as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Grafton and Upton, October 23, 2016
It is nice to with you again. I had the opportunity to preach here back in April. The primary season was underway and I offered you a sermon on democracy as a religious practice. I think I must have been in a more hopeful mood. I suggested that the religious practice of democracy is found in the ordinary practice of congregational polity, a commitment to conversation, and the quotidian rituals of liberal religious communities. I remember even lifting up spaces like board and congregational meetings as places where you could nurture individual and collective experiences of transformation.
This Sunday, I am afraid I come before you in a more pessimistic mood. I want to talk with you about repentance and the need for national repentance. Repentance is a concept that generally makes Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. In the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament it is understood as the admission of sins before God. When an individual repents they also commit to change their behavior.
Sin can be understood as those actions and beliefs that keep us separate from each other. It can be individual and collective. Individual sins turn us into strangers when we seek intimacy. They are the lies, the slights, the acts of casual and intentional selfishness that make it difficult for us to find an authentic connection. Collective sins are the deep structures and communal actions that create arbitrary groups of people and then keep those groups of people separate from each other. We are all members of one human family. Yet, nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and systems of white supremacy trick us into thinking otherwise. We imagine ourselves and others as white or black, American or terrorist, male or female… Instead of understanding that in our common humanness we share an origin in the darkness of the womb and a destiny in the gloom of the grave.
In my own life repentance has taken two forms. On an individual level, it has required me to try and mend my relationships when they have become broken and heal the harm that I have done. On a collective level, it has necessitated a commitment to social justice and the ongoing work of understanding how I have been complicit in and benefited from systems of oppression.
None of this is easy. I have found individual repentance to be incredibly challenging. It usually requires admitting that I am wrong and that I need to change my behavior. Who likes to do that? Looking at our own flaws is some of the most painful work. Often, it is far easier to gloss over our mistakes and let relationships fall away than to be introspective about the ways in which we need to change our behavior.
Sometimes, though, we do not have a choice. I learned a little about the difficulty and the reward of individual repentance when I was first starting out in the parish ministry. More than a decade ago, I served my internship in congregation of about three hundred members. I was in my late twenties and full of energy and enthusiasm. I was committed to the ministry and learning how to be a good minister. I was filled with what the poet Kenneth Rexroth used to call “the wisdom of youth,” which is to say I did not take criticism particularly well. When confronted by someone with something they were unhappy about my tendency was to become defensive. I would try to explain my actions rather than work to correct them.
Predictably, this pattern did not serve me well. Everything came to a head during my mid-point evaluation. My internship committee, and supervising minister, sat me down and told me that people had very mixed feelings about my tenure as congregational intern. In general, I was liked and my commitment to Unitarian Universalism and the ministry was palpable. However, there was a segment in the congregation who felt that I ignored them and did not tend to their needs.
Specifically, I was told that many of the congregational elders, particularly those who were women, felt that I did not pay enough attention to them. My first reaction on hearing this was to deny that it was true. I thought I paid attention to everyone. The conversation proceeded, I dug in my heels. I refused to accept the criticism. This only made matters worse. The internship committee grew frustrated with me. And then my supervising minister managed to shift the discussion from the abstract to the concrete. She named a particular behavior: my preference for talking with people around my own age during coffee hour. And she reported her observation that she had seen me turn away, on more than one occasion, from a woman in their seventies or eighties, to chat with someone in their twenties or thirties.
I recognized the truth in what she said. I was crestfallen. I think I might have sat in stunned silence for a couple of moments. Then the minister suggested a path towards correcting my behavior. She urged me to go and visit the women who I had ignored. I did. And over the course of a few months and a series of coffees and home visitations I repaired relationships with my congregants. I also came to understand how my own behavior fell into the larger patterns of behavior within a misogynistic culture that often renders women over a particular age invisible.
This is a painful subject and my behavior around it should not be understood in anyway as perfect. I share my story not to illustrate how great I am but rather to draw attention to the relationship between individual and collective sin and the practice of repentance. Sin, again, can be understood as those actions and beliefs that prevent people from recognizing their fundamental kinship as human beings. Collective sin, in my story unconscious misogyn, fed individual sin, the failure to develop relationships with some of the women in the congregation. Repentance required recognizing my own patterns of behavior, and trying to understand how they fit into social practices, and changing how I acted.
