The Act and Attitude of Forgiveness

preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
September 25, 2016

May nothing evil cross this door…. I think of this hymn as a traditional building dedication hymn because it’s one of the only hymns we sing that references the parts of a building, door, windows, rafters, walls and it ends with that beautiful line “to keep hate out and hold love in.” We’ll be singing it next week as well. It’s a classic.

We sang it often a few years ago when we were shocked by the murder of a congregant and her son., Chris and Isaac. Some of you will remember them. The hymn expresses that sentiment we all wish, that nothing evil ever cross our doors.

Evil is not something Unitarian Universalists treated very thoroughly over the years – both strains of our faith had an optimistic, onward and upward sort of philosophy, what Reinhold Niebuhr called “na├»ve views of the contradictions of human nature and the optimism of the Social Gospel.”

Martin Luther King Jr. seemed to bridge that gap between Niebuhr and our inherited faith with his focus on non-violent resistance. Later in the reading in the reading Molly began, we learn that quote:
“In his 1959 Sermon on Gandhi, Dr. King elaborated on the after-effects of choosing nonviolence over violence: ‘The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, so that when the battle’s over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.’ In the same sermon, he contrasted violent versus nonviolent resistance to oppression. ‘The way of acquiescence leads to moral and spiritual suicide. The way of violence leads to bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But, the way of non-violence leads to redemption and the creation of the beloved community.’”

The Fellowship of Reconciliation of which King was a member, has a mission to organize, train, and grow a diverse movement that welcomes all people of conscience to end structures of violence and war, and create peace through the transformative power of nonviolence. This reconciliation cannot be done without forgiveness. Forgiveness of ourselves and others for the intentional and unintentional harm we cause one another.

Last week I mentioned that I can say “I’m sorry,” but the other person may not forgive me. Likewise, I can say, “I forgive you” but sometimes the other person is not sorry. and of course, it’s complicated by the fact that we can be offended by words or actions of another that are not intended to be offensive – then where does that leave us? Is it my problem, or yours?

It’s because of those words I preached last week that I decided to show again this week the video clip on microagressions. Those of us who were a part of Beloved Conversations last year, these intentional conversations we had about race and ethnicity, viewed this clip in those discussions, and then I showed it in worship in January, when we had a service for all ages and I wanted to talk about microagressions with our youth. This morning, I want to address them with you, with the adult members of the community.

Because, to tell the truth, there was some push back from some people to this idea of microagressions, that somehow sharing the knowledge of the impact of our words on others was an attempt to stifle free speech.

To which my reply is that we are free to be rude to other people. We do it, frankly, all the time. But usually we don’t want to be mean or rude. Often, we don’t intend it. Once you learn that your words hurt another, and if you don’t want to hurt another, it is only then that you might consider altering your word choice.

If you consider teaching your child to say ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry’ inhibiting free speech, then yes… perhaps the discussion of microagressions inhibits free speech. But that’s certainly not how I see it.

I was so very happy that you adopted a new congregational covenant last week in our congregational meeting. If you weren’t there, let me show you the language of our new congregational covenant:

As we build beloved community here and in the wider world, I will help cultivate a welcoming environment in this sacred space. I will listen and speak with empathy and honesty, in times of agreement and disagreement. I will strive to understand other viewpoints. I promise to respect and nurture myself and others as we each pursue our life paths and spiritual journeys.

I want to talk about the evolution of just one of the sentences in this covenant: I will listen and speak with empathy and honesty, in times of agreement and disagreement.

The original proposed language was “I will speak with directness and empathy, especially in times of disagreement”

And I found fascinating the discussion that led us to the new language. There were two objections to the word “directness” – at least that I heard voiced. One was that it was “too direct” – that is, I think, that it might invite rudeness, which is, of course is subjective and the other, which is related, is that ‘directness’ is actually considered rude in some cultural contexts, in this example, some Asian cultures, specifically, in Japanese culture. Again, subjective, but important.

