Do You Want to Know a Secret?
The Gnostic Gospels
Rev. Douglas Taylor
In 1945 a farmer from the Nag Hammadi village in Upper Egypt while digging for fertilizer nitrates uncovered a 6-foot-tall clay jar. Historians believe that fourth-century monks from the St. Pachomius monastery, near the present-day village of Nag Hammadi hid that clay jar there centuries before. In the jar, bound in tooled gazelle leather, were the 52 manuscripts that are now known as the Gnostic gospels.
These papyrus texts: the Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of John, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Thomas were all so strange and radical it took decades for the information to come to the public. Meanwhile the manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the first of which were uncovered in 1947, have been available to the public for quite some time. The difference may be that the Dead Sea Scrolls are renderings of the Hebrew Scriptures. While they are considered the oldest manuscripts of these texts, they are generally consistent with what we already knew of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Nag Hammadi discovery however did not conform at all to what we already knew of the Gospel stories of Jesus. What was uncovered in what are now called the Gnostic Gospels constituted the various letters, gospels, and sayings that were not included in the Bible.
One of the strong characteristics of these Gnostic books is that they offered the secret teachings of Jesus. The opening greeting for The Secret Book of James reads: “Since you asked me to send you a secret book that was revealed to Peter and me by the Lord, I could neither refuse you nor dissuade you; so [I have written] it in Hebraic letters and have sent it to you – and to you alone.” In the Gospel of Mary we read about the time: (Chap 6) “Peter said to Mary, “Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the savior that you know, but which we haven’t heard.”
The Gospel of Thomas begins with: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” (Prologue) And later (Chap 13) Jesus took Thomas, “and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends [the other disciples], they asked him, ‘What did Jesus say to you?’ Thomas said to them, ‘If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.”
But my favorite set up of it is in the recently published Gospel of Judas where we find this: “Knowing that Judas was reflecting upon something that was exalted, Jesus said to him, ‘Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.’” This element of it is all the more interesting based on the context. These proclamations of secret truths are contained in documents have been only recently revealed from their hidden places. The buried treasure condition in which these texts were found serves only to enhance the secret-ness of their content.
For all the mystique, these books might not have made it past the veil of academia if not for a young professor of religion from Princeton University. It was Elaine Pagels who wrote The Gnostic Gospels in 1979, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was that little book that sparked in the popular culture this interest in these obscure, so-called heretical religious writings. Her more recent book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003), spent more than three months on the New York Times bestseller list. Certainly books of a religious nature have been on the bestseller list before – the Left Behind series and the DaVinci Code, but the unique quality of this bestselling religious book is that it is not fiction. Beyond Belief is a researched piece of scholarship offered in an engaging style palatable to the popular culture. It was a very interesting response from the broader culture. Every now and then I wonder what the western world would have been like if these hidden Gospels had been a regular part of the New Testament all these years. What would it have been like?
The writings from the cave near Nag Hammadi have been kept in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Scholars from all over North America and Europe have studied these poems, prayers and sayings for quite some time now. “They look like golden tobacco leaves inscribed with black ink,” Pagels says about the manuscripts that she first saw them preserved between sheets of Plexiglas. “The texts are quite beautiful.”
So, why they weren’t they included? Why weren’t these accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus included in the Bible? If there are four different accounts, why are there not five or six or even twenty-six? How was it decided?
To begin with, any decent Bible will include a section at the beginning explaining the process of how the Bible was constructed. “Biblia” means book or books. It is a collection put together over time. The Hebrew scripture was pulled together in an authoritative collection a few hundred years before the Christian scriptures were collected in this same way. The Christian Scriptures were organized into what we know now as the New Testament around the same time as the Council of Nicaea and the creation of the Nicene Creed under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century of the Common Era.
According to the current scholarship of the Jesus Seminar, the earliest writings in the Christian Scripture are the letters of Paul and other letters attributed to Paul around 20 or 30 years after Jesus’ death. The Gospel of Thomas was possibly written around this time as well, but it is hard to be certain. For many years the stories were passed down in oral tradition until they were finally written down a generation or two later. So, the claim that the author of the Gospel of Thomas was Thomas the apostle is quite unlikely. Instead it is more likely that the author wrote down the story that had come to him or her through oral tradition as Thomas’ words. The Gospel of Mark was likely written around the time of the destruction of the temple, in 70 C.E. Ten to twenty years after that is the other synoptic Gospels were written down, along with the Gospel of Peter and a collection entitled Dialogue of the Savior. Then around 90 or 100 C.E. the Gospel of John was written – this was roughly 60 or 70 years after the death of Jesus. By 150 C.E., the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of James, and something called the Egerton Gospel had also been complied.
During all this time, each small community of Christians held a copy of one or two Gospels and perhaps a letter or a copy of a letter from Paul. Each worshiped in a small way, rereading the words they had and interpreting them together. The Christians of that time lived under constant threat of persecution. They were regularly rounded up to be burned at the stake, beheaded, or torn apart by wild animals. So they tended to gather in small and secluded groups. Each community developed its own character and style based on the particular texts they held. This is the way it was for the first few centuries.
In the beginning of the fourth century, the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine oversaw a shift in Christianity more radical than anything that has happened in Christianity since. Christianity was a multifarious thing before Constantine. Christians suffered great persecution during the first centuries. Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire, thus ending the persecution and ushering in an official theology. This official theology included the Canon of the New Testament with Four Gospels to match Ezekiel’s vision of the four creatures worship around God’s throne.
The reactions to this were of three sorts. Some, of course, accepted this change with open arms and saw it as a good thing. These people saw the conversion of Constantine as the culmination of both the history of the church and the history of the empire. Others saw it as a great apostasy and broke away from the community of Christians, forming their own separate sects. These sects were a thorn in the side of the church for a while, but that is another chapter in early church history.
