Contents: May/June 2002
Jonathan Harvey of Mountain View, California, wrote that the letters in the January/February issue struck him for their "acrimonious, bickering, and cantankerous tone." The dialogue on these pages, culled from 75 letters about our special issue on life with terrorism, also illustrates a contentious range of Unitarian Universalist opinion. Whether the image of our religious movement, as reflected here, is flattering or alarming will, no doubt, be a matter of ongoing debate.
Several writers objected to a letter listing "unworthy ideas and behaviors," from "fascism to fundamentalism, from witchcraft and astrology to UFOlogy." Fascism found no defenders, but readers defended paganism and astrology. Laura Holmes of Exeter, New Hampshire, writes: "There are plenty of exclusionary religions in the world. Praise be to Unitarian Universalism's inclusion of a rainbow of unworthy ideas and behaviors. One person's unworthy idea may be another's salvation."
Sometimes an issue strikes a deep chord months after it arrives. Elaine Lovegreen of Waverly, New York, appreciated William Woo's profile of a San Francisco ministry to people on the street ("Fools in Faith," September/October 2001): "I love my church community in rural, northeastern Pennsylvania. We do a lot of good in our area, but the Rev. Kay Jorgensen and Carmen Barsody are living our first principle every day." Amid the rancor of ideological objections, we love to know when an article also inspires.
Christopher L. Walton
The January/February issue ("Understanding Evil") well reflected our ministry to the grief and pain of our people, and our responsive sensitivity to the death and tribulation of our fellow American citizens, as well as immigrants and visitors. But the magazine failed to represent our diversity and the power of our prophetic voices.
When it came to the deeply religious issue of war and peace brought on by President Bush's reaction to the horrifying destruction of our people and nation, UU World is found terribly wanting. The real question before us now is: What about the evil of this war? What is a righteous religious response to the destruction now being meted out by our own nation? To the jingoism that threatens to stifle democratic dissent? To the propaganda of our "media monopoly"? To the economic grasp for oil in Afghanistan?
Many of our ministers have preached strong antiwar sermons. But the magazine instead printed the Rev. John Buehrens's ex cathedra judgment that Unitarian Universal-ism is not a "peace church" ("Pacifists and Pragmatists," January/February). We are now living in an American Empire that has exploited its own citizens and other peoples around the world with an arrogance and brutality akin to the Roman Empire, which the early Christians had the courage and integrity to oppose, committed as they were to Jesus' pacifism. If we UUs dared to speak the name of U.S. imperialism, we would know more easily where we stand in relationship to its wars, be we "pragmatists" or "pacifists."
The Rev. Paul Sawyer
Room To Differ
Thank you for Galen Guengerich's wise and inspiring commentary, "Unshakable Foundations," and John Buehrens's essay, "Pacifists and Pragmatists" (January/February). As a supporter of the war against the Taliban, I had seriously questioned whether I still fit in with the UUA. I found Buehrens's words of inclusion reassuring. This issue of UU World has provided me with both solace and new ways of looking at the September 11 tragedy. Well done!
How disturbing to be urged by Galen Guengerich to have "faith in our leaders," specifically in President George W. Bush ("Unshakable Foundations," January/February). Faith belief or trust without proof can carry us through hard times and is a valuable part of religious life. But faith in the President is misplaced and dangerous. This barely elected President now holds more power than any person is ever supposed to hold in a democracy. What checks and balances remained in our already compromised democracy, along with the freedoms we are supposedly fighting to protect, are being thrown out the window by our elected representatives.
With our commitment to the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process, American Unitarian Universalists have a responsibility to our country and the world: ask hard questions of our leaders, demand truthful answers, think clearly, and speak out when freedom is endangered. Having faith in our president is the last thing we should be doing.
As we noted, Guengerich's sermon was written only days after September 11. It should not necessarily be taken to indicate unqualified support. The Eds.
No Coffee Hour
Thank you so much for the powerful special issue. I have read it and read it again, still grappling with the horror of September 11, and still trying to resolve for myself how to deal with such an event. I particularly appreciated the discussion about our first principle, and how to reconcile that with what happened.
I am a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which I enjoy immensely. But a disadvantage of such a membership was brought home to me when I realized that I had no one to talk with about the very issues raised in the magazine, and no one from whom I could get a different perspective. So I was particularly pleased to get this issue, which I have saved, and I continue to read and learn from it. This issue alone has been worth my membership.
(Elizabeth) Ann Woldt
The Church of the Larger Fellowship provides a ministry to isolated religious liberals. Visit www.uua.org/clf or call (617) 948-6166 to learn more. Many UUs also participate in conversations on a variety of topics using e-mail: see www.uua.org/lists. The Eds.
