“The most immoral action that someone can do is to fail to mourn their losses…that most of our impulses to strike out or harm another person emerge out of a failure to acknowledge, honor, and process our own losses in life, that most of our pernicious, cruel cruelty emerges out of a failure to recognize the ways in which we have been harmed.”–Bill Schulz
Bill Schulz graduated in ’71 and went on to be the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 1985-1993 and the Director of Amnesty International U.S.A. from 1994-2006. We met Bill in Washington D.C., where he currently works as a Senior Fellow for the Center for American Progress.
F+L: So. Let’s start with your favorite Oberlin story.
Bill: I went to a very traditional male prep school. In that context, underclassmen or younger students were almost always subjected to hazing and harassment, and sometimes other even worse forms of embarrassment in the traditional male prep school culture. I was uncertain when I went to Oberlin, having, of course in high school risen from a freshman to a senior where you were not subjected to that. But now, being regressed to a freshman at Oberlin, I was not certain what to expect in a college context, even though I had, of course, chosen Oberlin in part because of its egalitarian ethos.
The very first day, I went to class. I was walking from Barrow Hall, which, at the time–is that where you are? At the time, those were all the male dorms in the North, and all the women were in the South. I was walking through Kettering. I don’t know whether you still do that, but you used to walk to King and the classes from Barrow through Kettering and then across the street. As I approached the door, a student who was obviously older than I was held the door for me. Now, at Shady Side Academy, a senior who held the door for a freshman was intending to slam the door on you as you went through and make you stumble or embarrassed…and fall or whatever. So when this senior held the door for me, I was very wary and reticent, and he said, he looked at me peculiarly, oddly—‘Please.’ So I went through, and nothing happened. And tears came to my eyes. I started to cry, because I was so relieved and realized that I was in such a different place, and I was not going to have to go through the several years of trauma, mental and physical trauma, that I had had to go through four years earlier as a first year student at Shady Side. So for me, that kind of epitomized that Oberlin ethos of respect for one another without categories, or at least without, in that context, age categories. So that’s my favorite Oberlin story, and always has been, because it was such a transformative moment for me, just within a second’s time.
F+L: What is the most important lesson you learned at Oberlin, how did you learn it, and how has it affected your life?
Bill: Well, when you sent me these questions, I mean, given that the story I just told you is probably the most important lesson I learned on a visceral level, I was trying to think of another. Well, I can tell you another story, which was during the Oberlin time, but wasn’t at Oberlin per se.
When I was at Oberlin, I was exploring the possibility of becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister. Among the ways I did that was that I arranged to work as a student assistant or intern with a number of ministers in the greater Cleveland area and then toward the end of my tenure, I was invited to become the sole minister, as a student minister, at a little Unitarian Universalist church in Kent, Ohio. It would have been the end of my junior and all through my senior year at Oberlin. Once a week I would commute from Oberlin over to Kent, which is about an hour’s drive, and during that period was May of 1970, and that was the time of the Kent State Shootings. So I was very much at the heart of what was a very traumatic event, not just at Kent, but nationally.
That lesson, which of course I had known intellectually, that sometimes even democratic governments can turn on their own citizens, was brought home very existentially and dramatically to me at Kent. The Kent city government, the night of the shootings, passed a resolution that no public meetings of five or more people were allowed to take place within the City of Kent. The City Council had failed to realize that they had seven members, so that they had just outlawed themselves, but that never occurred to them. What they meant to do was to preclude the holding of any memorial services for the students or any public rallies. The local church that I served, which was just about 80 members, I guess, decided to defy the City Council, and we were threatened by the city, and the city attorney, and so on. We went ahead and held the service and nothing happened. They wouldn’t have dared try to close down the service, but that whole confluence of events certainly reinforced and educated me about the importance of standing up for rights and about defying unjust authority and that sort of thing, which, again, having grown up with the civil rights era and the end of the Vietnam era, I certainly knew very well, but that was reinforced at Kent.