Of more interest this morning are those people who also saw the Emperor’s conversion to Christianity as an imperial takeover of the church, yet they did not wish to remove themselves communion with the church. Instead they physically withdrew into the desert to practice a strict asceticism. With the end of great persecution, the true Christian could no longer aspire to martyrdom and so instead they opted for monastic life to continue what they saw as their training. The fourth century saw “a massive exodus of devoted Christians to the deserts of Egypt and Syria.” (from the Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez; p 124) Remembering that these were the Christians who rebelled against the merging of the church and the empire, and against the creation of an official theology as seen in the Nicene Creed, we should not be surprised that the texts of the “Gnostic Gospels” were centuries later found in Egypt written in the Coptic language, which is a first-century form of Egyptian.
Until a few decades ago, all that was known about these Gnostic gospels came from their detractors, the fourth-century bishops and archbishops who had denounced them as heretical works. But as we can see, that was all part of the process of formalizing the beliefs of the Nicene Creed and ordaining the biblical canon. In 367, Athanasius, the archbishop of Alexandria, sent an Easter letter to far-flung churches – including those monasteries out in Egypt and Syria, demanding that they destroy all the “illegitimate, secret books.” Obviously someone took a few of these texts out into the desert and buried them in order to preserve them.
What did these texts contain that is so radical and heretical? What is Gnosticism? The word Gnostic derives from the Greek word Gnosis, meaning “knowledge” or “insight.” One component of Gnostic texts is that what they offer is the secret teachings of Jesus, the secret knowledge. It also spelled out a strict duality between physical and spiritual with the physical being evil. One predominant theology of Gnosticism contends that this world was a mistake created by a demigod. Indeed, humanity is not of this evil world, instead we are fallen or entrapped by it; and thus are caught in the physical realm. Most people are anesthetized to the truth. Only those who uncover the truth (which can be found within) can transcend this world back into the true realm of heaven.
Much of the Gospel of Judas, for example, is taken up with Jesus laughing at the disciples, explaining the intricate cosmology of gods, demigods, and angels to them and then going away from them to visit ‘other great and holy generations.’ In the midst of it all Jesus says to Judas, “You will exceed them all, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” According to the Gospel of John, Satan whispered in Judas’s ear telling him to go betray Jesus. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus whispered in Judas’s ear telling him to conspire with Jesus to release him from his human façade. And that is typical of the Gnosticism of that time.
Certainly, there is a part in this Gnostic theology that rings true for our way of faith: the part that about the truth being found within. Emerson said as much: look within yourself, “there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins.” The truth is found within, we like that idea from Gnosticism. But the rest of Gnostic theology does not quite fit with Unitarian Universalism very well. I certainly cannot believe this world is somehow a big mistake or cosmic joke, concocted by a malevolent and rebellious demigod.
And while many of the Gnostic Gospels support the strict duality of nature and spirit, The Gospel of Thomas goes the furthest in heretical idea that Jesus called us to be like him, to find the light within ourselves. (Thom 70:1-2) Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
As Pagels writes,
While Mark, Matthew, and Luke identify Jesus as God’s human agent, John and Thomas characterize him instead as God’s own light in human form. … John calls him the “light of humanity,” and believes that Jesus alone brings divine light to a world otherwise sunk in darkness. John says that we can experience God only through the divine light embodied in Jesus. But certain passages in Thomas’s gospel draw a quite different conclusion: that the divine light Jesus embodied is shared by humanity, since we are all made “in the image of god.” Thus Thomas expresses what would become a central theme in Jewish – and later Christian – mysticism a thousand years later, that the “image of God” is hidden within everyone, although most people remain unaware of its presence. (p40 – 41)
Pagels demonstrates fairly convincingly that the Gospel of John was written as are argument against the ideas outlined in the Gospel of Thomas. The character of Thomas in the Gospel of John, for example, is continually shown as a faithless, doubting disciple who does not understand and does not receive the fullest of Jesus’ blessings in the way the other disciples do – according to John. Also, there is the deeper distinction of how you find the Kingdom of God or the divine light. According the John, Jesus is “the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through” him. Incidentally, in John’s Gospel, that line comes when Jesus is telling the disciples that he is going to prepare them a place in the Kingdom, and he says, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14) Guess which disciple John has saying “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” You guessed it Thomas! (You don’t know the way, Thomas? I am the Way.)
Thomas’ Gospel, on the other hand, holds the conviction that the divine dwells as “light” within all beings. (Thom 24:3) “There is light within a person of light, and it shines on the whole world.” It also has Jesus saying, (Thom 108) “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I myself will become that person and the mysteries shall be revealed to him.” According to the Gospel of Thomas ‘the Way’ is not Jesus, ‘the way’ is within. Certainly Jesus is a major part of that process, (Thom 77) “I am the light that is over all things. I am all; from me all things came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” In fact, there are striking similarities between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas. John, reacting against the Gnostic theology, carries some Gnosticism forward. Just as we Unitarian Universalists reacting against Calvinism carry a surprising amount of Calvinism into our theology. But they are very different in answering the question “who is Jesus?” I wonder what it would have looked like today if Thomas’s Gospel had been included in the canon.
One might ask how John prevailed over Thomas to be included in the official canon. Was it that John’s Gospel was better connected to the people in positions of authority at the right times? Was it a matter of historical luck-of-the-draw? Was it that John’s Gospel had a better campaign manager, a bigger war chest, a more effective set of smear tactics? Is that John’s Gospel was more accurate? I tend to think it was more pragmatic that all that. I think John’s Gospel leaned more toward an organizing principle for authority, it offered incentives for the people to be a part of the system: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” If word got around that the Kingdom of God was within you and the real work was to explore yourself, what would you need the church for?
