A Time for Reflection

Global we all may be. But nations - and national consciences - are still very much alive.

National self-examination remains a primary way for all of us to correct course, to return to values as basic as the golden rule and Ten Commandments.

Americans - like Belgians, Swiss, Russians, Israelis, Germans, French, and Japanese in recent months - have faced a tragic revelation or event that brought about spontaneous national soul searching.

Two of those American events are on stage at the moment: the "Heaven's Gate" group suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., and the Oklahoma City bombing trial.

We react to the California suicides the way many Americans have. We feel deep compassion for the relatives whose loved ones took their lives. Even children whose parents abandoned them to join the sect seem intent on understanding rather than condemnation.

We note also that Americans, facing anew the Oklahoma bombing, as well as the Heaven's Gate delusion, are asking the kind of questions that Japanese asked after discovering they had in their midst a cult bent on using chemical and biological weapons. Or that shocked Israelis asked themselves when inflammatory rhetoric led an assassin to kill his nation's leader.

What needs to change to prevent a repetition?

The Heaven's Gate suicide riveted public attention because the group's credo seemed both self-deluded and UFO utopian. Unlike other such groups whose members busied themselves washing windows, this one did Windows 95 and home pages and calmly believed in close encounters of the third kind. It acted on a millennarian belief (in the dictionary sense of "an imagined golden age" somewhere else in the universe).

On the face of it, the close-knit, articulate group of Heaven's Gate communicants seemed to hold views strikingly opposite to those of the antigovernment Oklahoma City bombers. The Heaven's Gate communicants simply parted ways with organized society and its government - sacrificing themselves, not innocent citizens who happened to work for government or have their children in a federal building day-care center.

But, despite such polar differences, similarities crop up. In each case, the believers seem to have been loners who didn't feel part of society. In each case, they arranged their view of the world to fit their own narrow vision.

In the wake of the Heaven's Gate tragedy, coming as it did so close to Easter and the end of the second millennium of Christianity, many press reports have focused on America's widely varied religious scene, and on the vast majority of Americans who say they pray and believe in a loving God.

Naysayers claim spirituality is incompatible with a successful secular nation. Centuries of evidence argue the contrary. From the Founding Fathers onward, American leaders have rightly seen God-imbued spirituality as the inspiration and the glue of their pluralist civilization. Spirituality of outlook - belief in a higher purpose for life - helps to produce leaders instead of self-serving demagogues. It produces a private sector devoted to useful production, with profit as its reward not its be-all. And it produces families that nurture each other, their neighbors, their communities, and their Earth - not some other, comet-announced utopia.

Sadly, those who committed suicide in Rancho Santa Fe failed to see one simple truth: that each of us is living his or her one eternal life now - not at some Pied Piper-declared other time or mysterious other place. There's no reason, then, to desert family, friends, or neighbors for spurious other gods or manifestos. Belief in a higher purpose for all mankind is what the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, meant when she wrote that "One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfills the Scripture, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself....'"

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