The other experience at Oberlin that had a paradoxical influence on me was when the radical students surrounded the recruiter’s car. You know this history? They surrounded the car and the military recruiter who was coming to campus to set up a recruiting station. When he arrived, they surrounded the car—about, I don’t know, maybe sixty students–so that the car couldn’t move without at least potentially injuring some students. There was a stand off, and after about, I’m guessing two hours or three hours, the recruiter, who was trapped in the car, said to the students, ‘I have to go to the bathroom.’
There was a big debate among the students as to whether to allow the recruiter out of his car to go to the bathroom. ‘Wouldn’t it be inhumane to keep this man in the car? After all, he himself is but a symbol of the larger system, and we’re not aiming our ire solely at him,’ so there was a vote taken. I was an observer of all this. I wasn’t one of those around the car, but I observed all this. There was a vote taken, and it was voted to allow him to go to the bathroom on the condition that he would agree to return to captivity. Now, this man was a US military recruiter, whose job, at least ostensibly, was to engage the enemy and kill them if necessary. But these students, all upper middle class students, probably most from liberal backgrounds, trusted a military recruiter, who is the symbol for them of everything that was pernicious, trusted him to keep his promise and go back and sit in captivity.
Well, of course the military recruiter didn’t do that. He simply left the car, presumably went to the bathroom, and then went over and started recruiting students where he had been originally been, leaving his car empty. Eventually police from Wellington came up and fired tear gas and freed the car, and that was the end of the incident. But to me, what was very telling was the fact that students who were posturing themselves as radicals, but were in fact in the best of the liberal political tradition, believed that a promise, an ethical promise, was one that would be kept, even by someone who represented, in their view, the most heinous forms of evil. And that taught me about the limits of liberalism.
That was a very important lesson to me right there: that if you’re going to confront evil, you don’t play by gentlemen’s rules. If you’re going to confront evil, if in fact it’s evil–I’m not saying that recruiter was evil, but in that context, he embodied what the students regarded as evil–if you’re going to confront your adversary, you don’t pretend that your adversary is going to play by your rules. And that’s been a valuable lesson for me as I worked with true tyrants with true adversaries around the world. So those are a couple lessons.
F+L: At what moment did you realize you could change the world?
Bill: I think that that Kent story is the answer to that. I mean, I certainly had seen others changing the world, because as I say, I grew up with the anti-Vietnam, and the civil rights movement–was very much emotionally involved in those, though I was too young for most of the civil rights period to be involved–but that experience at Kent, and that recognition that a small group of people standing by principle could at least have some impact, in this case, commit what was technically civil disobedience and make a point–I think that was a turning point for me in that realization.
F+L: Who or what is your God? How was that perception formed, and how has that led you to the U.U. ministry?
Bill: Yeah well, I wasn’t led to the U.U. ministry by God. In fact, when I went into the U.U. ministry, I wasn’t even willing to truck with the notion of God. I went to theological school and was able to refute every argument for the existence of God, and I still can. For me, God is a powerful and symbolic word that it is appropriate to use for the source of creation and the mystery at the heart of creation. Unitarian Universalism essentially believes that the mysteries of existence and of creation are so great that they cannot be captured in any one narrow religious tradition. Most religious traditions have some central insight or statement that embodies what they’re all about. ‘Jesus died for your sins.’ Unitarian Universalism, on the other hand, believes that all of those traditions may have valid insights, but that the mystery itself out spills all of these narrow human attempts to capture it within some one-phrase insight statement of faith, and it is that mystery of life’s origin that is an appropriate word for God. God is an appropriate word for that, in my judgment. It’s one some people are comfortable using and others are not. For me, it wasn’t in that sense then, God, but rather a fascination with the questions and the mystery that led me to the U.U. ministry.
F+L: What has been your proudest moment as a U.U. minister?
Bill: I think that the proudest moments in the years that I’ve been a leader within the association have to do with the U.U.A.’s commitment to the emergence of gender equality. The U.U.A. was the first denomination to ordain a gay man way back in the early 60’s. It was the first denomination to affirm services of union, which–I don’t remember the exact year–but it was long before there was any marriage equality debate, and a point at which a religion institution agreeing to have its ministers perform services of union was a radical statement back in the 70’s, maybe it was 80–I can’t remember. But all the way along, the U.U.A. has pushed the envelope among religious institutions with regard to issues of gender equality.
