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Taking notice of oppression — and a spiritual response
    The following questions, based on this issue's contents, are designed to stimulate spiritual reflection and adult education group discussions.
by Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley

Changing Lives and Challenging Injustice in India. "The whole history of India is the history of oppression," says Vivek Pandit, a brahmin who has dedicated his life to freeing bonded laborers and organizing tribal people for social change. "Our constitution provides protections, but only on paper," he says. Kathy Sreedhar, director of the UU Holdeen India Program, believes that traditional development programs have not changed the lives of the very poor at all. "The only way to change is for people to organize, because the only power poor people have is in their numbers," she says. ("Transforming the Lives of India's Broken People," page 18.)
Question: Why do you think Vivek Pandit continues to make a personal sacrifice and take risks for the sake of others? What is it that calls him? If you had an opportunity to talk to Pandit, what would you ask him about his perceptions of life in North America? Do you agree or disagree with Kathy Sreedhar's assessment of traditional foreign aid? Why? If there is power in numbers, what issues can galvanize people toward social change in the United States today? Why are people poor?

The Power of Bearing Witness. After an interfaith pilgrimage to what the Buddhists call "the place of unknowing" -- Auschwitz in this case -- the Rev. Barbara Hoag says she came to a deeper understanding of Unitarian Universalism: she embodied her theology. "I stood in a place that had tried to crush the beauty of human difference with brutal efficiency, but we, by our very bodies, were proclaiming the beauty of human difference." ("Bearing Witness," page 12.)
Question: How can we be blind to cruelty taking place right before our eyes? What is it that calls some people to prophetic witness -- to notice injustice and respond to it -- while others remain indifferent? Does your religious understanding empower you to respond to atrocities? What does it mean to embody your deepest religious convictions? Has your body ever become an instrument of religious power?

Between Self-Interest and Human Rights. William Schulz, president of Amnesty International USA and former president of the UUA, says that while Americans express concern about particular foreign policy goals, they "appear preoccupied with domestic needs" and pay little attention to human rights issues in other countries. ("A New Realism for Human Rights," page 28.) Schulz says, however, that "no corporation refrains from mixing into its host country's politics if it concludes that its own self-interest is at stake," citing Shell Oil's public image problem surrounding the execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Question: Why do you think "compassion fatigue" seems to have set in for Americans regarding human rights issues overseas? How do we move beyond self-interest to the spiritual dimension of human rights -- to "care about our brothers' and sisters' rights"? Does capital from democratic countries -- investments, trade, and aid -- promote human rights?

Is the "War on Drugs" an Answer? Charles Thomas, President of Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform, encourages congregations to study drug policies and to advocate for change. He says that "the thing we do best as UUs is pushing the envelope." ("Congregational Life," page 54.)
Question: Beyond government policy, what is the "war on drugs"? Is it winnable? By its very name, Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform suggests that our existing drug policies are inadequate. Is drug policy reform needed? If so, what legal changes would you support? How would legalizing drugs affect drug-related and organized crime? What questions is your congregation asking about drug policy on a local or national scale?

Leading as a Spiritual Lesson. Outgoing UUA President John Buehrens says that the most profound change he has experienced in eight years in office has been in his own spiritual life. ("Horizons," page 5.) In a separate interview, while acknowledging that as president he has not been outspoken about his own theology, Buehrens says he intends "to be robustly involved in theological reflection with and for [the UU] movement as long as I possibly can." ("An Enviable Partnership," page 36.)
Question: Do you have a spiritual practice that strengthens you in your work? What helps you to "grow your soul"? What spiritual lessons have you learned from your work, paid or volunteer? What should be the role of the UUA president in the spiritual dimension of congregational life?

Reflections from the UUA President and Moderator. Outgoing UUA President John Buehrens and Moderator Denise Davidoff highlight spiritual depth and increased giving as the most positive trends in our congregations within the past eight years. "I think the people who are practicing our religion are actually becoming in love with being religious," says Davidoff. On the other hand, they cite idealism, isolation, and an unwillingness to change as ongoing problems. "The problem in Unitarian Universalism is not the lack of idealism," said Buehrens. "The problem is sometimes an idealism that is too abstract and too good to be true." ("An Enviable Partnership," page 36.)
Question: Do you agree or disagree with Davidoff and Buehrens that our congregational culture is overly idealistic, isolationist, and not sufficiently open to change? If so, can you cite examples? What effect do you think these characteristics have on congregational life?

The Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley is adult programs director for the UUA Department of Religious Education.

UU World XV:3 (July/August 2001): 71.

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