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Letter 90 | American Values Religious Voices

Letter 90

Joseph Walser

Associate Professor of Religion
Tufts University

April 19, 2017

Dear President Trump, Vice President Pence, Members of the Trump Administration and 115th Congress,

In the aftermath of World War II, “all members of the human family” came together to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This historic document contains significant contributions by Peng Chun Chang, a Chinese scholar of Confucianism whose influence can be seen in the Preamble, which states: “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.” The phrase “conscience of mankind” reflects the Confucian concept of the “humaneness” (ren) innate in all people.

This concept appears in the story of the King of Qi, who asked Mencius, a fourth century BCE Confucian philosopher, “What is necessary to be king?” Mencius replied that if a king protects his people, his humaneness would make them unwilling to oppose him. Mencius assured the king that he was capable of being a good ruler. How did Mencius know this? Earlier the king had seen an ox being led to sacrifice and noticed the animal trembling. Feeling compassion for the ox, he ordered the ox spared and a sheep offered instead. People criticized the king, saying he was being cheap by offering an animal of lesser value. Only Mencius realized the king had noticed the ox’s suffering and spared his life out of a sense of genuine compassion. Yet Mencius also recognized the king did not see the sheep in the same way he saw the ox, just as the king was not adequately attuned to his people’s suffering. The king possessed a modicum of goodness and righteousness; but to protect his kingdom and be a good king, he would need to extend his compassion to all people in his realm.

Most political leaders go into public service because they care about people and pressing issues; so they can feel hurt when others do not see the goodness of their intentions. Political failure and injustice are not necessarily due to one’s heart being in the wrong place, but can result from not extending the principle of compassion far enough. Mr. Trump won the election in part because he saw the suffering of many Americans. To govern effectively, his administration needs to extend that vision so that they really see the lived experiences of all those in America.

Sincerely,

Joseph Walser

Joseph Walser
Associate Professor of Religion
Tufts University

 

About the author

Joseph G. Walser, Associate Professor at Tufts University, holds a M.T.S. from Emory University and a Ph.D. in the History of Religions from Northwestern University. His research interests include Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and religion in early South Asia, and more.