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New challenges for liberal religion, and other matters

The following questions, based on this issue's contents, are designed to stimulate spiritual reflection and adult education group discussions.

by Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley

UNPREPARED FOR EVIL? Warren Ross asked leading Unitarian Universalist thinkers whether the September 11 terrorist attacks have challenged UU values and principles ("Confronting Evil," page 20). Lois Fahs Timmins says that because Unitarian Universalists have historically focused on human goodness, we have been unprepared to address human evil. The Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor agrees and says that without a doctrine of evil, "our prophetic voice is weakened."

Question: Have we avoided — or treaded lightly on — the question of evil? Is it possible to recognize and help correct wrongs in the world without a doctrine of evil? As a religiously pluralistic movement, what can strengthen our understanding of evil? Has September 11 changed your thinking about human nature?

GOOD AT ANOTHER'S EXPENSE. The Rev. Gordon McKeeman says that evil comes into the world when one person's self-interest comes into conflict with another's. He says, "The problem comes in getting people to understand how big their self really is" ("Confronting Evil," page 22).

Question: If ethical decisions always involve competing interests and values — if one person's "good" comes at the expense of another's "good" — how can we enlarge our sense of self? How can we protect our national interests while more fully embracing our global and planetary interests?

TURN THE OTHER CHEEK? The Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker says that "evil acts have to be confronted, and those who do evil acts have to be held to account and stopped — and that might take some force." But she also says, "The harm that has been caused by those who have done these evil acts can't be resolved by their suffering" ("Confronting Evil," page 24).

Question: Warren Ross asked, "Should we be fighting the terrorists?" What do you think? On what grounds do you base your response? What can force accomplish?

CONSCIENTIOUS DIALOGUE. The Rev. John Buehrens writes that disagreements about military action have often proved painfully divisive for Unitarian Universalists in the past ("Pacifists and Pragmatists," page 15).

Question: How can we "accept one another" and affirm "the right of conscience" while discussing war in our congregations?

UNDISCRIMINATING PRAYER. The Rev. Susan Suchocki Brown, who served as a chaplain at the World Trade Center site, told Donald E. Skinner that when she prayed for the dead, "it never even occurred to me that we might have been saying a blessing over the body of a hijacker" ("Hell on Earth," page 32). But she adds, "Each person's life had dignity; each had a mother and a father."

Question: Does Brown's statement surprise you? How would your Unitarian Universalist values inform your own response to the death of someone accused of a horrendous crime?

ROOTING OUT TERRORISM. John Paul Lederach argues that the best international response to terrorism would make it harder for terrorists to find new recruits ("Breaking the Cycle of Violence," page 26). The way to do this, he says, is to address problems that generate frustration, anger, and violence in the Middle East and Central Asia: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the fundamental human needs of the region's people, and the root causes of popular discontent.

Question: Lederach's proposal represents what ethicists call restorative justice. What would need to happen to make such a proposal feasible? If terrorists believe that the United States represents "an irrational and mad system that has never taken them seriously and [that] wishes to destroy them and their people," what would need to happen to undermine this belief?

'DO UNTO OTHERS . . .' John A. Rakestraw describes an 80-year-old monk's struggle, on September 11, to say these words in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" ("Religion News," page 57).

Question: Whether or not the Lord's Prayer has any theological meaning for you, what would it take for you to forgive those who have "trespassed against us"? What spiritual resources have carried or strengthened you since September 11? What have you needed from your religious community? What has your religious community provided?

RESISTING DENIAL AND DESPAIR. UUA President William Sinkford says that "our task, as religious people, is not to give in to denial or despair" ("Our Calling," page 5). While many around the world have lived with fear daily, he says, "we are learning in our sorrow that we are not unlike them, after all."

Question: Have we in the United States lived with an illusion of safety over the years? If so, what has permitted such a notion to thrive in our collective psyche? What steps can you and your congregation take to move toward greater empathy for the plight of others?

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

UU World XVI:1 (January/February 2002): 69.

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