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Religions Reflect Different Points on Moral Compass

Ethics: Views of wrongdoing, repentance vary widely. Some faiths stress individual atonement; for others, the stability of society is paramount.


The diverse reactions to the politics of penitence now playing out across the country, as President Clinton scrambles to control the legal and political fallout from his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, illustrate the sometimes radically different ways in which faiths grapple with the age-old issues of wrongdoing, repentance and redemption.

All religions have some kind of moral or ethical codes and a belief that violating them will cause negative consequences, said Robert Ellwood, a USC professor emeritus of religion. How we react to violations of those codes--and the way we seek forgiveness--varies greatly among cultures and religious traditions.

The belief in one all-powerful God characterizing Christianity, Islam and Judaism, for example, has shaped an approach to penitence that contrasts sharply with the natural law of cause and effect--karma--that governs the cosmos in the Buddhist and Hindu world view, scholars say.

Similarly, the emphasis on personal accountability and redemption that characterizes Christianity and Judaism, and has greatly shaped the American moral tradition, is in sharp contrast with other religions, such as Islam, that emphasize the stability of society.

Jews, Christians Emphasize Penitence

With each apology for his sex scandal becoming ever more specific and profuse, Clinton is moving closer to satisfying the requirements of penitence upheld by Jewish and some Christian faiths.

Among Catholics, penance, which might include reciting prayers or making a church visit, is not a prerequisite for forgiveness but a "sign of sorrow and reparation," said Father Thomas Rausch, professor and chairman of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Forgiveness can also be obtained by honestly acknowledging sin, confessing to others or participating in a penitential rite at the beginning of the liturgy, he said.

For Jews--now approaching the annual season of repentance that centers on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement--an exacting path of repentance has developed over centuries of Jewish law.

The course of t'shuvah, Hebrew for turning, involves specific steps of confession, remorse, a commitment not to repeat the behavior and a concrete plan to make amends to the injured party.

Clinton's initial public expression of regret fell far short of those requirements, Jewish scholars said, but his moves this week were improvements: heartfelt apologies, pleas for forgiveness and pledges of "trying to make it right" and "never to let anything like that happen again."

But the furor surrounding the president is befuddling some followers of other religions.

Right and Wrong Not Absolutes

For Japanese Buddhist priest Nobuo Miyaji, the whole spectacle is a bit puzzling. Buddhists have no concept of absolute right and wrong and are hesitant to rush to judgment, Miyaji said. Nor do they believe in a personal, monotheistic God to whom one confesses sin, asks forgiveness--or swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, under oath.

"I have been here 20 years, and I still don't understand what is absolutely bad and absolutely good . . . in this country," Miyaji said, adding that the scandal would probably not have come out in Japan.

Among Hindus and Buddhists, wrong actions cannot be corrected merely by appealing to some ultimate judge or savior, scholars say. "In the Hindu tradition, there is no sense that someone else can save you," said David Frawley, director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies in New Mexico.

Western religions may view repentance as a way to cleanse one's soul to reach the final goal of heaven, he said. But Hindus see a heavenly state as merely the first step in a long path to transcend the cycles of birth and death.

Religions also differ in the importance they assign to exposing individual sin in relation to the overall social welfare. In Western religions, where individuals are answerable to a personal God, individual moral actions are considered to be critical for society to function well, said Barbara McGraw, an ethics professor who, along with Ellwood, wrote a major text on world religions.

By contrast, she said, such Eastern philosophies as classical Hinduism and Confucianism emphasize the necessity for people to fulfill their prescribed roles--such as allowing leaders to lead--in order for society to reflect the divine order.

"There is more of a tendency to look at the overall good functioning of society, so the question that would be asked is whether exposing a leader in this way serves the greater good of society," McGraw said.

Muslim scholar Anwar Hajjaj has asked that question--and answered it with a resounding no. By contrast with Jewish and Christian traditions, where wrongdoing is expected to be confessed, keeping transgressions such as adultery a secret is "wholly encouraged" in Islamic society, said Hajjaj, chairman of the American Islamic Information Center.

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