The people wanted to know God and to know what they needed for salvation. What does it take to be a true Christian? The church wanted them to hear that the way to know God was to come to church. The way to salvation was through Jesus and there was no other way. This makes it a lot easier to build a church. It makes it a lot easier for an Empire to control its citizens.
But we Unitarian Universalists have been managing with the Emersonian/Thomastic message or personal search for about two hundred years now. I will admit that I have heard attempts to build a message saying the only way to be a true Unitarian Universalist is to go to church. This message, interestingly, comes out around the time of financial campaigns for the UUA and for the individual churches. So keep alert! I say this as a dyed-in-the-wool institutionalist. I believe in the power of our gathered community. I believe strongly that the institution is worth supporting; but not for the purpose of controlling people or raising money – that’s getting it all backwards! The institution is here to support and nurture the light that shines out from you – that unique divine light that shines out from each of us as a ray of hope, a beacon of truth, a spark of holiness.
In a world without end.
May it be so.
A Theology of Resistance
November 5, 2006
Rev. Douglas Taylor
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Ella Baker! In 1982 Sweet Honey in the Rock, on their album Breaths, had this song entitled “Ella’s Song.” Ella Baker was one of the ‘behind the scenes’ movers-and-shakers of the civil rights era. She participated in organizations and structures that effected change. She was a field secretary and later a branch director of the NAACP. Ella helped organize Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a major organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. She was a quiet leader in these organizations. She remains comparatively unknown alongside the big names, the men, which history remembers of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s. The song written by Bernice Johnson Reagan of Sweet Honey on the Rock immortalizes Ella’s words of struggle, hope, and freedom. Ella Baker was a woman of power who helped other people realize their power. She was a friend and advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and is noted to have argued with him at times. In his 1963 book, Strength to Love, Dr. King wrote, “The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists. In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist!” Ella was a nonconformist, to be sure. She was a woman who spoke out and acted out and challenged the racist and sexist structures of oppression. Ella was a trailblazer for freedom.
I’m a woman who speaks in a voice and I must be heard
At times I can be quite difficult, I’ll bow to no man’s word
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
The path to freedom during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was through Non-violent Resistance. The non-violent component is the piece that we often hear about; the non-violent aspect was the radical new method that turned everything upside down. And the only problem with our continual lifting up and praising of the non-violent facet of the movement is the risk of losing the other half of the equation. It was not simply non-violent. It was non-violent direct action; non-violent resistance.
The eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus tells The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:2-6).
2He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. 3And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4”For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!’”
I don’t know about you, but this small parable surprised me when I bumped into it. It just does not seem like the kind of thing you would find in the Bible. It is just so pragmatic! “I’ll see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out.” Ella’s story reminds me of this widow in the parable from the gospel of Luke. The persistence of the people who seek justice, who accomplish reform, who make a difference, is remarkable. The persistence of those who will not sit down and wallow in pity, of those who stand up to injustice though the odds are stacked against them, of those who stare unjust authority in the face and say, “grant me justice against my adversary,” is remarkable indeed. The persistence of those who practice resistance is the key to accomplishing justice.
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Ella Baker understood that organizations are necessary to accomplish justice. As you have perhaps heard me say before, goodness must be organized.
There seems to be a recurring half-truth among people of faith that the highest form of religion and spirituality is some sort of mystical aestheticism or monastic retreat from the material world to focus on the sweet nectar of solo divine communion. We are by no means free from this misconception. Our own Henry David Thoreau is remembered so fondly for his retreat into Walden. His theology of self-reliance and freedom of conscience is highly revered among us. Thoreau’s reverence for nature, his self-sufficiency, and insistence that every one march to the beat of his or her own drummer, his severe distaste for organized government and distrust of authority, goes to the heart of many Unitarian Universalists. Thoreau poses an odd mix of retreat and engagement, but both actions are a form of faithful resistance!
On the fourth of July, 1845, Thoreau moved into his rough-hewn cabin on Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord, and he wrote what one colleague (Rev. Patrick O’Neil) has called “his immortal apologia for retreating into the sanctuary of Natural surroundings far from the madding crowd:”
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
And two years later, when he came out from Walden, he wrote:
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spend any more time for that one.
The account of Thoreau’s time at Walden was not published for several years. When it was published, it was received with great acclaim! But when Henry David Thoreau came out of the Walden what he presented to the world was his short essay on “Civil Disobedience.” Dr. Martin Luther King kept a dog-eared copy of that short essay on hand for sustenance and encouragement. When Thoreau came out of the Walden what he presented to the world was his essay on “Civil Disobedience.” The common thread between his book Walden and his essay “Civil Disobedience” is the faithful resistance to conformity, the commitment to one’s own conscience. Resistance is not isolation; it is engagement with a vision toward justice and a better tomorrow.
Struggling myself don’t mean a whole lot, I’ve come to realize
That teaching others to stand up and fight is the only way my struggle survives
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Back when I was living in Montgomery County, Maryland, I participated in a grassroots, interfaith, political lobbying group called Action In Montgomery, or “AIM”. This was based on the Industrial Areas Foundation that was founded by Saul Alinsky in Chicago in the 1940. People from all sorts of faiths – Jewish, Catholic, mainline Protestant, and Unitarian Universalist – came together to advocate for issues of common concern in the community. Many people were involved from the start with the reflection and discussion about what the needs were. I showed up after things were already cooking, I walked in when it was time for the action to start.
