M a y / J u n 2 0 0 1
The world without, the world within
By Rosemary Bray McNatt
e are swamped by information. We see too much, read too much, know too much about too many places. Between car commercials and fast-food jingles on the evening news, we're privy to details of torture, rape, and murder from every corner of the earth -- including our own. And what we see leaves us angry, hopeless or -- worst of all -- numb. What, after all, could we have done about Rwanda's carnage or Bosnia's mass graves? Still, as people of faith, we rarely escape that nagging sense that our numbness is inadequate.
"It is not that we who care about human rights are wrong to speak in the tongues of ethics and law," Schulz writes in his introduction, referring to the traditional rationales for human rights work. "What we need to make the human rights 'sale' -- to build a broader constituency for human rights -- ...is a third set of arguments, a third understanding of suffering's significance.... If the American public is to care about human rights crimes committed against their fellow citizens in the United States, they must understand how those crimes endanger their own interests. If large numbers of Americans are ever to care about human rights violations around the world, they must be able to see the implications of those violations for their own lives here at home."
Beginning with the heartbreaking story of Samia Sarwar, a 26-year-old Pakistani woman murdered for pursuing a forbidden divorce, Schulz builds a powerful argument for the many reasons that human rights should be much higher on our national agenda. He contends that countries that are casual about human rights are inherently less stable and that countries unaccountable for the treatment of their citizens are far more likely to be unaccountable for their behavior in other arenas, including starting wars.
He takes world governments to task for their unfortunate practice of exempting notorious dictators from punishment for their crimes, and asserts that the failure to punish such corrupt and murderous leaders as Raoul Cedras of Haiti and Idi Amin of Uganda contributes to the climate for unconscionable acts committed by other dictators. "If we started holding leaders responsible in a consistent fashion for human rights crimes against innocent populations even in their own countries, how long would it be before other tyrants got the message?" he asks.
The heart of Schulz's book is his consistent challenge to what he frequently refers to as our nation's "foreign-policy realists," who support efforts to protect human rights only for the narrowest of reasons -- our immediate economic or security interests. In chapters that show the connections between the harassment and imprisonment of Mexican environmental activists and the destruction of the last old-growth forests on the North American continent; the link between the free flow of information (including statistics on disease) and the ever-growing specter of a world-wide pandemic; and the relationship between American police abuse and the costs of resulting lawsuits, this book is valuable ammunition against the cramped view of national self-interest that often dominates discussion of human rights.
Schulz highlights the complexity of the economic issues that surround defense of human rights. His observations may be just as disturbing to those of us who seek definitive ways to avoid our own economic collusion with oppression as to those who believe the invisible hand of the market will take care of everything. "The relationship between business and civil and political rights is an extraordinarily complicated one," Schulz writes. "Perhaps nothing is more damaging to productive dialogue between the business and human rights communities than the assumption on both sides that the only way to use economic power to further human rights is to apply economic sanctions.... Sometimes, of course, coercive actions are indeed the most effective strategy. But economic sanctions are usually a zero-sum game and, when it comes to the complexity of international relations, zero-sum games...often create two losers." It is not enough to sanction people, Schulz contends. What's needed is for everyone to stop posturing and to start figuring out how, on a case-by-case basis, human rights and economic growth are linked.
He also reminds that globalization and its corresponding technical innovations are the very tools that have strengthened the power of human rights groups and extended their reach. "It is virtually impossible today for human rights crimes to be committed in even the most remote corners of the globe without the rest of the world knowing about them almost instantaneously," he writes.
