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Individual values form the basis of religion's value as an international force for societal good

Seven experts on Christianity, Islam and Judaism grappled with religion's potential as a global force in politics, and generally reached the centuries-old conclusion that the underlying values of faith can benefit mankind even when the tenets of religious institutions are abused.

The panelists were featured Sunday, Sept. 29, in a Stanford University centennial roundtable, "Religious Forces vs. Political Priorities: Conflict at the Crossroads."

"Religion has been the major counterweight to totalitarianism," said Kent R. Hill, executive director of the Institute on Religions and Democracy.

Rebecca Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., said the same tendency toward obedience to authority that nurtured the form of Germanic Protestantism that may have fostered Hitler's rise to power may also have served as a counterweight.

"One of the first steps taken (by Nazi leadership) was to prohibit announcements in churches," Parker said, noting that messages of religion were "powerful forces for either good or evil." Nazi leadership, Parker said, "knew it had to control religion in order to succeed."

"It's not the overuse of the word prophetic" that has obfuscated moral issues on the international front, "but the underuse of the content of prophecies," said Michael Lerner, a leading theorist of Jewish liberation theology and publisher.of Tikkun magazine. "Religion gives you a guide, it doesn't give you an answer."

Lerner observed that in Jewish tradition, Abraham was faced with hearing the voice of his neighbors "or a voice of transcendance," the voice of God telling him not to sacrifice his son.

Persons of religious persuasion have always looked for answers that might offer meaning in the fight against conflict "and transcend 'that which has been' (the status quo) to achieve what the world might become," Lerner said.

The answer to religious truths that can bring peace to the world lie within individuals, who must also find ways of standing powerfully against evil forces that are being brought to bear on society in the name of religion or the secular, said Imtiyaz Yusuf, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Texas Christian University. Yusuf noted that the Moslem concept of jihad, or holy war, was used by opposing sides -- including religious organizations -- in the Gulf War, leaving to individuals the authority to search for deeper truths through articles of faith, such as Islam's Koran.

And Kenneth L. Woodward, moderator and senior writer covering religion for Newsweek magazine, asked rhetorically throughout the discussion whether an old saw of former U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill -- "all religion is local" -- might offer solace and guidance in an era of political turbulence.

Other panelists in the 90-minute discussion, attended by several hundred Stanford alumni, faculty, students and guests, included Robert C. Gregg, dean of Memorial Church and professor of religious studies at Stanford, and Magdaleno M. Rose-Avila, western regional director for Amnesty International.


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