I remember in particular an AIM meeting my family and I attended on county funding for housing held at a little Methodist church. Over 200 people from nearly 15 churches tried hard that evening to fit into a very small sanctuary! My family and I sat up in the choir seats next to the pulpit. (If I can’t be in the pulpit just put me in the choir and I’ll be happy.) It was a great meeting– exciting and efficient: a kind of mix between a tent revival and a well-run finance committee meeting. Near the end of the meeting there was a Call to Action. “Now, we’ve talked about power before,” said the speaker calling us to action. “We need some power now to see this housing proposal safely through the budget process of the County Council. We’ve got power right here in this room tonight. We are that power.” My daughter leaned over to my wife and whispered, “We have the power?” “Yes, we do,” my wife responded. “Do I have the power?” my daughter asked incredulously. “Yes,” my wife said smiling, “You do.” My daughter and I responded to the Call to Action and signed up to help see the proposal through. It was fascinating to sit with my 11 year-old-daughter talking about a dedicated funding line in the county budget with a member of the county council.
The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on
Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Ella Baker was affectionately known as the Fundi, which is a Swahili word for a person who passes skills from one generation to another. Through her efforts with school desegregation and the organizing of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Baker shaped the Civil Rights movement in a very basic way: by doing it without seeking fame or recognition and truly making a difference.
To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail
And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
So, what about you? Do you have the power? Do you believe in freedom? Will you persist against injustice until unjust authority is worn out? Are you a nonconformist? Can you shed some light? Will you wade in the water? Are you a part of the resistance? Perhaps you are thinking you came to this faith to retreat from the maddening crowd, to restore your soul, to find a deeper spiritual connection with God; you didn’t sign-up for the resistance! Well, first I will say ‘OK, that’s fine; but you know of course that your retreat is a form of faithful resistance.’ Resisting the subtle and pervasive pressure to conformity! And second I will say, at some point you must come out from retreat and engage the maddening world in active resistance, at some point you must leave Walden for we are in a time of great need for justice and resistance. It is time for you to leave Walden for you have “several more lives to live, and [can] not spend any more time for that one.”
Colleague and wise soul, Alice Blair Wesley says, “What all the kings, presidents, generals, CEOs, mafia dons and celebs put together do, is ultimately far less important than what people in free churches do, when the people faithfully seek together to find and to live out the ways of love.” That is why we are here, that is the grand purpose for which this and any other free church exists: to grow and to serve; to faithfully seek together to find and live out the ways of love; to be a community of resistance.
When you joined this congregation you signed up for the resistance. Dr. King wrote: “we are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty.” As Unitarian Universalists we too are called in this way. We are not called to be respectable among the other religions; we are not called to be palatable or popular or within any proximity of prevailing opinion. We are called upon to be radical, to be a community of resistance, to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Indeed most churches are somewhat counter cultural, much of what goes on is against the grain of the pervasive culture: loving one another rather than competing with one another, giving yourself away rather than spending money to gather things to you, the first shall be last and the last shall be first¸ and all that sort of thing. But Unitarian Universalist churches are both counter to the pervading culture as well as counter too much of standard protestant ‘church’ culture, too. Here we strive to be to be not only counter cultural but radically transformative of culture as well.
Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me
I need to be one in the number as we stand against tyranny
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Welcome to the resistance: here we insist that all are welcome, all are inherently worthy and equally filled with human dignity. Here we buck conformity and call each to live as a human being not as a market niche, not as a label, not as an illness, not as a stereotype. Welcome to the resistance. Stand up and be counted among those who are human in community. Together we can change the world.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
There was a tradesman, a painter named Jack, who was very interested in making a dollar where he could. So he often would thin down his paint to make it go a wee bit further. As it happened, he got away with this for some time. Eventually the local church decided to do a big restoration project. Jack put in a painting bid and, because his price was so competitive, he got the job. And so he started, erecting the trestles and putting up the planks, and buying the paint and thinning it down with turpentine.
Jack was up on the scaffolding, painting away, the job nearly done, when suddenly there was a horrendous clap of thunder. The sky opened and the rain poured down, washing the thin paint from all over the church and knocking Jack off the scaffold to land on the lawn.
Jack was no fool. He knew this was a judgment from the Almighty, so he fell on his knees and cried, “Oh, God! Forgive me! What should I do?”
And from the thunder, a mighty Voice spoke, “Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!”
So, I begin by making the point that generosity is not limited to the concept of money. I promise I will talk about generosity in terms of money, but let me make this point first. Generosity is about your willingness to share or give of yourself in many ways. It is a mark of unselfishness. An ungenerous person, like the painter in the story, will thin down what is offered rather than giving the full amount. An ungenerous person will usually sacrifice quality to make a buck rather than sacrifice the buck to achieve quality.
And I want to let you know (especially if you’re a little new to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton) that this is a generous congregation … mostly. But I am sure that isn’t surprising because isn’t that how it is with your personal life? Most of the people I meet around here are generous in the ways they can be and in other ways they hold back or try stretch things to make it work. We’re each like that and this congregation is a reflection of us.
By and large, this congregation is generous. We don’t thin down what is offered. Consider this: every week, I and the other guest clergy and lay worship leaders pour out our best work for you, no shirking! We offer the real stuff here. What I preach will not wash off in the rain storm. The music that fills the worship services, whether from Vicky on the piano, the choir in harmony, Gail on organ, a guest musician, or a youth from our congregation, all of it is offered with care and passion and none of it is thinned down. The music around here is amazing. And it is generously offered week after week! Consider this, week in and week out this congregation generously produces quality worship services. We would never consider thinning it down, offering less that the best we have together, or holding back in case we needed to use it later. We unselfishly pour out every bit of really good stuff we can every week.
