you think there is absolutely nothing you can do, when you are concerned about the polarization in D.C. and you’re wondering, ‘How in the world do they even speak to each other?’ with all the bellicose rhetoric you are hearing, remember that you always have the power of prayer on your side,” Black said.

To introduce his third idea to preserve ethical foundations, Black said, “We should teach wisdom’s way.”

The government — “we the people,” as Black put it — have this responsibility. He compared conscientious citizens to “salt and light.”

Salt adds flavor, Black said, and referenced the horror of a food like grits without salt.

“The environment should be more palatable because you are there,” Black said. “The environment should be safer.”

Black emphasized the importance of the Golden Rule.

“I love the way it’s put in Judaism: What you don’t want done to you, don’t do to somebody else,” Black said.

He also cited John Stuart Mill’s philosophy of utilitarianism: “Strive for the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”

The third philosophy he referenced was that of Immanuel Kant, a choice that surprises some, he said.

“Live in such a way that your actions can be made universal law,” he quoted.

Light illuminates, Black said, but also is often silent.

Black referenced the words of St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach the Gospel everywhere you go. When necessary, use words.”

He called for the nation to tone down its rhetoric and to encourage civility.

His bonus fourth point to encourage the preservation of ethics in the United States was to maximize the advantages of virtue in government.

“(Virtue) brings material prosperity. There’s something about truth and honesty that helps business thrive … It also brings social harmony. Spirituality and religion have done much to bring people together, to break down walls,” he said, referencing the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson’s sermon from earlier that day.

Moral power, in addition to material prosperity and social harmony, is the third reward virtue brings.

“There is something about believing that you have the moral high ground that gives power and courage to your enterprise,” Black said.

Black concluded using the words of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” — with a twist.

Calling the American citizens “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,” Black said, “And I would add, to run without stumbling.”