Can I trust you?

An Address by Dean Gregory Sterling of Yale Divinity School

Today at the Yale Divinity School commencement exercises, Dean Gregory Sterling offered some sobering words to graduates in the class of 2018 regarding the context into which they are stepping to begin their service as ministers, scholars, workers for nonprofits. Along with his description of the circumstances around us—which mean that to an unprecedented degree these graduates will be attempting to serve people who mistrust higher education or the church or both—he drew on Psalm 15 to write his “charge” to his graduates. I told him that I thought his words were timely, insightful, and potentially helpful to many of my friends, so I asked him for his script, and he kindly passed it along to me. Please do not copy and repost without further permission. —James Ernest

I will paste in the text of Psalm 15 from the NRSV before Dean Sterling’s remarks.

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Those who do these things shall never be moved.

This is a special moment in the life of every graduate. You have earned an advanced degree from one of the world’s leading universities. We all–faculty, families, and friends–are here to celebrate your accomplishment; you deserve to be honored. In just a few moments you will hold your degree in your hand. We congratulate you!

We also want you to think about what your degree means as you move into the next phase of your life. According to a poll released last July from the Pew Research Center, an astounding 45% of Americans believe that American higher education has a negative impact on the country. The numbers are somewhat partisan: 58% of Republicans and Independents believe this. Yet, even allowing for some partisan politics, the numbers are troubling.

Institutions of higher education are not alone in suffering from a lack of trust or trustworthiness. The same Pew report also notes a partisan divide with respect to religion, only the roles are reversed: 73% of Republicans but only 50% of Democrats have positive views of religion and churches. Churches fared even more poorly in a recent Gallup poll that asked people to rate institutions on the basis of their confidence in them. In the Gallup poll only 41% of the people surveyed stated that they had “a great deal or quite a lot of trust” in the churches or religion.

At this point, you and your families may be thinking: Why didn’t you tell me this before I came two or three years ago? Why tell me now? Things have changed in recent years. For example, there has been a major shift among Republicans and Independents in their attitude toward higher education. In 2015, only 37% of the Republicans and Independents thought that colleges and universities had a negative impact on America; three years later this stood at 58%. The decline in assessments of religion have been much slower. The Gallup poll that recorded a 41% favorable view also noted that as recently as 2001, 60% of Americans had “a great deal or quite a lot of trust” in churches or religion. The situation is not that different if we consider trust in other institutions. The Edelman Trust Barometer is an international measure of the credibility of institutions in four areas: business, media, government, and NGOs. These are measured across 28 international markets. In 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer reported that for the first time in the seventeen years that this tool has been in existence, the overall measure declined in all four areas. In two thirds of the 28 markets surveyed, people did not trust the four institutions to “do what is right.

All of this is a way to say that you are entering a world where almost half of the people you encounter might view your education negatively and another large group might question how helpful it was that you went to a Divinity School. Why? The common denominator among these polls shares is that people do not trust institutions or their leaders. The lack of trust is one of the driving forces behind the populist movements that have become such powerful political forces.

Why the lack of trust? There are a number of reasons, but the most pressing in terms of trust is that rhetoric has replaced reality, ideology has overwhelmed commitment to truth, and cleverness has occluded wisdom. How do we change this? How can we restore the public trust in the institutions that you will now or within a few years lead?

My mind turned to Psalm 15 as I asked this question. The psalm is often considered an entrance liturgy or a rite used to determine the suitability of someone who would enter the temple. The surprise as you read the psalm is that the focus is entirely ethical, not ritual. The psalm is emphatic about this orientation: there are ten requirements, a number that deliberately echoes the Ten Commandments. The ten requirements are listed in alternating sequences of three positive and three negative qualities followed by two positive and two negative qualities. I would like to use this ancient entrance liturgy to reflect on your entrance into positions of leadership in churches, educational institutions, not-for-profits, and for profits. I will only consider the first three related qualities and ask how these qualities ae relevant for our contemporary situation.