The same could be said of other aspects of the life of this congregation. People generously pour out their resources for this community on a regular basis to create coffee hour, the weekly focal point, our phenomenal Sunday school program, our caring committee, our Social Responsibility actions, our Small Group Ministry and Adult Religious Education offerings, our new labyrinth out in the courtyard, and on and on and on.
And the exciting thing is that our current vision as reflected in our long range plan is leading us to capitalize on our strengths and our generosity (by increasing our vitality, expanding our concept of worship, enlarging a critical component of our justice-making work, and making improvements to our physical plant.) Where does it all come from? The generosity of everyone involved. All the time, all the talent, all the energy, all the money, all the dreams, all the vision comes from those of us gathered as members and friends of this congregation. Everything going on here is yours, ours; every bit of it. And what we’ve decided to do with it is to give it away as a gift to whomever shows up each week.
Does this happen in other places in your life outside of this congregation? I bet it does. Perhaps when you host a party, or invite friends to visit for a weekend. Perhaps you turn yourself inside out to create a generous holiday experience – maybe Thanksgiving or Christmas? How are you generous in your life? Do you think of yourself as generous? Usually when we say someone is generous we mean they willingly give money when there is need. But generosity is not limited to money. Generosity is about giving and sharing your resources, one of which is usually money. So, maybe you are actually really stingy when it comes to money, but are generous in other aspects. In what ways are you willing to share or give of yourself? Do you sing, bake, laugh out loud? What gift do you offer the world? You could draw up quite a list I am sure of ways in which you are generous.
And so the first point of what I share with you this morning is that we are a generous congregation in many ways, and you are a generous person in many ways. Now I will talk about money. There is a Buddhist teacher who said, “You are perfect just the way you are, and you could use some improvement.” Last spring this congregation passed a deficit budget for this current year. This caused me concern. I don’t know much about the ways of money. On a scale from one to ten, one being totally clueless and ten being amazingly savvy, I would rate myself low, perhaps a 3. I am generously compensated by this congregation yet I find I stay only a few steps ahead of the bills and I feel constrained by a lack of money. It occurs to me that my problem is less about how much money I have and more about my perspective of that money, my attitude toward that money. According to analysis I’ve read, I am far from unique. And so I wonder if something similar is happening with the congregation and our attitude toward money. Maybe, maybe not
Consider this: Financial Consultant Robin Bullard Carter, featured in an Alban Institute magazine issue, sees five money-types, five sets of traits that broadly characterize attitudes toward money. The spectrum of money-types ranges from Mindless to Obsessed, from those who exercise no control over money to those who exercise extreme control of money. Usually in church, the message is “money is the root of evil – and please give some to the church. Don’t be so controlling of it because it is really controlling you.” But the piece that I like is that she counsels people to move toward the healthy middle perspective. Don’t over control or under-control – “Balanced” is the title Robin Carter gives this type. Balanced money-types see money as not central to any question in their lives. Balanced money-types “pay bills on time, save adequately, and are reasonably generous,” but they see money as only one aspect of decision making. Other, less balanced perspectives, avoid thinking about money, or blindly trust that it will just get taken care of, or cling to it and hoard it up in case of disaster, or worry about it and let every decision rest on whether or not there is money enough. The underlying relationship we have with money when we are not balanced is based in some degree on fear and shame.
Now, there is no correlation between how much money you have and what type of relationship you have with it – according to Carter, at least. But I’m not so sure about that. When I was fresh out from college, working three low-paying jobs, living on WIC and food-stamps, and supporting a family of four, I had a great deal of control over my money. Every decision began with money rather than need; I knew where every dollar came from and where all of it went. On the spectrum of money-types I was a worrier trying to control my money. Now, I work one job and make three-times what I made then, I own a mortgaged house, a student loan, a car loan, five credit cards, and I have now a looser sense of where all the money goes. I have become more careless and no longer hold tight control.
So, for me there is a history demonstrating a correlation between how much money I have and my attitude toward it. Of course, a correlation is not a ‘cause and effect’ relationship, so I can’t conclude that the amount of money I have effects my attitude, or that my attitude effects the amount of money I have. Of course, Financial Consultant Robin Bullard Carter would tell me neither perspective is balanced, and a balanced attitude is the goal. But that is my second major point. Your attitude toward money, our attitude toward money as a community, may not necessarily impact how much we have but it will directly impact how we deal with it. And further, a balanced attitude is the goal. My second point is that generosity is about not how much you have, but what you do with what you’ve got.
Most responsible money management people will tell you to save 10%, give 10% away, and live on 80%. Most people however, especially younger folks, will save nothing, give to charities only under rare circumstances, and live on 110%. If that is true for the individuals in the community, might it have an echo effect on this faith community? Are we saving some money, giving some money away, and living within our means? Or are we in debt? Even though we passed a deficit budget for this year, the congregation is not currently in debt and we will not be in the foreseeable future. Thankfully the leadership of the congregation has consistently been thrifty with spending. To be thrifty and generous is not incompatible. You can, for example, be generous with the big picture and thrifty with the details! There are surplus funds in the congregation’s bank account to cover one year of deficit, but it is not something we want to see again next spring. And we promised ourselves we would look at the issues surrounding why it happened and what we could do about it. We seem to be living beyond our means as a congregation. There are two ways to deal with that, reduce expenses or increase income. A thrifty response would be to reduce expenses. A generous response would be to increase income. Back in the spring we promised ourselves to do both. The congregation trimmed a few places in the budget. And we are looking to find ways to increase income. Chief among the ways to do that is to help ourselves increase our pledging. We’ll talk more about that during the campaign as it unfolds in the spring.
