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Asking the clergy: How does your religion influence ethical decisions?

When faced with an ethical question, how do you choose correctly between right and wrong? This week's clergy discuss how a person of faith can make a principled decision based upon their religious teachings and traditions.


The Rev. Hope Johnson, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau:

Interestingly enough, most of my Unitarian Universalist life has been concerned with the question of how our ethical decisions have influenced our religion. I am a Unitarian Universalist because of its rich tradition in the arena of human rights. We "stand on the side of love" as part of our responsibility and accountability to all. For example, hundreds of Unitarian Universalists answered the Rev. Martin Luther King's call to Selma during the movement, in recognition of the first of our seven principles, to "honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person" who simply wanted to exercise the right to vote. Why? It was the right thing to do. We believe deeply in forming ongoing relationships with others. Just a few weeks ago hundreds of Unitarian Universalists, some from Long Island, returned to join our friends in Selma, with people of all faiths, to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. We also decried the lack of voting rights in 2015. Again, it was the right thing to do. Unitarian Universalism assumes the goodness of people and expects each of us to do what is right and just for all. While we recognize the evils of our society, we are called to dismantle its "isms," as we make way for compassion, kindness and above all, love. "The answer is to question," is a phrase that we often use that reminds us to be ethically responsible. It's a tangible way that Unitarian Universalists of all ages, and stages, are challenged to live our faith.


Rabbi Michael Stanger, Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation:

My congregants come to me often for consultation on ethical issues. The answer I would give them, if I were trying to guide them within the realm of Jewish tradition and how that should factor into their decisions, is something I myself abide by. It says in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbos 31a, that the first question you will be asked when you come into the afterlife at the final judgment, is not how observant you were, or how religious you were, but how you conducted yourself in business affairs. As Jews, I think that's very important and something we constantly have to be guided by. In my case, it's not just an issue of trying to be the best person I could be, or the best Jew I could be, but the best rabbi I can be. How can I advise others to adhere to a certain path if I don't do that myself? Sometimes, it's a matter of consulting with scriptures of codified Jewish law, sometimes I might consult with another rabbi, and, finally, sometimes you just know it in your kishkes (gut). We know that there are certain things, such as cheating on your taxes, that you should know are wrong. Adultery is clearly wrong because it is prohibited in Scripture. However, there are other things that might be more ambiguous. Ethics tells us that even if you know you can get away with it, it would still be wrong because God would know.


The Rev. Ian Rottenberg, Garden City Community Church:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40)

Having taught college classes on the subjects of both religion and ethics, this question is near and dear to my heart. For the Christian, God is love and Jesus is God in human form. So Jesus is the human expression of true, pure love. He is, we might say, what love "looks like" in human history. When I say that I'm a follower of Christ, I'm saying that my life is dedicated to the love of God and to the love of others. Ethical questions are questions about what we should do in a particular situation. So, as a Christian, when I wonder about what the right thing is to do, I ask, "What's the loving thing to do?" And as simple a question as that is to ask, it's very challenging to actually follow through on our answer. Being truly loving in difficult situations takes discipline, prayer, the study of Scripture and a community of friends who can help us to live out our mission to love. In other words, Christians don't face tough ethical questions on our own. We answer them together as a community of believers that we call the church.

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