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The model ethical activists

It is significant that the social activists of the mid-twentieth century, the spiritual children of Gandhi from diverse religious religions and cultures, challenged the authoritarian systems of their time. cited Socrates as a model. But Socrates was not the only such model nor the earliest.

They also had other examples of the religious challenge to sacred authority available to them from both East and West. Martin Luther King, Jr., cited Jesus and the prophets. Abraham Joshua Heschel cited not only the prophets but especially the biblical patriarch Abraham as a model for challenging the authority of President Lyndon Johnson to conduct the Vietnam War. When Abraham fears that God will slay the innocent along with the guilty in the city of Sodom.He dares to say: "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" (Genesis 18:23. 25). If Abraham did not shrink from challenging God in the name of justice then the president, said Heschel, was hardly above questioning.

For Abraham and Heschel, authority is authoritative only when it meets the requirements of justice. Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh could also find inspiration in the life of the Buddha who insisted that even his teachings be questioned by his followers.

Just as the experts test gold by burning it, cutting it and applying it on a touchstone, my statements should be accepted only after critical examination and not out of respect for me (Unno 1988: 129-47: quoting Tattvasamgraha 1926: 3588).The internal structure of the Buddha's monastic community took the form of a democracy in which each monk had an equal vote. This community expressed the Buddhist consciousness of the equality of all selves (for all selves are empty) and stood in stark contrast to the hierarchy of the caste structured sacred society of India.

The authoritativeness of the Buddha's teaching is attested to by his refusal to be authoritarian. All religious communities (indeed. all human communities) embody a morality, but the emergence of an ethic requires a further step. The relation to authority is not just a problem for ethics to solve, it goes to the heart of what ethics is.

Ethics involves the transcendence of morality through the questioning of the authority upon which that morality is founded. As with the story of Socrates, so with those of Jesus, Abraham and Siddhartha. Ethics begins with a type of religious experience that questions sacred authority and its expression in traditional morality.

Ethics conceived is paradoxically both a religious and an impious desacralizing activity at the same time In my work (Fasching 1993: Fasching and Dechant 2001) I have called this category of religious experiences, experiences of the holy in contrast to the experiences of the sacred ft Following a suggestion made by French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1975) in his analysis of the social dynamics of religion, the terms "sacred" and "holy" are used here as antonyms rather than synonyms.This deliberately goes against the common practice of using the two terms interchangeably. Separating the uses of "sacred" and "holy," and the question of the relationship between ethics and authority is as old as civilization. but the events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seem to have raised our consciousness of it to a new level and in ways that make us sensitive to issues of cultural diversity.

For the nineteenth century brought the colonial conquest of the globe in the name of Western religious and cultural "superiority" and was followed by the twentieth century, which brought us the global tragedy of two world wars, culminating in the attempted Nazi genocide of the Jews and numerous lesser wars since. intent on "ethnic cleansing." Fascism.

Nazism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and religious prejudice are part and parcel of the human journey through these centuries. What was learned from the Nuremberg trials after World War II is emblematic of these centuries, namely, that morality can be dangerous. The crimes of war perpetrated in the death camps and elsewhere were too often "crimes of obedience."These were crimes in which the humanity of others was violated in the name of the morality of unquestioning obedience to a higher authority that defined its victims as less than human and not worthy of life.

In the aftermath of World War II, reacting to these crimes, the nations of the world took the unprecedented step of establishing a covenant of nations pledged to an ethic of human dignity and human rights an ethic that makes a claim to be binding on persons of all religions and cultures.

The founding of the United Nations in 1946 and the creation of the Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 were major milestones in the global history of human morality, marking an ethical revolution that declared limits on all authority, especially political authority. In the aftermath of World War II, a microcosm of this global revolution in religion and ethics took place in the United States.A community of ethical revolutionaries inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi and led by M. L. King, Jr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. Thich Nhat Hanh and others of the Civil Rights/Vietnam War era demonstrated that persons of diverse religions and cultures could share a common ethic of human dignity, human rights, and human liberation (see chapter 51), It was an ethic not of unquestioning obedience to authority, but disobedience civil disobedience in defence of our common humanity across religious, cultural, and racial the divisions.

What such social activists from diverse religious traditions have demonstrated is that there can be ethical cooperation while sustaining religious s diversity and that t and for this under the essence of the ethical life lies in challenging authority to promote justice and compassion for all. What is striking is that each could find precedents standing of the essence of ethics not only in their traditions (in figures like the Buddha and Abraham) but also in each other's traditions, and all found inspiration in the life and death of Socrates.

The story of the trial and execution of Socrates attracted these social activists because it offered them an ancient and authoritative example of the ethical as a challenge to authority. Our words "morality" and "ethics" are derived from Latin (mos. mores) and Greek (ethos. hike) terms which originally meant the "customs" of the people - the sacred customs.It was Socrates who gave new meaning to the term "ethics," for his religious experiences led him to practice philosophy as the pursuit of wisdom through the questioning of such customs (see chapter "On Religious Ethics").

Although the terms ethics" and "morality" are often used interchangeably, I find it useful to give privileged status to the Socratic usage for the term "ethics" while reserving for the term "morality" the pre-Socratic meaning of "sacred customs." Thus we shall understand sacred customs as the traditional morality of a community and ethics precisely as the questioning of that morality. 

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Abraham Joshua Heschel Jesus Jr Martin Luther King Socrates


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