Contents: UU World Back Issue

Choose your enemies carefully

by Forrest Church

Some religious liberals cringe at the word evil. I don't. Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden are not basically good people who sometimes did and do bad things: They and the structures they erected to enforce their will and expand their power were and are agents and agencies of evil. This helps account for the predicament in which we, as a nation, now find ourselves. Our leaders are so outraged by the evil of our self-appointed and chosen adversaries, so blinded by the light in which their own and our nation's high moral idealism bathes them, that they cannot see—or even imagine—that we ourselves might cast a similar shadow.

The squalid revelations of prisoner abuse by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the grotesque beheading of Nicholas Berg as an act of direct retaliation have been a wakeup call, a reminder that being American—despite this nation's lofty ideals—doesn't immunize us from sponsoring evil.

National or collective sin almost always cloaks self-interest in the garb of higher virtue. Not only as individuals but as a nation, we justify questionable means by noble ends. We exculpate ourselves by pointing out that others do worse. We rationalize away our crimes as aberrant. In short, by shifting moral responsibility away from ourselves, we pronounce ourselves innocent.

Ever since Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent, we humans have avoided taking responsibility for our actions (and therefore accountability for their consequences) by proclaiming that the buck stops elsewhere. That, in a nutshell, is original sin.

Liberal theology doesn't take sin and evil seriously enough. American fundamentalism takes evil seriously, and would certainly seem to have a doctrine of sin. But by trivializing sin into a moralistic catalogue of personal foibles, American fundamentalists reserve the badge of real evil for others. With sin, however, there are no others. The world is not divided into sheep and goats. Each of us is both sheep and goat, making original sin a corrective to any theology based on an “us-versus-them” model, and conducive as well to the development of a clear-eyed, unsentimental universalism.

Martin Luther put it this way: “The ultimate human sin is our unwillingness to concede that we are sinners.” And the great Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr described our penchant for adjudging ourselves good because our enemies are evil as “the secret of the relationship between cruelty and self-righteousness.”

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his henchmen beheaded Nick Berg, recording it on videotape in retaliation for the brutal, humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison, itself captured on video. Events in Iraq tragically prove the first law of history: Choose your enemies carefully, for you will become like them.

What happened in Abu Ghraib does “not represent America,” our president said. And he is right. It represents human nature. It's not only that good people sometimes do bad things or that in every barrel there are a few bad apples, but that the veneer of civilized behavior is thin, fragile, and of relatively recent application. There has never been a war in which we humans have not dehumanized our enemies, leading the victors to treat the vanquished like animals. And barring strict internal controls and external oversight, prisons are, almost by definition, inhumane. Under stress, especially in crowds or small packs, human behavior easily becomes wanton and brutal—bestial, we say, though animals are almost never what we refer to as inhumane to one another.

If you don't like the word sin, substitute another—humankind's innate inhumanity—but don't underestimate the concept, or think that we are all born good and then somehow get destroyed or twisted by society. Given our natural egotism and instinct for survival (which through opportunistic self-rationalization easily morph into the drive to dominate), sin is bred in the human bone.

The founders of our nation certainly understood this. They knew that, unchecked by moral and state stricture, people act for their own self-interest, mind­less of the common good. The founders weren't cynics. They knew that we humans, as the Bible says, are at once scarcely higher than the beasts and just a little lower than the angels. Blessed with high ideals yet tempered by realism, they crafted our government with an eye both to the intrinsic potential dignity and the inevitable corruption of human nature. Their ideals set this nation under a remarkably, perhaps impossibly, high set of standards: liberty and equality for all. At the same time, they attended to the lesser angels of our nature, deftly establishing a balance between competing factions and interests to ensure that no group—neither a majority nor a minority—could impose its will unchecked by competing interests. By cutting corners, today's leaders chip away at the nation's cornerstones.

We have so much more in common than could ever possibly divide us. We are all alike mysteriously born, fated to die, the mortar of mortality binding us fast to one another, the same sun setting on each of our horizons. We all want and need love and security and freedom and acceptance. We need others' forgiveness and understanding. All of us do. We ache in the same way. We bleed in the same way. At times, we all feel awkward and unworthy and inadequate. And we all fail at times to hearken to the better angels of our nature.

This is the centerpiece of theological universalism. To whatever extent we place our primary identification with creed or nation, with race or gender, with school or party, we betray our common humanity. Party to faction, we are prey to the beguiling logic of division, the logic of retribution and judgment, the logic of hate. In short, we live in a state not of grace, but of sin.

I define the word sin simply. It is anything that divides us: within ourselves; against our neighbor; from the ground of our being, the god of all creation. Salvation, from the Latin, means health. The Teutonic words heath, hale, holy, and whole all share the same root. Salvation from sin is, to use St. Paul's word, reconciliation. On those rare yet blessed moments when we make full peace with ourselves, with others, and with our creator, we experience salvation.

From a sermon preached at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City on May 16.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
: 18-20

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