Once a few years ago leading up to a pledge drive Sunday service I asked my two oldest children, out of curiosity, what they would do if either of them suddenly had a million dollars. After paying off the house and things like that, they figured they would give about half of it away to help other people have places to live. Money can’t buy you happiness or love, but it can buy you things that make you happy or things to show your love for others.
Consider this: some financial gurus talk about money from a spiritual perspective saying it is not something to hold onto – to possess, but something that will flow through you. In some ways it makes perfect sense: money talks, and mine is always saying ‘goodbye.’ When I didn’t have much money I totally understood how money was always flowing through me from my employer’s bank to my landlord’s bank. It was a steady flow. I couldn’t have stopped the flow if I’d wanted. But that isn’t quite what the experts meant. That’s not all there is to this idea of money as a flow.
As Lewis Hyde writes, “Whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept. … The gift must always move.” When you think of money as one thing among many that constitute our resources, it is easier (at least for me) to grasp this concept. I wouldn’t think of holding back my resources of singing or preaching or laughing. These are resources that are only any good if I spend them. Tangible gifts such as Christmas presents or boxes of chocolate are meant to be received and reciprocated in some fashion! Send a thank-you card; offer a gift in return,
My third point is that money must move or it losses its meaningfulness. Putting your money in a bank is a fine thing to do, to save up for major expenses or the possibility of hard times, that’s fine. But so long as money is flowing in, it should also be flowing out. Otherwise, what is the point? We have money so we can use it. Like the story of the Buddha’s disciple, if your hands are full of treasures that you won’t put down, how will you scratch the itch when it arises?
This congregation exists by the generosity of its members, and the generosity of its members is fueled by the desire to lead meaningful lives, fueled, if you will, by the spiritual itch to live lives of meaning and service. Money is a flow, what do you have to offer to the flow? Our monthly special collections are a great example of this. Our regular collection is income for the general fund. But we know that we cannot raise money only for ourselves. At some point our generosity must spill over to others. Typically a special collection will bring in between $400 and $600. This is money we give away to local charities and organizations doing good work out in the community. The money flows through the congregation and is given away in the name of the congregation. Everybody here could, if they wanted, simply pick an organization in the community and send it ten bucks every month. But that probably wouldn’t work because one of the functions this congregation serves is to be a channel for individuals to realize their generosity. Together we bless the world in ways that would be difficult to do alone. As I said a few weeks ago, goodness must be organized to see greater effectiveness.
This is your organization. Everything around here is yours. You are not here as someone stopping in to see a show or buy a cup of coffee. You own this place, it is yours. Much of it was bought and paid for before you even showed up, and much of what you contribute will not be anything you directly use for yourself. William James wrote: “The great use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.” All of the sermons are yours, the candles and the beautiful music too. Every drop of coffee and the stones that mark the labyrinth; our echoing laughter, the leak in the roof by the bathrooms, and the big blue banner out front are all yours; yours and mine and ours because hundreds of individuals have generously poured their resources together to create something greater than each part.
Do you want to be a generous person? You already are generous in many ways. How many ways do your share yourself with others, how many ways do you give your gifts and resources for the benefit of others? Can you imagine being that generous with other resources that you usually hold back? Do you want to belong to a generous congregation? Recognize the multitude of ways in which we are already a generous community and imagine what you can do to free up our generosity in those places where we typically hold back. Imagine our vision and our goals coming alive through the balanced and generous use of our money together. What part can you play to make that happen?
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Light a Candle, Curse the Dark
October 8, 2006
There is an old Chinese proverb – “Don’t curse the darkness – light a candle.” The proverb inspired Unitarian politician and diplomat Adlai Stevenson, when he came to praise Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1962 address to the United Nations General Assembly: “She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.” The proverb also inspired the founder of Amnesty International who created the “candle wrapped in barb wire” logo – such a powerful and recognizable image. Indeed, when faced with tragic, ugly, perverse manifestations of evil, it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.
During my first ministry, serving in a large church with two other ministers, I received many opportunities to explore my role and how we respond to life. I remember one visit from an angry member of the congregation. One of the other ministers sighed when he heard I’d be visiting with this member, and said, “This is someone who gets angry a lot. His pattern is to get angry at someone or some thing and leave. He’ll turn up then in one of the other nearby congregations for a while until he gets angry with something there and he’ll leave.” So, I figured, what do we have to loose, either this angry member or me? We meet; we talked about what was going on. He aired his grievance and then began to develop a list of other grievances. Eventually, I stopped him and said, “I don’t know if I’m out of place to say this, and if I am I trust you’ll tell me, but it seems like you’re angry a lot!” He paused a moment and said, “Before my wife died, we were a great team. I would curse the dark and she would light a candle.” His wife had died recently. So I asked, “Who’s lighting the candles now?”
Had I been aware then of the proverb he was playing with, I likely would have admonished him that it says the lighting of the candle is the greater task. Indeed while the modern rendering of the proverb says it is better to light a candle than to curse the dark, implying that you could do either but the candle is better; the original says, “Don’t curse the dark – light a candle.” And back when I was still fresh in the ministry, I did agree with the original proverb. Don’t waste your time with the cursing, what does it accomplish, really? Light the candle; let’s get to work blessing the world. Now, however, I suspect we would be wise to do both. I suspect that we as a denomination are not as good at naming evil, at cursing the darkness, as we perhaps should be.
The special edition of the UU World published immediately following September 11 focused on theology and evil. It explored whether or not our liberal religious values were up to the task of confronting evil. Lois Fahs Timmins, daughter of revered and renowned Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs, spoke of being shaped by the liberal religious education while growing up and becoming an adult. She wrote,
We spent 95 percent of our time studying good people doing good things, and skipped very lightly over the bad parts of humanity … I was taught not to be judgmental, not to observe or report on the bad behavior of others. Consequently, because of my education, I grew up ignorant about bad human behavior, incompetent to observe it accurately, unskilled in how to respond to it, and ashamed of talking about evil.
