a Sermon by Rev. Sarah Oelberg at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, Madison WI, Sept. 26, 2004
September has always been a very special month for me. It is the month of our wedding anniversary and my birthday. It is the time when Unitarian Universalist churches celebrate the beginning of a new "official" church year, and come back together with new hope and promises of what will happen this year. September is the sensible time to begin a new year, not in the frozen winter when there is nothing to mark it except a calendar. September is when schools begin, churches get back to serious services, community activities get in full swing, and things in general return to normal. This is the real time of new beginnings. The summer is over, the Labor Day weekend has closed the book on vacation time, and we anticipate the events which await us. And doesn't it feel good to be back together again?
September also marks the Jewish New Year, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish holiday which starts the ten-day period of repentance and prayer known as the days of Awe, and ending on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement - or at-one-ment, which was yesterday. During this time, observant Jews go to the synagogue to reaffirm their faith, examine their deeds over the past year, ask for forgiveness, explore ways to be charitable and give service, and fast in order to start the new year with a clear conscience. On the final day, Yom Kippur, these will be made as promises to God and self for the coming year.
For twelve years I was on the faculty at Yeshiva University in New York City, and these ten high holy days were a mandatory vacation. I came to appreciate both the meaning and the timing of this period of self and communal reflection and the benefit of taking time to analyze my activities during the year just past and ask for forgiveness from people I may have hurt, and then look to the new year and promise to do certain things, even if noone knew of these promises. I sometimes think we UUs lack meaningful ways to search our souls and prepare to begin a new year and forgive and renew our commitment to ourselves and others. Perhaps if everyone had a set time to engage in some serious self-examination, things might be better for us all. Maybe, on a less scheduled and smaller scale, this is one of the reasons for being part of a religious community, especially one in which we are willing to question, and to challenge conventional truths, and to find our own path in life. We celebrate a religion which does not give us easy answers, but asks us to search for the best solutions to difficult problems. But sometimes we forget to take the time to search.
Forgiveness is at the core of the Rosh Hashanah observance. The whole point of the Days of Awe is to be able to offer forgiveness to oneself, members of one's family and religious community, and even one's enemies on Yom Kippur. This is not an easy thing to do -- which may be why it takes ten days -- but Jews, who have suffered persecution for centuries, have realized that it is an important step in remaining a community and in living through tough times. Unlike the Christian notion of forgiveness, which is only between the person and his or her god, Jews believe that asking for forgiveness should be a communal thing - so it is done together, and it is asked for all in the religious community, and it is asked of and given not just to god, but all the people who may have been affected by one's acts. For Jews, and especially secular Jews, the concept of repentance is that what matters are the sins humans commit against other humans. So if transgressions were against other people, one should confess in public to the person harmed, face the consequences of one's actions, and ask for their forgiveness. This is so both can begin the new year with a fresh slate -beginning again, in love. I like that idea. Let us, in this religious community, also begin the new year in love.
There is a long standing tradition, during the service of the holy day of Yom Kippur, of reading aloud the Book of Jonah in its entirety. Why Jonah, you may wonder? All that most people remember about Jonah's story is the whale. Well, it was a big fish, actually, but people remember it as a whale, which gives the tale a kind of children's story cast in their minds. But there is much more going on with Jonah than a big fish story. In fact it`s a very subtle, even slyly humorous little book--and it has some powerful lessons to teach about the true meaning of repentance.
So what does the book of Jonah teach us? That the other side of repentance, that thing which lifts it up, ennobles it, makes it impossible to confuse it with guilt or self-abasement, is compassionate forgiveness. Here Jonah thought repentance was all about judgmentalism and punishment--about giving it to the Ninevites for being bad. But the Jewish God, exemplifying the better part of the Jewish view, shows that repentance goes hand-in-hand with compassion, mercy, openness, generosity of spirit--in all lands, and in all times, and for all people. Including people Jonah dislikes and mistrusts, like the Ninevites.
God's goal, according to the author of Jonah's story, is not out to dole out negative reinforcement for mistakes, but rather positive reinforcement for turning those mistakes around. God, or if you like, the Spirit of Jewish religion, wants everyone to achieve at-one-ment with each other. That is the lesson in the story of Jonah--that repentance is not about punishment but healing; not about wallowing around in the bad and "getting even" but gathering in the good.
So what can this story tell us in this terrible time of agony? I think it might hold several messages. First, of course, is the message that we should not be judgmental about other peoples' religions, even those very different from our own--especially if we do not fully understand them. And most especially, we should not lump together all followers of a given religion and assume that the deeds of a few represent the deeds, or even the thoughts, of all followers of that religion. Yet it seems that America has morphed our war on terrorism into a war on Islam. Attacks on innocent Muslims are as common as they are reprehensible. We have a sizeable Muslim community in Wisconsin, even though most are not Arabs, and we need to be friends and protectors of them and their right to their religious beliefs and practices, unless and until we know that certain individuals are using their religion to harm others. Then we should condemn only those individuals, not the religion and all its proponents.