Never have I been so proud of being a member of the UUA as when I learned how President William Sinkford and other Unitarian Universalist ministers responded to the hate being heaped upon American Muslims and Arabs, and even on Indian Sikhs, following September 11 ("A Show of Solidarity," January/February). May we all take this opportunity to reach out and do what we failed to do for the mistreated Japanese Americans in 1942.
With President Sinkford urging us not to unjustly profile Arab Americans, I must ask a question that's been on my mind since 1964 the year I became a Unitarian but have been hesitant to ask: What official position, if any, did the General Assembly or the American Unitarian Association take on the matter of Japanese-American internment in early 1942 following Pearl Harbor?
My husband, who was incarcerated in Minidoka, Idaho, and I, at Gila River, Arizona, know that the American Friends Service Committee protested our incarceration and was very helpful in our relocation from the camps. Our recollection is that the AFSC was just about the only organization, religious or otherwise, to assist us. Even the ACLU kept pretty silent, if memory serves correctly.
The American Unitarian Association held its 1942 Annual Meeting two and a half months after the federal order to relocate people of Japanese descent. At the Annual Meeting, the AUA declared that "all race prejudice, particularly anti-Semitism and anti-Negro feeling and anti-Orientalism, threatens not only our national morale but also our unity as a people in this grave hour of crisis," and called on Unitarian organizations to work against "all forms of racial discrimination and religious prejudice." The relatively young Unitarian Service Committee quickly established a West Coast branch and collected much-needed material for people in the internment camps. Near the end of the war, the Service Committee sponsored hostels in Boston and New York to help Japanese-Americans reenter American life. The Eds.
UUs in Uniform
It bothers me that the issue of UU World entitled "Understanding Evil" did not mention the sacrifices made by the members of our military and their families. The four members of my immediate family who served in the military did not do so out of any desire to do violence or to dominate the world. They served because they thought that America was the brightest beacon of freedom on the planet. They would argue that they were both protecting the freedom we enjoy at home and promoting freedom in other parts of the world.
Motivation for military service can be found in at least two Unitarian Universalist principles: "justice, equity, and compassion in human relations" and "the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all."
Military families endure lengthy times of worry and separation missing loved ones in harm's way. They hope that their sacrifice contributes to the protection and the promotion of freedom and democracy. We UUs always stress the importance of diversity. Are we diverse enough to acknowledge the sacrifices being made by the members of the American military? Can we recognize the worry and the suffering that the members of military families endure? I certainly hope so.
The UUA hosts an e-mail mailing list for members serving in the military. See www.uua.org/mailman/listinfo/uumil for more information. The Eds.
That so many of our Unitarian Universalist clergy are grappling with the concepts of sin and evil amazes me ("Confronting Evil" by Warren R. Ross, January/February). As a third-generation UU, my theological foundation has never been stronger, secured by simple (yes, simple) ideas that were conceived well before the seven principles. Some of these ideas are: "I am not perfect, but I have the potential to be my best self." "If I am not perfect, then each person is this way as well." "To deny my imperfection is to let my ego rule what is good and bad on my terms with no consideration for others."
Anyone can let their ego misguide their beliefs. Isn't that why a leader who has an inflated ego and who claims to speak for God will create chaos and therefore evil? The seven principles are essentially a call to reasonable people to act responsibly. This is the foundation of love in our Unitarian Universalist religion, not the answer to all questions.
It's distressing that so many of our religious leaders respond to the September 11 terror attacks with wandering intellectualizations about the Nature of Man ("Confronting Evil"). It is amazing to me that our denomination is filled with people who can so easily identify evil with Thomas Jefferson, American colonization, corporate America, and Christians (to name our popular targets), yet we have such a hard time coming to any sort of meaningful conclusion about terrorists and their actions. And the torturous considerations about justification for some sort of perfect response are just more self-stroking hogwash. There is no perfect response. Don't expect one.
Dignity of Judgment
To acknowledge a person's worth and dignity as a human being also means that we recognize his or her ability to choose between good and evil. Free will is a basic and important human characteristic. By holding terrorists accountable for their actions, we do them the honor of acknowledging that they are human beings and accord them the dignity prescribed by the first principle.
Look in the Mirror
How can we affirm and respect people whose self-selected goals are to destroy human life? If we ask this question of others we must be prepared to answer it in regard to ourselves. Terrorism is a weapon of the weak, and it took considerable ingenuity, organizational skill, and discipline to carry out this assault against the world's only superpower, whom the terrorists consider to be the "Great Satan," the embodiment of evil.
Certainly any dispassionate study of the sorry history of the U.S. and Western drive for control of Middle Eastern oil during the last century gives plenty of justification for this feeling. Ours is a policy without any moral basis, only economic self-interest and realpolitik. Our goal is not to destroy human life, but, like the so-called terrorists, we do not hesitate to destroy human lives if it serves our goals. As Rep. Barbara Lee said, "Let us not become the evil we deplore." We are called to a more thoughtful consideration, not only of evil, but as residents of the United States, of our role in defining and perpetuating evil.