I was originally pretty attached to the notion of “directness.” (But then again I’m European American, pretty NorthAmerican in my direct ‘can-do’ attitude.) What I understood with that word was the idea that we address directly the person who has harmed us, rather than telling everyone else about it in church:

‘You know, our board president, Barry, he’s just an awful gossip, isn’t he? Always saying mean things about people and can you believe what he said in that last board meeting?!’

The difference between that and saying:

‘Barry, do you remember that last board meeting when you said XYZ, I noticed that I felt attacked and was wondering if you meant it the way it came across to me?’

My first example is one of triangulation – where we tell other people about our upset with one another. It’s a way of letting off steam. Sometimes, it is helpful to get another person’s perspective before we speak to someone directly, but its only useful if it provides a way to resolve the conflict. It is detrimental to community if it is just a means of gossip and division.

The second example of speaking to Barry is what I considered directness and the reason I favored the word in the original proposal.

And let me tell you right here and now I used Barry as the example because he is our Board president, but also because I’ve never heard him speak a mean word about anyone, ever. Just to be clear. My example was both hypothetical and very unlikely.

I was persuaded in those conversations about the covenant by the wisdom of people with different experience than mine., and so we changed the word directness to honesty. Honesty and empathy.

Then, we had an interesting conversation about the order of those two words. Someone observed that people defend an awful lot of mean-spirited rudeness with the words, “I’m just being honest.” We agreed that empathy needed to come first.

And lest you think I’m drilling down into minutiae that has little relevance outside this particular conversation and congregation, I will point out, if you haven’t already drawn the connection, that this is our national dialogue writ small. We are in the midst of this incredible push-back and movement that disdains ‘political correctness’ and masks both aggressions and microaggressions with “I’m just being honest.”

I have to believe that the comment recorded from the helicopter that referred to Terence Crutcher as “one bad dude” as a microaggression – that is an offensive remark made from a place of honest opinion and stereotype and that it could have been a factor in the violent aggression that took his life.

Our words matter. And so back to the covenant. The other changes, you’ll note are the addition of the word, listen, before speak. Along the lines of empathy, we must listen if we wish to speak with compassion and wisdom. And then the addition of times of agreement to times of disagreement. That was interesting. We had extensive conversation about whether or not this covenant was important especially in times of disagreement or all the time, and when we settled on all the time, we still thought it important to acknowledge that some of that time we will be in disagreement and some of the time we will be in agreement and the covenant is in effect all of the time.

So that’s the story behind one of the lines of our covenant that the congregation adopted last week. I offered to share my notes on all these conversations with those present at the congregational meeting last week, but somehow they weren’t interested in this level of minutiae, so I won’t parse each sentence for you this morning.

What I want to say, is thank you. Thank you to this congregation for taking the time to have this conversation and to consider these things and to adopt a new covenant that can guide your conversations with one another, in both good times and bad.

“The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community,” said King, “so that when the battle’s over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.”
We can be offended by words or actions of another that are not intended to be offensive, and we can offend others by our own words without intending it – then where does that leave us? Is it my problem, or yours?

Well, as I’ve pointed out many times before and will not doubt remind you in days to come, we have control only of our own behavior. Forgiveness is a choice we make. We can offer it to others and ask it from others, or grant it to ourselves and others. But it’s a choice.

I think the reason Martin Luther King said that forgiveness is a permanent attitude is because if we choose to live in community, we must be seeking and offering forgiveness constantly, daily, forever. It’s not something we do once a year on Yom Kippur or one month every three years as we explore the topic in church, it is a daily attitude – an acknowledgment that we are imperfect beings in an imperfect community, doing our best, trying really hard, and often getting it wrong and sometimes getting it right.

It’s nice when we can name an “evil” out there and blame someone else for all the ills of this world… but, if you believe, as I do, that we are all connected, there is no “out there” to dispose of or contain our evils. We may wish that nothing evil cross our doors, but… Like the physical things we discard as garbage, we can only transform it – burn, compost, bury, - but there is no removal. I agree with King and Gandhi and Thoreau that violence only leaves in its wake more violence, and that the only path toward redemption or reconciliation is the path of non-violence.