Secondly, there is a message about rushing to judgment. Jonah did not know or understand the Ninevites, nor did he have any inclination to try to do so. He had heard nasty things about them, and on the basis of hearsay, he was willing, even eager, to punish them severely. It was so easy to believe they were truly evil--after all, they worshiped idols and... and we really don't know much else. There is a reference to their "wickedness," but it is undefined. It seems that their primary crime was their religious practices, and because those were different from the Hebrews, that was enough to condemn them. Again, there is a similar attitude in America toward those we label "enemies," and a reluctance to try to understand their point of view, and why they feel toward us as they do.
There is also a message about how easy it is to want to punish others, and demand retribution. Jonah did not want to accept his assigned task, because deep in his heart, he didn't want those awful Ninevites to have a second chance. He was convinced in his mind that they were evil, and therefore should be made to pay for their wickedness. He thought that seeing his enemies suffer would make him feel better--or at least victorious and superior. That is what Jonah wanted to feel, and why he was so ticked off when God forgave the Ninevites instead of making them suffer. We, too, often rush to punish others, choosing retribution over wisdom, negotiation, and patience.
Then there is the message about degrees; about not painting everything in black and white. Once Jonah had decided the Ninevites were wicked, he could see no good in them at all, nor any positive aspects to their religion, or their way of life. He did not bother to engage them in conversation to see why they felt and acted the way they did; he just condemned them, and sought revenge--not even to teach them a better way, but because it would make him feel better. If we are purely out for retaliation, how do we learn why our enemies feel so strongly about us; why they feel justified in their deeds; what role our behavior might play in the overall situation? These lessons will never be learned if all we do is strike back, even harder, from a posture of righteousness, superiority and power. Nothing is purely black and white: they are not purely evil, and we are not purely good.
Finally, there is the lesson about forgiveness, and this is sometimes the hardest of all, partly because it encompasses all the other lessons. The Jewish God is quite clear; he wants everyone, no matter what they have done, to be given the opportunity to repent, and then he wants everyone--in all lands, in all times, and all people--to be forgiven for their misdeeds when they do repent. And I suspect this is the message we will have the hardest time with in the present situation. But this is a basic question. When is forgiveness appropriate? Is there some evil so great that it is not worthy of forgiveness of any kind, in any degree? Is it ever acceptable to answer one evil with another? Should evildoers be given the opportunity to repent? When is dialogue the appropriate response? That which one group sees as evil another sees as justice. How do we reconcile these different views?
I do not have the answers to these questions--I am not sure there are any. But I do see them as questions we need to face. I fear our nation, like Jonah, is too ready to punish, even without fully understanding, than it is to try to answer some of these questions. Unfortunately, in addition to the good things we celebrate in September, we will forever need to be reminded of the events of September 11, 2001. It will, like Pearl Harbor Day, always be part of our national narrative. And it is precisely because this is true, and because of the continuing threats that face us, that we need to stop and take time to analyze those events and the ones which have followed, and try to answer some of the many questions they raise. Perhaps it is fitting that this defining event occurred in September, the time when Jewish people the world over take ten days to reflect on the past year; consider all that has happened and acknowledge errors, misdeeds and faults. If there are matters needing reconciliation, relationships needing repair, bitterness needing a balm, Judaism says we need to seek out any whom we know we have injured and to ask their forgiveness. To ask forgiveness, seek understanding, and begin again in love.
There is no question that we American have made some mistakes-some very serious mistakes, both before and since that fateful September 11-that relate and contribute to the present state of affairs. Obviously, in retrospect, helping to arm and train Muslim fanatics because we wanted their help in removing the Russians from Afghanistan was a gigantic mistake. Putting American troops in Saudi Arabia, an act considered by Muslims to desecrate the sacred land which was the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, was probably an even bigger mistake. Continuing to "punish" the Iraqi people through our embargoes, ongoing bombing and sanctions following the first gulf war, resulting in the deaths of many, many more Iraqis since we supposedly won that war than were killed in the terrorist attacks here has further angered both Arabs and Muslims, and turned us into an enemy. And, arguably, our preemptive and presumptive war on Iraq, which the administration sees as justified, if not noble, may be our greatest mistake yet. It is, therefore, not too surprising that some see our "mistakes" as a form of terrorism, and feel it is their duty to retaliate. In other words, they want revenge - just as Jonah did and just as we do. And, as with us, revenge is seen as justice.