When I was president of the U.U.A., I appeared with Troy Perry, who was the presiding bishop of the Metropolitan Community Churches, which are churches that are predominately gay and lesbian, when no other, or very few other, religious leaders would appear publicly side by side with Troy. So those, I think, in this generation, in my generation, of Unitarian Universalist history, those milestones–there are more than one, as I’ve described–those milestones are one of the ways in which Unitarian Universalism has truly born a critical witness, or witness, in this culture at a critical time that I think has pushed the norm boundaries farther and farther in the progressive direction, and I am very proud of that.
F+L: What has been your most religious experience?
Bill: Yeah, you know, when I read that question, I realized that I either have never had a religious experience or I have them every single day of my life. If a religious experience means that ‘a ha!’ moment, Saul on the road to Damascus, struck by some profound transformative insight, radiance of the Lord shining down upon you–I’ve never had that experience. Burning bush–never had that experience. At the same time, I live my life, or certainly try to, and I think in good measure succeed, with a keen sense of attention to the gracious moments, the poignant moments of life. Those can be as modest as helping someone who trips on the sidewalk, or of course being struck by natural wonder, or being in the presence of someone whose spirit is a generous one, who displays a generous spirit. Any number of experiences, I would be comfortable describing as a religious experience, but they permeate my daily life. So for me, religious experience is a matter of dailyness rather than a matter of one or two or more singularly profound, dramatic instances.
F+L: What is the connection for you between religion and human rights? How did working at the ministry led to Amnesty?
Bill: Well, of course at the heart of all religious faith within the Western tradition, and certainly Unitarian Universalism, is the affirmation of human dignity. For traditional Jews and Christians and Muslims, that’s because human beings are in some sense made in the image of God. For Unitarian Universalists, it probably arises more from an implicit doctrine of natural law that somehow there is dignity within the human creature. For me, and we can talk about this more when we get to one of your further questions, it arises simply because that’s the best way for human beings to live together in civilized ways, to make the assumption of inherent dignity. But for whatever reason, and whatever it’s source, that preciousness of the human life force is one that we, in our culture, choose to say aught not to be extinguished or deprived of the elementary needs that sustain life in any arbitrary fashion, and that’s what human rights are about. They are promises that one group of people, usually the powerful people, make to another group of people, usually the less powerful, the governed, the citizenry, the residents, which says, in effect, ‘We will not arbitrarily deprive you of certain fundamental conditions,’ which are the suma of what it means to live a dignified life. Similarly, to the extent to which we affirm social and economic rights, a government is saying you have more than a need to be free from torture, or free to read a newspaper, or watch a television or write a blog, you have also the need for a fundamental guarantee of food, shelter, clothing and basic social and economic needs in order to live a life of dignity. So that’s what human rights are: they are boundaries that civilization sets beyond which the powerful agree not to go in their treatment, and they are promises and commitments that the powerful make to the less powerful to ensure basic human needs, and that all then is the practical, daily definition of what it means to live with dignity, and what it means to be a human being whose life is honored.
The faith that choosing to honor human life and to encourage human dignity–that’s a faith statement. Nobody can prove that that’s worth doing. It’s a statement that we make out of faith, and therefore it’s a religious statement. At the most fundamental level, that’s the base.
The second piece for me of the connection between my religion and human rights is that Unitarian Universalism is convinced that history is in human hands, that history is not in the hands of an inexorable fate, or an angry god who is somehow pulling the strings. The future of history is in our hands, and therefore it is up to us to shape our civilization, our society, in ways that honor our fundamental principle of honoring the dignity of all people. So those are the two major connections
F+L: We listened to your sermon, “What Torture has Taught Me,” in which you mentioned how your work as an AI director has changed your most “cherished concepts.” What concepts were lost, and what events made you rethink them?