There was an op-ed piece two weeks ago in the Press & Sun Bulletin by Sam Harris that said a very similar thing. Sam Harris is the author of the book “The End of Faith.” The title of the article was “Left in the Dark.” But the title is a play on words, it could mean someone is ‘left in the dark’ or it could mean, (and I think it was meant to mean,) that The Left is in the dark. He was highly critical in the article of the religious left and our inability to recognize and name evil for what it is. We are too optimistic about human nature. We are too respectful and tolerant of other cultures. We are blinded by our optimistic tolerance to genuine evil at our door. I think there is something to this critique. What is evil? How do we as Unitarian Universalists define and understand evil?
Earlier this week a milk truck driver stormed a one-room Amish schoolhouse, rounded up the girls in the class while releasing the boys and teachers. He then barricaded himself in with the 10 girls, tied them up and shot them all before killing himself. Three of the ten girls were declared dead on the scene, two more died later, while at least one of the other five girls remains on life-support. The shock of this event has been staggering. The newspaper accounts have been, naturally, quite sparse because the Amish will not engage the newspaper people. People outside the Amish community want to reach out and help, which is awkward. And so we light a candle. The editorial page carried a piece about this story and after acknowledging the choice the Amish community made as to how they would deal with this, the editor wrote: “The rest of society blinks back tears and wonders how we got to this point – and also wonders if the next headline could somehow be even worse.”
That editorial gave me pause. I take no issue with the tears being blinked back; tears are good, tears are a recognition that you empathize with the tragedy, they mean you are human. I take no issue with the editor’s line, “society blinks back tears.” But, the part about wondering how we got to this point stopped me in my tracks. Has anyone been paying attention? Do we as a society have perpetual amnesia between news reports? Liberal religion is accused of being optimistically naïve of evil to the point of negligent and irrelevant, but secular liberal culture seems to be willfully oblivious to it. Do you wonder how we got to this point – as if all of a sudden an atrocity takes place on a Monday but the preceding week was blissful and the newspaper had nothing of evil or violence to report? I don’t wonder how we got to this point because we’ve been at this point for a long time.
Some people thing of violence as an interruption, like a flash of lightning breaking onto the landscape. Suddenly the event takes place and, like an afterimage on the back of our eyeballs, slowly fades. For people who think of violence this way, it may seem like we are suddenly seeing a new level of crime, violence of a harsher order. But that is not the only way to see it. It is perhaps more useful to recognize that violence in not an interruption, like a flash of lightning, rather it is like poison in the ground water, always present, a part of daily life for some, a part of what is going on in the world around us.
It is shocking for a man to barricade ten Amish girls into a one-room schoolhouse and then to shot each of them and himself. This happened on Monday not too far from here. Meanwhile this past week: a man was shot multiple times over on Chenango street, another man was jumped by several people and beaten badly enough to need hospitalization, the police blotter listed among the drug busts and burglaries a second degree rape involving an incident with a female less than 15 years of age. And yesterday I read that an eighth-grade music teacher from the Vestal Schools has been charged with sexually abusing students.
Elsewhere in the world this past week, Hamas militiamen in Gaza City attempted to break up anti-government protests sparking gun battles across the Gaza Strip that killed seven people. An Afghani suicide bomber blew himself up in a busy pedestrian alley next to Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry on Saturday, killing at least 12 people and wounding dozens more. Another suicide bomber in Baghdad blew himself up in a fish market killing several dozen people. A few days ago, four U.S. soldiers patrolling Baghdad were killed by gunmen, bringing the number of Americans killed in combat since last Saturday to 21. Iraqi authorities Wednesday pulled a brigade of about 700 Iraqi policemen out of service in its biggest move to uproot troops linked to death squads. Meanwhile the United States House and Senate both voted in favor of legislation allowing the president to detain, interrogate and try terrorist suspects according to the presidents own guidelines, a startling capitulation on the part of those who are elected to uphold democracy and the constitution. Meanwhile North Korea plans to test a nuclear explosive today. Meanwhile ten young girls were barricaded into their one-room schoolhouse, tied up, and summarily shot. Meanwhile throughout this past week countless other acts of violence and violation were committed. This is just one week’s worth of news, from our little local paper, to boot! This evil, this violence is not an all of a sudden flash. This is both much dark to curse and a great many candles to light. When faced with tragic, ugly, perverse manifestations of evil, seeping up into our lives and our concern like poison in the ground water, they say it is better to light a candle than curse the dark.
Are all of these events ‘evil’? What do we, as Unitarian Universalists, have to help us evaluate, judge, and recognize evil when we see it? As Unitarian Universalists we do not subscribe to a belief that we as human beings are naturally depraved, evil and sinful until saved by grace from above. Neither do we have the Devil to blame it on. We also make a strong objection to the idea that the body or things corporeal are evil while only the abstract is real and truly good. Some among us do say that good and evil are human moral constructs and the concepts holds no meaning beyond what any given culture allows it to hold. But that is not in keeping with our heritage. None of these definitions of evil offer an understanding that fits the theology and practice of Unitarian Universalism over time.
And it goes back to our understanding of human nature, our core theology as Unitarian Universalists. Back in August when I preached on this I said, “Our theological cornerstone is our radical acceptance of every person as being of the same human family without segregating anyone out as saved or unsaved, clean or defiled, saint or sinner, worthy or unworthy; all we have are human beings: blessed, whole, capable of good and evil, fully part of the evolving nature of life. Unitarian Universalism proudly insists that every person has inherent worth and dignity as a basic root element of their being.” And tucked in there is the beginnings of our theology of evil. As human beings we have the capacity for both good and evil.