Sin and repentance are not frameworks that religious liberals like to use. Our religious ancestors rejected the idea that human beings were innately wicked–which is sometimes called the doctrine of original sin. Instead, we favor the teaching that each of us is born with potential to inflict harm upon ourselves and each other and at, the same time, reach great moral heights. William Ellery Channing liked to tell people that each of us contains the likeness to God. He believed that when we focused our attention rightly and committed to lives of right action we could discover that likeness within and approach spiritual perfection. Channing thought that this was what Jesus had done and he urged others to do likewise.
The emphasis on the innate potential within has often caused religious liberals to downplay sin or the need for repentance. I suspect that since we historically have believed that human perfection is possible we sometimes have committed the error of thinking that we ourselves are perfect. If anything, the path towards uncovering what our Quaker friends have called the inner light lies through developing an understanding of those larger systems and individual actions that keep us continually building false walls between each other. It is only through examining our mistakes and attempting to correct our actions that we can make progress as either individuals or a society.
This dynamic has me feeling quite pessimistic. In these, the closing weeks of what I have come to think of as a national tragedy, I suppose the political liberals among us would want me to be optimistic. It appears that voting will largely be a formality. Hillary Clinton has what might be an insurmountable lead in the polls over Donald Trump. She is even polling ahead of him in states like Arizona which rarely vote Democratic. Statistician Nate Silver, of the web site FiveThirtyEight, currently has Clinton with a 85% chance of being the next President. Roughly nine out of ten Unitarian Universalists vote Democratic. I suspect that many of you here today find comfort in the probable election outcome.
I find myself rather more disturbed than comforted. I grew up in a family which followed politics the way most people in follow sports. One of my oldest family friends is fond of saying that “politics are sports with consequences.” I was about sixteen or seventeen when I realized that no matter which team won the election most of the country, and, indeed, most of the world, lost. Throughout my life, under both team donkey and team elephant, the United States military has started or continued needless foreign wars. Congress has passed legislation to expand the prison system and cut back on social programs for the poor. And the President has advocated for bills that favor bankers and business executives instead of ordinary working people and overseen the vast expansion of economic inequality.
The current election has me doubting the collective capacity of American society to engage in acts of national repentance. At almost every turn collectively we seem to reject the opportunity for national conversation about the deep structures of American society that lead to destructive behavior. It is true that there are bright moments. The braggadocios misogyn of the captain of team elephant seems to sparking much conversation about the unacceptable place that sexual assault and exploitation hold in our society. For too long men, particularly white and powerful ones, have inflicted sexual violence on women. It seems possible that the reaction to the boasts of one of the candidates about his sexual exploits has begun to shift this dynamic. However, only time will tell if shift is permanent–if we as a society can repent–or if the conversation around sexual violence is transitory.
This possible moment of repentance aside, this election has filled me with despair. It has also had me repeatedly turning to the Hebrew prophets. The prophets were horrified by injustice. In ancient days Isaiah and Jeremiah wandered the dusty streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed that God was angry with the people for failing to take care of the poor. Ezekiel stood at the gates of the Temple and announced that his country was doomed because its leaders worshipped false gods.
These religious leaders warned that their community faced destruction if its members did not change their behavior. And they then offered the possibility of transformation. Like a doctor they diagnosed their community’s illness and then the proscribed a cure. They suggested that the problems that others took to be the disease were mere symptoms of the essential malady. They made their proclamations as foreign invaders threatened the very existence of their country. Their peers took the Babylonian or Assyrian armies to the problem that troubled Israel. The prophets knew better. They warned that the external threat that their country faced was a result of its own internal contradictions. It was supposed to be the chosen land of God yet within it the poor struggled for survival and the rich worshipped false deities.
In face of this contradiction the prophets offered a solution. They clarified what was the essential problem–mistreatment of the poor and the worship of false deities–and suggested a path forward. They told their people to repent and change their actions. Ezekiel suggested that in order to escape doom people needed to “make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” It was only by becoming fundamental different, and moving forward together on a new road, that the prophets believed their people could escape calamity.