Bill: I think that fundamentally the experience of dealing with both victims of torture and torturers reshaped for me my understanding of evil. As I said a moment ago, within the Unitarian Universalist tradition, there is often a rather blithe assumption that human beings are naturally good and that their propensities for evil are merely a result of various kinds of social deprivations–that maybe they were abused as a child or that they didn’t get enough education or whatever, and that only when we repair the social conditions in which human beings find themselves, all would be right with the world.
Knowing what I now know about torturers, I don’t believe that that’s the case. It is certainly true that it is easy to turn someone into a torturer, and how you do that is quite simple actually, but there are others for whom that experience speaks to, plays out, some fundamental proclivities or incarnations. Therefore, for me, the natural law doctrine of inherent dignity in human beings is one that I find hard to defend–not the fact that human beings ought to be treated with dignity, that isn’t hard to defend at all–but the notion that human beings have inherent worth and dignity is a hard one for me to affirm any longer, having met torturers and many of their victims. What I think instead is that society appropriately constructs a certain mythology with regard to the inherent worth and dignity of the human and builds a set of norms. In the human rights terms, those norms are described in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights treaties and covenants, that societies create a set of norms that describes the best way to live together in a civilized way, or in a way that is least likely to bring us into conflict with one another, and naturally, I affirm all of that. But what changed for me over the years is my understanding of the nature of evil and this question of the inherent worth and dignity of human beings.
If it’s not inherent, then we have to work even harder to convince others to create those mythological structures and to abide by them, and that’s what the work of human rights is all about.
F+L: What do you think is the most immoral action that someone can do?
Bill: The most immoral action that someone can do is to fail to mourn their losses. The theologian Sam Keen wrote one sentence, which, when I first read it years ago, just resounded for me. He said, “Every day we are not mourning is a day we will be taking vengeance.” What he meant by that was that most of our impulses to strike out or harm another person emerge out of a failure to acknowledge, honor, and process our own losses in life, that most of our pernicious, cruel cruelty emerges out of a failure to recognize the ways in which we have been harmed.
To go back for a moment to this question of torturers, the way you make a torturer is you take an individual, you put him into a regulated setting with an authority figure–one or more authority figures–and then you are cruel to that person. You mistreat that person. And after sufficient mistreatment, you hand that individual the instruments and the permission to, in turn, be cruel to another, a victim. It helps if that victim is identified as having some demonic qualities, or different qualities, or dangerous qualities. That’s what it takes. So when that initial victim of cruelty, who we’re trying to train to be a torturer, fails to acknowledge, process, mourn, work through, their own anger, their own pain at how they have been treated, when they fail to do that, then they are ripe for striking out at others.
On the other hand, to the extent to which they do mourn–and Keen is using the word mourn, the verb mourn, in a broader sense than just the traditional sense of mourning, but he’s talking about processing our anger, addressing our needs, acknowledging, you know, there are limits to life: yes, my parents screwed up, but okay, I am ultimately responsible for who I am, and on some level, I have to get over it. Until we do that, we are ripe for acting immorally towards others. So, in my view, the answer to your question is that at the heart of immoral acts are not some particular acts themselves. They are merely manifestations of a failure to mourn our losses.
F+L: How did you choose which issues to campaign for at AI?
Bill: Yeah, of course now, I’m speaking, in part, not officially on the part of Amnesty, and it may actually have changed in the three years I’ve been gone. I can tell you how we did it.
I was head of Amnesty USA, and of course Amnesty is also an international group based in London, and many of the decisions about what the focus of Amnesty’s campaigns are made out of London. Essentially there is a judgment, imperfect as it no doubt often is, a judgment made as to, of course, one, where are the worst human rights violations, and two, where can we, Amnesty, with all our particular resources and approach, make the most difference. There may be a context in which there are very serious violations, but Amnesty feels it can have a relatively modest impact on them, either because the government is completely inaccessible to leverage and pressure, or because Amnesty is not well equipped in that particular part of the world to be active. In those cases, Amnesty will of course continue to call attention to the abuses, but may not create a campaign around them. So Amnesty tries to make a somewhat pragmatic judgment as to where its approach, its membership, its prestige, is likely to have the most impact. And sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong. But Amnesty tries to be universal in its monitoring of abuses, in its annual report, generally or at least used to, describe the human rights situations in at least 140 countries every year, which isn’t universal since there are 211 countries, but certainly, ones where there are serious human rights violations. In terms of campaigning, it obviously has to be narrowed down more than that. And that process of deciding where the biggest at-risk countries are for serious human rights violations and how we can impact them most effectively–that’s the way Amnesty makes those decisions.
