16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 10/09/2011
One of the things I love about the Judaism I’ve been exposed to is how Jews introduce their children to religious practices. The Jewish religion routinely takes a fairly big, important adult religious idea, like the yearly quest for forgiveness that was celebrated with Yom Kippur yesterday – they take this yearly quest for forgiveness and they simplify it into a starter concept that a child can understand. From there, the child can practice the ritual along with the adults.
Yom Kippur is the perfect opportunity for this. Big picture concepts like blame and hurt and accountability and responsibility and the path to peaceful relations are boiled down for kids to one basic idea: If you did something wrong this year, then say you’re sorry. Kids get it right away, and then they can authentically participate in Yom Kippur right along with the adults in their lives.
And it’s not like this simpler version of the purpose of Yom Kippur is incorrect, just because it’s uncomplicated and geared towards children. Adults didn’t change the message at all, they just made it more accessible.
In fact, here’s a ministry secret – when the adults make an idea accessible enough so that kids can understand it, that actually makes it easier for everyone to understand it.
That’s the joy of worship elements like our Words for All Ages each week, as well. Examining a concept simply, or talking about it using our bodies or different forms of art, does not dumb down the concept. It just makes the idea more accessible, more approachable, and that means for everyone.
I can’t tell you how many times I have thoroughly enjoyed an entire worship service, but the part I remember – the lesson I remember, even weeks later – came from the Words for All Ages section. When it’s done right, Words for All Ages, like the approach Judaism takes towards its children, is honestly helpful for everyone. And in the case of Yom Kippur it is good for everyone to remember that during this holiday, if you did something wrong over the past year, then you tell the person you did wrong that you’re sorry, and you ask them to forgive you. And if someone says they’re sorry to you, you’re supposed to forgive them. That’s Yom Kippur at its most basic.
But life does tend to be a little more complicated than the way we present it to children, doesn’t it? Sure, we adults can participate in Yom Kippur in this simple way, which is easy enough when one person hurts another one and they are both there to ask or offer forgiveness.
But individual transgressions are often not what hurt us the most. Sometimes what has hurt us the most is a collective transgression, a mistake or a sin committed by a group of people, or a faceless corporation, or, even more complicated, by a historical event from long ago.
I read a recent article by former Unitarian Universalist Association president Bill Sinkford where he describes a trip he made to Japan as part of his official duties. On this trip, Sinkford visited the Hiroshima museum, right in the city where the nuclear bomb was dropped in 1945. Among other features, the museum has left the land around it as desolate as it was right after the attack, even though otherwise the city is fully rebuilt. That way, you can see how devastating the bombing really was.
Suffice it to say, Sinkford found it to be a powerful museum.
And, powerfully, Sinkford felt a sense of responsibility for the attacks. He is an American, after all, and this is what Americans once chose to do to a Japanese city. But how to process that feeling of responsibility, he wondered? He is not, of course, personally responsible for the attacks; he was born the year after they occurred. Even for those who had been alive at that time, only a few were involved in inventing this bomb, deciding to use it on Japan, and actually bombing the city.
What about the rest of us? How responsible are we? And even more importantly, if we feel responsible, what could we possibly do about it? This complicated range of emotion and culpability has more depth than the children’s version of Yom Kippur, that’s for sure.
In a way, though, Sinkford’s example is more clear-cut than some others I could name. Let’s take slavery and racism, for example. There have been many times through our nation’s history when we’ve considered compensating those whose families were enslaved centuries ago. Affirmative action is one such compensation; another idea is straight-out financial reparation. Once upon a time every slave family was supposed to get forty acres of land and a mule to make up for what happened to them. At times in our history, the African American community has asked for just a simple apology from the federal government for slavery.
And in each of these discussions, one idea came out straight and clear from white people or from those who held leadership in that day: “Hey, we weren’t slave owners! We don’t discriminate now! How can you hold us responsible? We aren’t going to ask forgiveness for something that we didn’t do!” The implication is that since all those people are dead now, we should treat slavery as a sort of blameless historical event, and try to move on from here – fresh start.
But the notion that we are only responsible for our own individual actions in our own place in history is problematic. Let me tell you why. It’s problematic because we aren’t, in fact, really individuals at all. Although each of us are new and fresh when we are born into the world, the world into which we come is nowhere near new or fresh. Our lives are constantly impacted by decisions made by people we do not know, both those living today and those who lived long ago. We are interconnected and, more than that, we are interdependent – we need each other. We depend on each other for our quality of life. We Unitarian Universalists know this. We know this so well that the notion has become our seventh principle, right there in your order of service.
We Unitarian Universalists believe that we are a part of an interdependent web of all of existence. That means every human being is connected. What you do affects me, and what I do affects you, even if we never see the effect, even if we never meet each other. And this is true not only all across this vast planet on which we live, but it is true through time and history as well. We cannot extricate ourselves from the decisions and the pain that we have inflicted upon each other, even when those decisions and that pain was rendered long before any of us individual people were around.
And so, we are all still suffering and still benefiting from slavery, even today. We all are. And there is no way to say, “let’s just start over from here.”
