Mea maxima culpa

Guilt is, in my opinion, all too often a self-serving emotion. Guilt is a method we use to approach a wrong we committed, or even something for which we have no individual culpability, without substantively doing anything about it.

But feeling guilty, or perhaps I should say “feeling bad” is very self-serving. If I tell a secret entrusted to me, and then feel bad for doing so, I have done nothing to rectify or address my wrongdoing. I have simply engaged in mental flagellation.

Remorse, on the other hand, is the conscious recognition of wrongdoing, understanding that the action taken was ethically wrong for a specific reason (or reasons) and the desire to make restitution in some way.

A humanitarian is a person who helps others in need because he/she feels it is the ethically appropriate thing to do. I would posit that the drive behind a humanitarian is compassion.

OK, so why am I playing armchair psychiatrist? Well I’ve been watching the UUA’s GA from afar, and having seen a sermon by Rev. Joshua Pawelek, I was reminded of how religion-liberal and conservative-so often seem to miss the point on ethics and how to live life as a decent human being.

Rev. Pawelek’s sermon wasn’t a bad sermon; but I disagree with many of his points. Like much of the discussion in the UU world, he focuses on how being white, straight, male, and American make an individual guilty of any, all or some of the atrocities committed by humanity. He says that because most Americans (and by extension, most Westerners) live comfortable lives, we do so at the expense of other people on the planet.

I don’t deny that corporations sometimes do bad things and shirk their ethical duty (think Bhopal in the ‘80’s, something still not made right); but the average peasant around the world is not living on pennies a day because I have electricity and a high-speed connection to the Internet. The causes of harm humans do to one another (racism, sexism, homophobia, political and religious hatred, etc.) are complex. They cannot be addressed by simply feeling bad that you are not subject to them.

Religious liberals cannot address the world’s problems by guilt or “feeling bad.” I can guarantee that a starving mother in Darfur doesn’t give a rat’s ass how you feel about being a white suburban American. She wants food for her family and herself; providing it is dirty, hard, dangerous work. We can choose to do that dirty, hard, dangerous work, or we can choose to put our resources (the gifts or benefits of being well-off in the West) to the use of those who choose do the dirty, hard, dangerous work.

In short, we can continue to sit in our comfortable chairs and wrap our brains in cilices of our own making, or we can be humanitarians and take action to help those who need it. Personally, as a Unitarian, I feel it is my religious duty to do the latter.

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