F+L: What has been your most memorable interaction with a stranger? No name, no connection, never seen them again?
Bill: You know, I preached a sermon about this. I was so struck by this. In 2004, when I was in a refugee camp, the Kalma refugee camp in Sudan, I was meeting, through a translator of course, many of the refugees there. And there was a young woman who wore–in this horrific camp, where of course people were in rags, and many of them were naked, and excrement, and menstrual blood, it was just…I’m sure you’ve never been in a refugee camp, but it’s a horrendous, can be just a horrendous situation. And in the middle of this hell on earth, there was a woman who was wearing something sparkling around her neck, like a necklace, and I was so anomalous within that context, to see some kind of jewelry. I thought maybe it was a religious symbol. So I said to my Arabic translator, please ask this woman what she’s wearing, or what that is. It was, I think it was like a piece of turquoise glass. And the translator said he asked her, and he came back, and he said, “She says, ‘It is me.’” And I thought he had mistranslated, and I said–I thought perhaps she had just said, “It’s mine.” I said to him, “Did she say, ‘it’s mine?’” Yes, it’s hers. He said, “No no, she said, ‘this is me.’”
I remember that famous old labor song that the Wobblies sang at the first labor strike in the Lawrence, Massachusetts textile mills, in which the women who were marching said, “We want bread, but we want roses too.” And I realized that for this woman, in the midst of this cauldron, seething cauldron of inhumanity and hell, she maintained a symbol of beauty, a symbol of something that transcended her current situation, was for her symbolic that she was more than just flesh and blood and mud caked feet, that she was a human being too, that she needed more than just bread. She needed roses. She needed beauty. She needed something that encapsulated for her the hope that one day, that she was worthy of not being here, and that one day she would be, once again, me, herself. That was a very touching and striking moment.
F+L: E.M. Forster said, “I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Do you think that the cause of human rights supercedes the people it protects?
Bill: I didn’t quite understand that question, and I mean I guess my reaction to Forster’s comment, which was a flippant comment that he made around what were the world wars–I guess, the answer to that depends on what your country is and what it stands for and if you are betraying–a country is not an abstraction. A country, just like a business or any other institution—we tend to make it into a philosophical abstract. It’s human beings. When you betray your country, you are betraying your friends if you have friends within that country, and if your country is one that stands for values that are ones that you regard as worthy, then to decide to betray it, and hence to betray a huge number of other human beings in order to protect your friends, who may or may not be worthy, that is potentially a very morally problematic choice.
So I’m not very fond of that comment of Forster’s. But in terms of the larger question you’re asking, with regard to human rights, do you want to say more about what you mean? I wasn’t quite sure about what you meant. Are human rights more important than the people they protect?
F+L: I think it’s more about enforcing human rights, and how to give human rights to people who don’t want it, or who don’t have the same ideas of human rights?
Bill: So the question of universality of human rights, and whether everyone needs to abide by the same principles, is that partly what you’re wondering?
F+L: And how to make sure that your cause for human rights is for the people and stays for the people.
Bill: Is for the people, as opposed to for whom? Who else might they be for?
F+L: Any power…
Bill: I mean, it is certainly true, as we saw in the Iraq war, that government sometimes will use human rights as a screen for other purposes and other causes, and that it can be something of a mask or a diversion from what their true motivations are, and that certainly sometimes happens. One of the jobs of human rights organizations is to call governments on that, to criticize that when that happens. That’s one reason that many human rights organizations are very reticent to endorse military actions, even in defense of obvious human rights abuses. At the same time, the truth is that in the face of mass atrocities—Rwanda, Kosovo, Croatia, Darfur, Congo–in the face of those kinds of mass atrocities, it’s very unlikely that anything short of some form of military action will ever prevent them from happening. And so, I myself am no philosophical pacifist when it comes to those kinds of atrocities.
