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Wednesday, September 11, 2002

An idea worth defending.

The Rev. David O. Rankin, in a ten-point statement of widely-held Unitarian Universalist beliefs, writes:

We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice — and no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

While I admire Rankin's statements about what religious liberals believe, I have also believed for a number of years that this one statement has a profound flaw.

Here's the rub: It is in fact an idea that "no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life." There's bitter irony here, because if your enemy opposes this idea, and is willing to kill to oppose it, you have a terrible choice to make. Do you say, "No human life can be sacrificed to the idea of human dignity," even if it means allowing people to be slaughtered and the institutions of freedom to be crushed? Or do you say, in sorrow, that sometimes defending and preserving the worth and dignity of each human being requires the willingness to fight — and to accept the disturbing consequences of that decision?

I am not a conscientious objector or a pacifist because I believe that freedom and human dignity are not self-preserving ideas, but values that require careful and diligent cultivation and protection. Regretfully, a liberal society must be prepared to defend these ideas, even while exercising caution about the very real danger that we will turn our central ideas into idols.

U.S. military action in Afghanistan, as tragic as it is, counts as a justifiable defensive act against a band of fanatics who do genuinely oppose what we mean by the worth and dignity of each human being. That doesn't excuse the military from exercising great care, but it is a way of saying that Unitarian Universalist pacificists and reactionary anti-Americans do not hold the moral high ground. It also doesn't excuse Americans from looking carefully at how our society and our government pursue goals that harm other human beings. But it is a way of saying that many of the defining features of our civilization are actually good and worth our loyalty and commitment.

(Originally posted to UU Books, 9.11.02)

Copyright © 2002 by Philocrites | Posted 11 September 2002 at 5:04 PM

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