For, like Jonah, we were not willing to sit and talk and try to come to some understanding; not willing to learn enough about the perpetrators to appreciate their point of view; not to try to understand their feelings, their motives, their actions; and neither were they. And, like Jonah, both chose to paint the other with one brush using the color black, and label the other as evil. And, like Jonah, both wanted to see the other suffer. And they did; and we did; in the names of our respective gods and out of the hate that had built up as each assessed the perceived evils of the other. And so both committed acts of terror; in retaliation for what were seen as sins against them. As Bishop Spong said: "Terrorism is the war of the powerless, and war is the terror of the powerful."
But, you protest, our motives were good; our intentions pure; our actions sincere. We are the good guys. And so say they about their motives, their intentions, their actions-also with true sincerity. Now we have a hard time in such circumstances even thinking about forgiveness. We cannot, in our pain, even consider doing that sincerely. And if forgiveness is not sincere, it does no good. It is understandable that we feel that way; some acts are so evil that perhaps they should not be forgiven. That is certainly how Jonah felt when he was mad at god for forgiving the Ninevites.
But the question is this: If they cannot forgive us, and we cannot forgive them, when does it stop? Is it justifiable for us now, in our Jonah-like need for revenge to commit similar acts of terror on innocent people because we dislike their leaders? Are nations which harbor terrorist groups, or are not willing to fully support our revenge, as culpable as the individuals who committed the terrorist acts? Or are the citizens of those nations the victims of their leaders and the terrorists as much as we are? Should we inflict further misery on people who are also suffering from the acts of terrorists? Is it possible to forgive, and still to rectify wrong, or does forgiveness only come with no strings attached? Are we as willing to grant forgiveness to others as we are to demand it for ourselves?
Again, many questions with no easy answers. What is the appropriate response to evil - real or perceived? Certainly, some response is called for, but what kind and how much? Out of the ashes of that terrible September day three years ago, and from the acts committed by both sides in the aftermath, many revelations have emerged. That our lives here in the United States are inextricably linked to the fates of others. That terrorism has a multitude of causes. That we are not invincible, and must not be arrogant. That living with hatred is harmful to both body and soul. That we must do everything possible to eradicate the causes of terrorism. That we need to educate people about respect and mutual esteem and worth and dignity of all people before we can expect to achieve peaceful coexistence among individuals and nations. That we should commit ourselves to defend the right of all people to lead a safe and dignified life. That we must stand ready to forgive each other's errors and prejudices of the past and present, and to support one another in the common struggle against hatred and violence. That our security is tied profoundly to the pursuit of justice-justice for the victims of the attacks and justice for the world at large. That we must make every effort to build a world of solidarity and peace.
Both Judaism and Unitarian Universalism believe and teach that human beings have the potentiality and possibility of abandoning old, harmful and dysfunctional ways and beginning anew. We can, by will, by imagination, by faith, by love, act in new ways. Instinct, pattern, habit, denial, addiction, self-absorption, all these and more need not control our lives. At the very heart of things, new ways are possible. New creation is possible, but it requires our efforts. Forgiveness is possible, but it requires that we truly look within ourselves and at the acts of others and come to a resolution of the differences between us. The world is gracious in so many ways, and one of those is the freedom to begin again, in love. To look within, to be honest, to seek to make it right with a partner, a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor-even an enemy. We don't have to, but we can. And if we do - if we forgive others and ourselves - we can begin again, in love.
Whatever we do, however, it behooves us to remember the final lesson in God' s response to Jonah-the question of collateral damage and unintended harm. God asks if Jonah really would want him to punish the Ninevites who don't know their right hand from their left-a hundred and twenty thousand people-not to mention all their cattle. That is a question we must also consider. Do we really want to punish those who did not commit these acts of terrorism and condemn them also-hundreds of thousands of people-not to mention all their cattle? Where does revenge end and forgiveness and healing begin?
In the midst of the Vietnam war, the great Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote these words to inspire young people whose lives were at risk every day: "Promise me, promise me this day, promise me now..." he asked. "Even as they strike you down, you will remember that humanity is not our enemy. The only thing worthy of you is compassion...Hatred will never let you face the beast in human beings. One day, when you face the beast alone, with your courage intact, your eyes kind...out of your smile will bloom a flower. And,...on the long, rough road, the sun and moon will continue to shine."
Throughout this year, you, the members and friends of this fellowship, will come together to worship, to learn, to be challenged in your ideas, to be uplifted, to seek solace, to find compassion, and to serve. As you do so, may the sun and the moon continue to shine in your lives, and may you begin again, in love. Welcome to the new year and the promise that it holds.