In terms of the question of universality of human rights, and how they do or do not intersect with particular religious or cultural traditions, this is often raised with regard to the treatment of women, for example, particularly issues around female genital mutilation. I think what is important to recognize is, first of all, that virtually every nation that has joined the United Nations has agreed to affirm the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that the vast majority of nations have incorporated its principles into its own constitutions. Female genital mutilation is illegal in every single country in which it is practiced, but the laws simply aren’t enforced. So the argument that support for women’s rights not to be mutilated is somehow at odds with local, cultural, religious tradition, ignores the fact that that own culture, that that government itself, has instituted a set of laws that outlaw that practice, but those laws are not enforced. So in those contexts, what the international community is simply asking is for a government to enforce its own laws.
The second question to always ask about these cultural and religious traditions is, ‘Who had the power to establish those norms? Was it the people who are themselves the victims of those abuses? Did they establish those norms? Or did someone else with greater power establish those norms? And even when the norms may be currently enforced by people from the victim group, why are they being enforced?’ So, in the case of FGM, that was not established by the women who were subjected to it; after all, many of them are five, six, seven years old when the operations take place. Those traditions were established by male elders, reinforced now often by female elders, but established by male elders, who believe that women would not be attractive for marriage if they were capable of the full flowering of their sexual passion. So one has to ask always about these cultural and religious traditions: who made them, who had the power to make them, and to what extent did the people, the victims, have a say in their being made. The answer almost always is the powerful people made it and the people who are subjected to these crimes often had very little to say about those norms.
F+L: Can you explain your life while we stand on one foot?
Bill: I can put it in three short phrases. My life has been an attempt to live with as much passion and attention as I can, to collapse the difference between appearance and reality as close to one another as possible, and to make glad the hearts of those who journey with me.
Those are the three touchstones of my life. I don’t say that I’ve achieved them all, but I’d say that those are the three touchstones. To live with passion and attention, to try to live authentically, that’s what I mean by collapsing the difference between appearance and reality, to be the most authentic person I can be, within the limits of social appropriateness, and to make glad the hearts of those I travel with on this journey. I don’t know if you’re still on one foot with that.
F+L: I think I could have held it.
I have a follow-up question to the immoral actions–how do you keep people from developing into someone who doesn’t mourn their losses? Do you put them into therapy basically to cope with the mourning?
I mean, I think obviously that it’s a long term to change generational practices. Not everyone, of course, can go into therapy. I mean, when I was in theological school, I chose to go into four intensive years of therapy, because at that point I thought I was going to be a parish minister, and I didn’t want to screw people up who I was counseling because of my lack of acquaintance with my own issues. Obviously not everyone can go into therapy, but I think that we can educate people about what good parenting is all about, we can create institutional contexts even in prisons, where people share their losses and their experiences. There’s a remarkable new book out about some new treatments in California prisons of violent offenders, which is based on, rather than on punitive justice, on restorative justice, in which the offenders are being taught how to confront the pain that they’ve caused, and be engaged, if not directly, with their victims, some of whom are dead, but at least be engaged with family members and others who can represent those victims and come face to face with the ravages of their actions. So far, at least, this program has an absolutely remarkable rate of success–83% nonrecidivism, which is amazing. There is a review of it in the current or the last issue of the New York review of books. I can’t remember—it’s by a woman, I think her name is Sandra Schwartz. So anyway, I think we have to create as many contexts as possible for that. Even in my work life, when I was a CEO of the two organizations I led, and there were conflicts, as inevitably there will be between people, or some employee was acting out in some inappropriate way, I would always try first to see if I could understand what emotionally was going on for that person, and see whether there were ways to set appropriate boundaries, to engage with that person rather than just to put them on warning or take some punitive action first. Now sometimes obviously eventually I have certainly fired plenty of people in my life, and sometimes you have to take a form of punitive action, but I think that we can look for far more opportunities for allowing people to mourn those losses in a whole variety of contexts than we normally do, if we recognize the importance of that process.