A Unitarian pastor examines the nature of — gasp — sin

He warns of self-interest clothed in garb of higher virtue Hitler, Stalin, Saddam and bin Laden are all `agents of evil’

Clergyman Discovers Sin!

That dog-bites-man headline commands attention when the clergyman in question leads a New York City congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which usually stresses optimistic views about humanity.

But Rev. Forrest Church deals in traditional concepts more than do some colleagues of his very liberal denomination. The surprise in an article he wrote for the denomination’s U U World magazine was openness to a version of original sinPDF file, Christianity‘s belief that each person is tainted by sinfulness from birth.

Though Church didn’t mention it, theologians developed that concept from the Bible, for instance, the Old Testament’s Psalm 14:1-3 as paraphrased in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul:

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.” Paul later asserts that “there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10-12, 22-23).

Paul’s teaching was cited by the conservative Protestant magazine Christianity Today as it contemplated the torture of prisoners by U.S. troops in Iraq, an event that likewise sparked Church’s thoughts.

Christianity Today quoted Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago regarding the foolishness of historians who try to blame the Nazi Holocaust on the supposed character of the German people.

Christians must realize and teach, Elshtain wrote, that “systematic and well-organized murder is, alas, an immanent possibility in human affairs, given the right set of circumstances.”

Church wrote that Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were not “basically good people who sometimes did and do bad things” but agents of evil.

Like other religious liberals, Church put special emphasis on “national or collective sin” that “cloaks self-interest in the garb of higher virtue” and justifies “questionable means by noble ends.”

Likewise his father, the late U.S. senator Frank Church, had a keen sense of collective sin in leading investigations that brought major changes at the Central Intelligence Agency, which now faces renewed questioning.

Forrest Church said Abu Ghraib showed that America’s lofty ideals do not “immunize us from sponsoring evil.” But Americans “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.”

Church was non-partisan enough to also note the beheading of Nick Berg.

People try to avoid responsibility for their actions and accountability for the consequences, he said, just as Adam blamed Eve and then Eve blamed the serpent. (Church did not develop any Unitarian concept of the sin in the Garden of Eden or the “fall” of humanity.)

Church said we must all recognize the universality of sin, but suggested that people who shy away from that old-fashioned word use a substitute such as “humankind’s innate inhumanity” as one alternative.

Church himself defined sin as “anything that divides us, within ourselves; against our neighbour; from the ground of our being, the god of all creation.” (The lower cases for the divine “ground” and “god” were Church’s usage.) Similarly, he defined salvation from sin as “reconciliation.”

The same issue of U U World resurrected words from the most recent Unitarian to be a major party nominee for U.S. president, Adlai Stevenson (who lost to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956).

In a 1958 letter, Stevenson wrote that difference “is one of the healthiest and most invigorating of human characteristics, without which life would become lifeless.”

The faith’s goal is not to make “the whole world Unitarian,” he said, but to help people “see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of critical self-examination.”

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Associated Press, USA
Aug. 1, 2004
Richard Ostling, Associated Press

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday August 1, 2004.
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