I know that some of you disagree with me on this point, and that is to be expected. It is your right and your responsibility to think through these hard issues and come to your own conclusions. I know we’re hosting the Concert Across America to end gun violence this afternoon, and we have gun owners in this congregation who get uncomfortable when advocacy to end the violence suggests limits to their ability to own a gun. I get that. I love some people who love guns. One of the people I’ve loved is my grandfather who was a hunter, who lived in Burlington, Washington before his death in 1989. News yesterday of a shooting in the mall there hit home, as I know the mall where the shooting took place, I love people from the area and grieve at the act of violence. But I did not agree with my grandfather on many issues, despite my fierce love of that man. Likewise, we are not a community of people who agree on every point. And that’s the beauty of diversity.

And, I’m not saying that I’ve mastered the art of nonviolence, by any means. Or that I’ve figured out how this works on a global scale. I’ve finally reconciled that there is a gap between my system of belief – in nonviolence – and my actions – my repeated missteps, mistakes, and harm done to myself and others. I can live with that gap, as long as I continually seek to narrow it and cultivate a constant attitude of forgiveness.

And let me be clear: I am not suggesting that all violence is the same, and that microaggressions are as evil as gun violence, that intent doesn’t matter. I do believe that intent matters. And when I preach to this congregation, I make the assumption that you are here because you wish to avoid evil and prevent evil and counter evil, fight evil in all its forms, violence, Islamaphobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and the long list of ‘isms’ and fears and stereotypes that draw distinctions between people who really belong to a single human family.

But when we choose to live in community, impact matters as well as intent. When we learn that our words hurt another, if we care about that person, we will choose different words. Words are for communication – for speaking with another. Yes, they help us shape our ideas and form our thinking,
but language is dynamic and changes over time, and should change as we talk to one another, just as the words of the covenant changed over the four weeks we talked about it together.

There will always be a gap between our stated dream of beloved community, and our actual lived imperfect beloved community. But it’s still our responsibility to try to narrow that gap to be the best of our ability.

“What is happening now is very, very old” wrote Michele Alexander, following the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this summer, but as she articulates, some of the changes have been on the surface only, and not deep within the system – the systems of oppression repeat and perpetuate themselves and we collaborate and overthrow them both, to limited effect. The words we use, the microaggressions we commit, are a part of that collaboration.

In a sermon I gave in July, I talked about the brilliance of the strategy of some of the current activists, especially with Black Lives Matter -that fact that this movement affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. “We are committed” they write as a guiding principle, “to collectively, lovingly, and courageously working vigorously for freedom for Black people and, by extension, all people. As we forge our path, we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.”

This movement is intentionally inclusive, and although Black identity is still at the center, the consciousness seems to be more inclusive, more generous. It’s revolutionized that poker game of identity politics, as member Julica Hermann de la Fuente has called it. “I’ll call your black and raise you queer.” Which category of identity trumps. But that’s that old white supremacy thinking.

Power-over, Empire. It’s the broken scarcity model of competition which says that there can only be a few people who are at the top or are first, and everyone else is at the bottom or last. It’s supremacy thinking that leads people to make a misguided assumption that the slogan Black Lives Matter has any implication that other lives don’t. As if what matters is a limited commodity that only a few can possess. It all matters. Black lives too, queer lives too, trans lives too, even the lives of old white straight men. It’s just that we no longer wish the old white straight men to have exclusive rights of power, or, especially, to abuse their power. Other lives matter. Lives of police officers in blue, Lives with mental illness, lives with disabilities, lives in poverty. These lives matter. Abuse of power should not be tolerated. And some, those at the bottom of that supremacy system, have been abused for far too long. Life is just not fair, but we can stand up and speak out for fairness and justice. We can, as Jesus and Gandhi and King taught work for a just society, to collectively, lovingly, and courageously work for freedom for all people.

We do that best when we adopt a permanent attitude of forgiveness. We can adopt that permanent attitude of forgiveness with practices of lovingkindness, and by working through covenants in community and talking to each other about our hurts, intended or not. We do that best when our heart is in a holy place.