Not so many years ago, at the very end of his life, the greatest of American prophets, Martin King, made similar warnings and offered a similar solution. In the last months of his life, just two weeks before we was gunned down, he spoke to an audience of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. King cautioned, “I come by here to say that America too is going to Hell… If America doesn’t use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty.” Almost exactly a year earlier, in his famous speech against the Vietnam War, King warned the country risked being destroyed by “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”
Like the Hebrew prophets of old King called for “a radical revolution of values.” He believed that without such a shift this country was doomed. So long as people valued their things more than they valued each other they would remain separated and unable to experience human solidarity. But that human solidarity was desperately needed, he understood, because humanity faced existential threats from nuclear war. What was true in King’s day is even more true today. We do not just face the existential threat of nuclear war but also the threat of climate change.
I have been thinking of these prophets–King, Jeremiah, Ezekiel–as I have been watching the Presidential debates. Not once during any of the three debates did I hear either of the candidates mention the plight of the poor or express solidarity with the working class. Both spoke of helping the middle class but neither mentioned the homeless. Neither seriously discussed climate change. Both favored violence as a means to peace. The stern admonitions of generations of anti-war activists have fallen stone deaf on their ears. King might have understood that, in his words, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” but Clinton and Trump do not.
The debates have had me thinking about the need for national, and individual, repentance. I have concluded that true repentance consists of four things: clarity, confession, apology, and action. Clarity is ability to see the source of the problem. In the prophets term, to extend the medical metaphor from earlier, it is to diagnosis the disease rather than focus on the symptoms. Confession is two-fold. It requires that we acknowledge our own complicity in the creation and maintenance of negative patterns of behavior. It also necessitates us to admit that we benefit in some way from those patterns of behavior. Apologizing should be obvious. It means saying we are sorry for our behavior. Finally, we have to act for all three of the previous steps of repentance are meaningless without action.
In my story from earlier, I had to gain clarity around my own deep rooted misogyn. I had to admit that it impacted my behavior and that, perhaps, I even benefitted from that behavior. It was emotionally easier not to examine how I acted than to change my actions. I had then apologize and finally I had to change my behavior. Saying I was sorry would have been meaningless if I had not begun to pay more attention to members of the congregation who I had marginalized.
To begin our path towards national repentance we need to gain clarity about the sources of social ills. I suggest that we must seek to understand how team donkey and team elephant are made up of players who are after the same goal. I suggest that clarity will come from an understanding that the creation of the current economic and political system has been one in which both parties have been complicit. The Democrats, particularly under Bill Clinton, and the Republicans have continued to build a government that deepens the plight of the poor, exacerbates economic inequality, fuels mass incarceration and police violence, engages in the repression of political dissent, encourages the destruction of the environment, and fights catastrophic and needless wars. As I see it, America is sick and both candidates are different expressions of the country’s illness. One might be the symptom. The other could be understood as the disease: a political practice of speaking about social progress while doing little to aid the marginalized.
Maybe your clarity is different is mine. If so, perhaps your confession will be different too. I confess as a highly educated white male that I have benefited from the system. I know my life is easier than the lives of so many other people. I have benefited from the exploitation of unnumbered people whose names I will never know.
Apologizing is hard. I do not believe in white liberal guilt. It makes little sense for me to apologize for the systems that I benefited from. I did not choose to be born someone who had easy access to education and financial support. Instead, I think I should apologize for the times that I have failed to understand what I have gained from the existing social system and continued my complicity in the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and materialism.
As for action, for me that means trying to move beyond the present political system and create a new one. It might mean something differently for you. Maybe you even do not agree with me about the need for national repentance or think that one of the candidates offers a solution to the national ills.
Whatever the case, as I move towards the close, I invite you to take some silence to contemplate things you or we might need to repent for. How is clarity needed? What would that clarity look like? What do you, or we, have to confess? How might you, or we, apologize? What would a change in action look like?[Two minutes of silence.]
My prayer for us this morning is that we may find the inner strength and collective solidarity to overcome those things that keep us separated from each other. May we learn, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, week-by-week, and life-by-life, to join our human hearts with our human hands and engage in the difficult work of creating a great moral revolution.
Amen and Blessed Be.