Here’s an example: In Sinkford’s essay, he talks about the Unitarian Universalist church in Brewster, Massachusetts, which is on Cape Cod. The Brewster church is lovely, a mainstay in the community, built and maintained in the early 1800s by wealthy sea merchants. The pictures of those sea captains’ ships line the fellowship hall, as evidence of the congregation’s pride in and knowledge of their history.
One day, a congregant asked what cargo those ships carried. No-one knew that answer to that one, strangely enough. So the congregation researched it.
And lo and behold, guess what many of those ships carried? It turns out that the money used to build the church came from the slave trade.
So now we know for sure that there is no member of that Unitarian Universalist community who hasn’t directly benefited from the slave trade. No matter how young they are, no matter how much work they put into fighting for justice, no matter how much comfort they give to each other when times are tough, no matter how much wisdom is shared from that pulpit, every person in that church has directly benefited from the slave trade. Every person who has ever been a member, every person who ever admired its pretty white steeple, any person in Brewster for two hundred years who experienced a town with this church at the center as a good thing – all beneficiaries. Unwitting or not, unknowing or not, they are beneficiaries.
And nothing is different with us here in Maryland. We all recognize the White House and the Capitol building as beautiful symbols of American values and power. Well, those buildings we love were built by the free labor of slaves. We don’t talk about that very much.
If you’re a white person and your parents ever gave you an old car, paid for your college education, or helped out with a down payment on a house, and I’ve had all three of those, then you like me have taken advantage of a social system that has enabled white families to amass twenty times the wealth that the average black family has been able to accumulate since the Civil War. Those luxuries, the old car and the college and the house, simply aren’t available to many black families, and that’s because of historical slavery and racism.
And I think it goes without saying that any time a white person is able to walk through CVS in their sweats without being treated with suspicion, and anytime a white person can buy bandaids the actual color of their skin, then that person is benefiting in a small way from a racist system that we have not yet been able to shake, even when few of us want it to continue and even fewer are actively perpetuating it. Our racist legacy binds us in most of what we Americans do.
How do you ask forgiveness here? Where is the child’s Yom Kippur here, the easy blame, the direct guilt, the simple pardon? It’s way more complicated than we let on to the kids, isn’t it?
So where do we begin when we need to atone for something much bigger than ourselves?
Well, the first thing we can do is learn about what really happened, and to tell the truth. The Brewster church did an admirable job of that. They researched the history, they didn’t run from the unpleasant realities as white folks have in the past, and they spent a good deal of time wrestling with who they now want to be, given where they come from. Being brave enough to learn the truth about a situation, even when it feels like you might end up feeling responsible in an uncomfortable way, is a healing thing. It’s the first step in a longer Yom Kippur process towards reconciliation across groups of people, and across history.
Another first step towards reconciliation is to learn how you might still be complicit in hurtful situations, even if you didn’t cause them and even if you don’t want them.
The Reverend Lynn Ungar wrote that she was overwhelmingly angry with BP during the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – but then she realized that she uses oil and our nation’s power grid just the same as anyone else. Where does her responsibility stop and the corporation’s begin? It’s murky.
So help out and take direct steps towards being part of the solution, rather than an unengaged, unknowing part of the problem. See what you can do about getting bandaids in all the colors that skin might be. Don’t vote for the guy who has a racial epithet on his vacation property. Take a step, and be the change you want to see in the world. And see where you can go from there.
A third wonderful liturgical solution to this problem of collective responsibility and forgiveness comes from Judaism itself. At Yom Kippur, the community comes together and says a collective prayer, asking for atonement for their sins of the past year. But it’s not an open-ended prayer that just leaves room for any old thing. It’s not, “Dear God, forgive each of us for the particular thing that we did wrong this past year.”
Instead, the community prays for forgiveness for a whole specific variety of sins, but they do it all together. They all seek forgiveness for each of the bad things, even when they individually didn’t do them. Sure, they pray for forgiveness for things that they probably all did do, like turning a blind eye to someone in need. But they also pray, all together, for things that clearly not all of them have done. They pray for forgiveness for embezzlement. They pray for forgiveness for bribe taking. They pray for forgiveness for coercion.
What can it mean when a community prays together for sins that only some have committed?
I think it means that they recognize the interdependent web. I think it means that they recognize that we are all capable of evil. I think it means that they know that we can all be culpable from the damaging actions of only a few, because we all benefit and we all suffer from the actions of others in ways we cannot see. I think it means that they know, like we Unitarian Universalists also know, that we’re all in this boat together, whether the boat is sinking or sailing.
When we all take responsibility for all of it, then we all do better in the long run. We can truly atone and be truly forgiven, not just for the simpler one-on-one stuff that kids easily understand, but for the most complicated stuff as well, the damage done by groups of people who don’t know each other because they are too far away or because they live in different times.
When we do this, when we ask for forgiveness collectively because we understand that we are all related, we can find a way to heal from the most complicated of situations that hurt us. And when we begin to heal, that is when we become free to begin again, to re-create a world that’s good for all of us.