Warren Ross's discussion of evil focused primarily on "man's inhumanity to man." This is the usual concept of evil, but the concept is perhaps too narrow. Maybe we should think of evil as "man's inhumanity to man and other life forms" an ecological concept. Viewed in this light, our United States is an "evil empire," and rightly considered such by people of other nations. With about 5 percent of the world's population, we consume about 25 percent of the world's energy. We are dedicated to continuing this practice, even though we are aware of the serious (probably irreversible) effect on the environment. The rate of extinction is now 100 times faster than the natural background rate. Global warming, with projected dire consequences, is becoming an accepted fact. Surely we have a moral responsibility to provide a sustainable environment to future generations. If we fail to do this, man may become one of the extinct species. Do we want this to be our ultimate "evil act"?
Bin Laden's Goals
Though I can't be sure of his motives, I don't consider Osama bin Laden especially evil. He must have felt that the net result of his actions would fit his version of good. It's still possible he was right, though maybe not in the way he intended. The terrorist network was responding to what they reasonably saw as U.S. terrorism, represented for instance by the School of the Americas and our religious and/or political-economic oppression around the world. The attack seemed more against American business and military than against the people. Instead of retribution or turning the other cheek, we would get better results by examining the terrorists' protests and changing our foreign policies. A few years from now, we may be comparing Bush to Hitler more than bin Laden.
The idea that evil is that which harms me, my family, my tribe, or my country, with intent and without justification, doesn't seem difficult to understand. But why is it such a burden to accept the fact that people are born different? They are not equal; worth is not a biological characteristic; dignity is not a genetic characteristic. Worth and dignity are standards described by humans; they are not inherent. The problematic paradoxes of reconciling fiction with reality disappear when we eliminate the fictions. The first principle of the UUA is a fiction.
Darwin K. Rolens
The Rev. Dr. Davidson Loehr says, "I don't believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person for a second. . . Some few are saints, some few are sociopaths, psychopaths, evil people" (in "Confronting Evil" by Warren Ross). Finally, a person who tells it like it is.
Would it be such a terrible thing for Unitarian Universalists to admit that evil does exist? That people who do evil acts are evil people just as people who do good acts are good people? Judgments of good and evil must be made if human beings are to survive as civilized societies. Touchy-feely principles will not solve the problems of human interaction any more than laws against crime will stop criminal activity. Only reality-based judgments will save us from ourselves. And reality-based judgments can only be made based on reality-based principles.
It's time the UUA woke up and heard those among us who cry out, "The emperor has no clothes," without trying to redefine "clothes."
Wilbur L. Young
Our religious values are diametrically opposed to the beliefs of religious fundamentalists and terrorists. Unitarian Universalism is the antidote to fundamentalism because our "religion" is essentially secular. We do not dictate dogmas or creedal beliefs to our members. We don't have a basis for attacking nonbelievers because we accept any members who have nondogmatic beliefs about religion.
We don't attack anybody for religious beliefs, but we should attack religious killers for their actions. The fact that they justify killing us because we don't accept their religious fundamentalism demonstrates how evil fundamentalism is. We should proclaim our anti-fundamentalism, our uniqueness as an essentially secular religion. We value people based on what they do, not what they profess to believe. Only a secular society can enjoy democracy and freedom. Only nonfundamentalist religious groups are comfortable in such a society. And UUs should be the most comfortable because our religion has adopted the concepts of democracy and freedom in its practices.
Thomas J. Plante
Roots of Evil
I still believe that the vast majority of people are essentially good. I believe that evil behavior arises in people who are ignorant, poor, politically impotent, and frustrated, with a strong sense of helplessness and hopelessness. People who have realistic hopes for a better future do not become evil fanatical radicals.
Evil isn't the root of terrorism. Fear is. When someone is judged negatively, they often feel justified to ignore, insult, deceive, rob, harass, beat, torture, or kill us. We might vastly reduce fear in the world simply by showing compassion for each and every person victim and victimizer just as they are. Instead of endlessly discussing what's evil and what's not, let's ask how to practice compassion effectively, so we no longer become victims or victimizers.
Warren Ross ("Confronting Evil") did not mention the fact that the United States committed incredible violence during the Cold War through our support of violent regimes, and continues to do so through our multinational corporations. Any nation that comprises only 5 percent of the world's citizenry yet uses a huge, unfair share of the world's resources commits violence every day. What was missing in this article was, fortunately, made up for by John Paul Lederach ("Breaking the Cycle of Violence"). Wow! He's right: "The emphasis . . . should be placed on removing the justifications that nourish the myths that attract and sustain terrorist recruits." Instead, the United States goes headlong into retaliation in spite of such warnings.