In his closing pages, Schulz, a UU minister, returns to his sermonic roots. He calls on all of us to adopt "a new realism" about human rights that demands they "be understood as matters of morality, legality, and utility, rather than sloughed off as a subsidiary interest." He envisions a common effort that will work to "shape democratic communities of rights" that will insist on a single standard of accountability -- even when the culprits are close to home. "To look on human agony and consistently remain unmoved," Schulz writes, "is to be dead in all the ways that truly matter, dead to the mystery of pulse and breath, dead to the gifts of grace and kindness, dead to the fragility of Creation." In writing In Our Own Best Interest, Schulz has given new life and strength to the reality of our interdependence.
f William Schulz has traveled the world in the hope of preserving human rights, the priest and theologian Matthew Fox has searched the world's faith traditions for human wisdom. The result is ONE RIVER, MANY WELLS: WISDOM SPRINGING FROM GLOBAL FAITHS (Tarcher/Putnam, 1999; $29.95). Fox began his professional religious life as a Roman Catholic priest. His belief in the notion of original blessing -- the idea that humanity was not born in sin but in goodness -- along with his subsequent work on creation spirituality led to his silencing by the Vatican and an end to his membership in the Dominican order. Now an Episcopal priest and founder of the Institute for Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California, Fox is one of the most visible proponents of what is sometimes called "deep ecumenism."
"I begin with an observation from Meister Eckhart," Fox writes, "who says that 'Divinity is an underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up.' There is one underground river -- but there are many wells into that river: an African well, a Taoist well, a Buddhist well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, a goddess well, a Christian well, and aboriginal wells. Many wells but one river....That is Deep Ecumenism."
Fox divides his book, which is part narrative, part anthology, into five major sections, encompassing our relations to creation, divinity, ourselves, the future, and new myths and visions. Within these sections he attempts to address the Great Questions -- from names for God to Holy Imagination, from our sexuality to our finitude -- with excerpts from both written and oral traditions. In the chapter on light, he begins with deep ecologists Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme and an excerpt from The Universe Story: "The beginning of the universe is a smooth, intense flame...the large-scale structure of the universe glows in great sheets of galaxies and in their intersections in long, spidery filaments of sparkling worlds." Woven within these excerpts are Fox's own voice, carrying readers into a Kemet prayer of ancient Egypt, St. John of the Cross, the Qur'an, and Rumi, among others.
What a reader gains in exposure to this wealth of scripture, however, she loses in satisfaction. It is a tall order for even the most graceful writer to build bridges among the world's great spiritual texts. In the end, this book is a tantalizing frustration. Just as a reading rises to a majestic peak, it disappears, to be interrupted by explanation or a studied transition to the next text. But despite the inherent limits of Fox's chosen structure, this is a book worth having. It makes available a teasing glimpse of uncommonly read scriptural traditions -- African-based religious texts that predate the African American religious tradition, for example -- and though the citations are often as frustrating as the excerpts, there's enough information in most instances to track down the full text.
Fox hopes that this book will begin a move toward the assembly of a scripture for the 21st century, one that includes scientific thinking and an effort to include the new cosmology as part of our spiritual consideration. He invites us to consider 18 viable myths of our time, as expressed in his gathered text fragments, and reminds us that "myths are not stories that are not true; myths are stories that are too true and too large for facts alone." The task Matthew Fox set for himself in One River, Many Wells was, in fact, too large for him alone, but his worthy and earnest beginning may yet inspire the massive effort a New Scripture deserves.
hile we live and work and wait, however, we still must feed our souls. There was a time when Unitarians and Universalists gained their spiritual sustenance, in part, through daily devotional readings. Our 19th century devotional guide was known as Day Unto Day. Our 21st century guide, if we so choose, could easily be AWAKENING THE SOUL, A BOOK OF DAILY DEVOTIONS (Skinner House, 2000; $16). Edited and compiled by John C. Morgan, the author of The Devotional Heart and a UU minister for 16 years, Awakening the Soul represents the contributions of several writers; its aim is to create a weekly framework for a time of quiet daily meditation or prayer. Some devotions are the length of a standard meditation; some are only a single line. Each entry contains a quote, a question, and an affirmation for the day. They represent the Christian, Jewish, and Eastern spiritual traditions. Fruitfully, the daily meditations are not necessarily tied to a particular holiday or sacred season. (The reading for what will be Easter this year -- April 15 -- are the words of the Universalist John Murray: "Be of good cheer, your God is with you. He will never leave you, nor forsake you. He is in the wide waste, as in the full city.") At a time when many of us are reclaiming western meditative practices, and when many more of us simply want a moment to reflect, this collection by Morgan and his colleagues is most welcome.
UU World XV:2 (May/June 2001): 59-60.
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