The first three entrance requirements are three positive qualities “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.” They underscore the question of character. To live a blameless life does not mean to live a faultless life, but to live a live that is above censure. I do not mean that you will be free of criticism, but that you will avoid making the mistakes that the litany of public figures who have resigned in disgrace over credible sexual misconduct charges have made. It means that you will act with more integrity than the financial community that brought about the financial collapse in 2008 and caused the public trust in banks in the US to fall from 53% in 2004 to 21% in 2012. The psalm challenges to live an unusual life, a life above reproach. There are two figures whom most of the world trusts, two people who command moral authority: Pope Francis and the Dali Lama. They do not command this authority because we agree with all their views; they command it because they “walk blamelessly.” They not only promote service for others, but place service to others above service to self. This is what the psalmist calls us to do.

This psalm offers two specific ways to walk blamelessly: “do what is right and speak the truth.” It is interesting to me that the Edelman Barometer of Trust uses the identical phrase as Psalm 15:2 when they survey people. They ask whether you trust the institution “to do what is right.” It is easy to sit here and to claim that we would do “what is right,” but it is not always as simple as it sounds. One of the dilemmas that you will face as you lead is the decision between doing what is a matter of principle versus doing what is politically advantageous, doing what will promote the welfare of the people you serve versus your own welfare, doing what may cost you your position versus doing what will preserve your position. Fortunately, most decisions do not come down to such brutal choices, but you will find yourself at this crossroad. Nelson Mandela demonstrated how to handle such a decision as well as anyone. Freed from 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island and elected president of South Africa, he might have pursued revenge–a lesser person would have. Revenge would have been both understandable and popular as justice served. Instead Mandela chose the difficult path of building a common society that included both blacks and whites. He famously wrote in his autobiography: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” We admire the loftiness of this statement, but we need to remember that Mandela wrote it about those who had taken a third of his life away and to those whose lives had been similarly oppressed and who–at least many of them–were anticipating a different response. Mandela did what was right, even at personal risk. The courage that led to his imprisonment on Robben Island is the same courage that he demonstrated as president. He did what was right.

Finally, you must not only do “what is right,” you must speak the truth from your heart. One of the reasons why trust has eroded so significantly is that we cannot depend on what we hear about society. Almost seven in ten people surveyed by the Edelman Barometer are concerned that fake news will be used as a weapon against them. Two-thirds of the people surveyed believe that news media is more interested in market share than in accurate reporting. The market or country that suffered the most severe decline in the last year is the United States. In 2018 it suffered the steepest one year decline in the history of the barometer. Among the informed public, the US fell from sixth place to dead last, 28th place, behind Russia! We have a credibility crisis. We have a character crisis.

Commit yourselves to telling the truth and only the truth. There are a myriad of ways that we undermine truthfulness. “Alternative facts” are not sophisticated epistemological analyses, but bald faced falsehoods used to defend fradulent statements or brush aside “inconvenient truths.” Fake news or the creation of stories or statistics to mislead people is not a substitute for verified stories or good old fashioned fact checking. Character assassination by reporting rumors has moved from political targets to unbridled expression in social media. It is yellow journalism at its worst or slander in the biblical tradition. Disinformation or the practice of disclosing only enough to mislead audiences deliberately has become the most insidious challenge to truth telling. Have we as Americans become so jaded to lying in politics and advertising that we no longer think that it is important to tell the truth? Have we so insulated ourselves by permitting only a single perspective in what we hear, see, and read, that we feel incapable of weighing differing perspectives? Is what comedian Stephen Colbert called “Wikiality,” the acceptance of what at least 51% of what people think or say, now the standard for truth?

The psalmist is not challenging us to accept the standards of integrity, character, and speaking that have become commonplace in our society. I trust that I can say that the faculty and I join with the psalmist in challenging you and ourselves to be people and leaders with characters of integrity.

What does our degree mean? It means that you could provide a form critical analysis of the psalm, that you could recognize the intertextual connection with the Decalogue, but it also means that you commit yourselves to living the values for which we stand.

Who may lead a congregation or parish? Who may lead a not-for-profit? Who may lead a private or public school? Who may lead in the Academy? “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.” This is the charge that we give you with your degree. Now we are prepared to give you your degree.

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