It's a pity John Paul Lederach's article, "Breaking the Cycle of Violence," has no relationship to reality.
Lederach's prescriptions are based upon an incorrect understanding of the roots of this conflict. Bin Laden evinced little concern for Palestinians until recently, and his embrace of the Palestinian cause appears to be more propaganda offensive than genuine rage. Billions of peoples in Asia and Africa are far poorer than those in the Muslim world, but they do not supply terrorists.
The roots lie in Muslim society's resistance to the Western paradigm of democracy and equality. Most of Lederach's prescriptions would exacerbate the conflict because the Muslim world already perceives America as corrupt and weak for its egalitarian structure.
The nations of the Middle East are imperfectly modernized and have suffered from colonialism, but far from being a cry for change, the message of bin Laden is one of rage at being thwarted from establishing a thirteenth-century caliphate with him and Islam in charge of the rest of us.
Robert E. Hurst
Violence or Force
Distinguishing between violence and force may resolve the dilemma faced by persons wishing to practice nonviolence but concerned about failure to halt or fight terrorism. Violence comes from blind anger. Violence is unthinking, harmful behavior, traumatic, and is uncaring about collateral damage. Violence is cruel. Violence kills what others love. Violence strikes at the tender center.
Force is used by a wise policeman, with regret, to halt fighting, or to arrest a criminal, or to disarm an offender, or to restrain the arm of the offender. Force can be used in a loving, sensitive, thoughtful manner by a parent against a child to halt fighting between siblings, to save a child from injury, or in rare cases, through spanking. But force is applied in a loving way, with regret, whereas violence is applied in a hateful way.
To disarm a violent offending nation, or restrain its blows, use arrest and arraignment and subsequent trial of the individual leaders. Arrest may require the prudent use of guns and is accompanied by measures to avoid loss of life by the arresting soldiers/police. Limited use of pinpoint lethal force may be necessary for self-defense and a quick humane arrest.
Conferences are inadequate when dealing with a determined violent opponent, such as one who has ceased to listen to appeals to their better nature, or who holds a religious conviction to the extent of suicide, or holds a conviction which gloriously rewards those who bring death to a holder of some competing religious belief. The word arrest is well chosen by our forbears. It means both to halt the offending behavior, and to bring a suspect to jail for subsequent trial.
Surely, the United States is constrained to act in its own defense. Displays of power are virtually required of great nations to maintain their status. We can, however, limit military actions to well-defined objectives within a defined time frame against carefully chosen and identified targets. But we must repudiate our government's proclaimed intention of "eliminating terrorism from the earth," a goal as fatuous as pumping the oceans dry.
David C. Colony
John Paul Lederach writes in his otherwise excellent article, "Remember that the seemingly endless hatred and violence of apartheid in South Africa, is, indeed, ended" ("Breaking the Cycle of Violence," January/February). Regrettably, that is not true. It has simply been replaced by a different kind of violence, one that is fueled not by discrimination but by unfulfilled economic expectations and age-old tribal animosities.
I am a native of South Africa who immigrated to the U.S. in 1993, but I am still very much aware of the situation in my former homeland. When apartheid ended in South Africa and Nelson Mandela became the first president elected by a majority vote, the majority of the black population expected an almost overnight change in their living conditions and the way the country was governed. The reality was that for many people conditions actually worsened as unemployment grew and crime rates soared. This in turn deterred much-needed foreign investment.
The main hope for the future is that the emergence of a black, property-owning middle class will provide the stability for an economic breakthrough that will eventually meet those long awaited expectations.
John A. Rakestraw Jr. reports that when the City Council of Ringgold, Georgia, "decided to place the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer on the walls of the city's public buildings, they also decided to mount an empty picture frame 'for those who believe in nothing'" ("Religion News," January/February). Yikes!
An empty picture frame is not an inclusion of different perspectives. It's a callous insult to anyone with different beliefs, a statement that if you don't hold our beliefs, then your beliefs are equivalent to nothing.
In "Houses of Hope," (January/February) you reported on the activities of all the New York City churches except one All Souls Bethlehem in Brooklyn. Why the discrimination? Although the church is now small, it was one of the major Universalist churches in my youth and I have affection for them.
All Souls Bethlehem Church is a small congregation affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, the United Church of Christ, and the UUA. "Our church is in the midst of the largest Muslim neighborhood in New York," says the Rev. William R. Nye, part-time minister of the 38-member congregation, which reached out to local mosques shortly after September 11. No one in the congregation suffered an immediate loss on September 11, although several members were near the World Trade Center that morning. The Eds.
Copyright © 2002 Unitarian Universalist Association