The Holocaust was a great evil. That is one of the easier agreements we find on the topic. But how was it evil? Was there an evil force outside of humanity that created the holocaust? The Devil, the Great Satan? No, it was humanity – humanity committed that evil. We shy away from saying that each and every person who participated in making the holocaust happen was pure evil. We don’t say that. They were people, human beings capable of good and of evil. They participated in committing evil. Even Hitler, according to our theological heritage, we do not see as pure evil, and isn’t that always the example that comes up. Do we affirm and prompt the inherent worth and dignity of Hitler? That doesn’t mean what Hitler did was of worth, only that he was acting as a human being – not as a demonic force. Even Hitler was capable of doing good. Saddam Hussein, Caligula, Stalin, Pol Pot, George W. Bush – they were or are all capable of doing good; there are no monsters. As Guinness said in the reading this morning, “To restrict evil to such men is to slip into the error of seeing it as an aberration, a rarity, an exception, as something well distanced from ourselves … To think like that is to miss the real menace of evil here and now.” We say no one is pure evil, instead everyone is purely human. And to be human is to have the capacity for both good and evil.
But that doesn’t get us off the hook from Lois Fahs Timmins and Sam Harris. Recognizing the capacity for evil in ourselves does not take care of the fact that our government is doing a terrible job building up Iraq after our immoral war against them. It doesn’t take care of the Islamic fundamentalists who want to inflict great harm upon the United States. It doesn’t take care of the nuclear bomb that will be tested soon in North Korea. It doesn’t alleviate poverty, dismantle racism, insure civil liberties, or transform the culture so women are no longer seen as sex objects. But it gives us a grounding from which we can start to deal with these structures of evil.
There is a systemic element to evil, a communal level always present. The event was evil, 9/11 or the Holocaust – these were evil events. But the individuals involved were human beings, and as such were not evil. We don’t believe in evil people. We believe that there are structures of evil that are built up, which we participate in or rebel against, or comply with out of necessity. There is a communal level to evil, at least as it is seen through our Unitarian Universalist theology. Rebecca Parker, president of the Starr King UU Seminary in California calls it transpersonal evil. She cites Channing and Ballou as expressing these understandings early in our liberal religious heritage. Evil is built; it is organized. There are structures that perpetuate racism, war, environmental degradation, economic disparity. These structures are evil.
Goodness also must be organized. Goodness must be organized; I get by with a little help from my friends. Think back on things you’ve done that you would consider ‘good’. Chances are most of it was accomplished because you had support or a group of which you were a part. Great evil and great good are done through organized structures. You and I participate in both kinds. But this is our work: weave the fabric, reweave the fabric of life rather than tear at it; to light the candle and curse the dark. Adrienne Rich said, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed, I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, and with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
So much has been destroyed; there is much to curse and much to cause us anger. I recall that angry member of the congregation from several years ago. He did end up leaving the congregation. But the in the next congregation he went to he discovered a new love, and remarried. I heard later that he had mellowed. I don’t know, but I’d like to think that he learned to do both; that he learned to light the candles while still cursing the dark. And we, who are accused of leaning to far the other way, we who are happily lighting candles and avoiding all mention of cursing, will we learn to balance?
Do the critics receive an answer when we say we do not believe in evil people but in evil deeds – and in structures that oppress, that tear the fabric of life? I do hope so, for that is what we have to offer – an appreciation of the complexity, a love of humanity, and sleeves rolled up ready to rebuild.
Blessed are the peacemakers, it is written, for they shall be called the children of God, … and theirs will be the kingdom of God. I say more blessed are those who gather in groups to make peace for they shall build the kingdom of God here on earth. We, together, will build the land where peace is created, where justice flows, where were will see each other as brothers and sisters. Our work, our religious task is to gradually dismantle the evil structures, to curse the dark; and then to raise up and restore the good and holy places through compassion, understanding, and righteousness: to curse the dark and light a candle.
In a world without end,
may it be so.
Over the years I have said that forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity. Over time, every relationship is strained with imperfections. How could it be otherwise? How many times have it been mentioned that the epistemology of the word religion is ligare from which we also get the word ‘ligament.’ Ligare means to bind together; re-ligare means to bind together again, to reconnect. Religion is about relationships: relationships among people, and between people and God. Every relationship is strained; Love, Justice, and Forgiveness are the larger elements that ease the strain and keep a relationship alive and healthy. Forgiveness is arguably the least understood of these three elements. Both Love and Justice have been picked up by secular culture. Through music, art, public education, periodicals, the legal system, Oprah, and Dr. Phil, all manner of venues: Love and Justice are explained to people. Forgiveness has little of this kind of support outside of religion. Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity and few other disciplines care to address it. As a critical, though difficult to explain, element of both Love and Justice, Forgiveness is referred to, but rarely is it the staple topic week after week. Forgiveness lacks mass market appeal, probably because it is not easy.
Last year I mentioned in a sermon on forgiveness that there has been scientific research done on the effects of forgiveness. One researcher concluded: “Learn to forgive because it is good for your health.” (Dr. Worthington) Richard Fitzgibbons, who is one of the forgiveness researchers, compiled a list of benefits for people who forgive. People who forgive have decreased levels of anger and hostility, and increased feelings of love; improved ability to control anger, and enhanced capacity to trust; People who forgive find freedom from the hold of events of the past, and they are better equipped to no longer repeat negative behaviors. People who forgive demonstrate improved physical health and significant improvement in psychiatric disorders. And I would add to the list, the person who forgives becomes a more loving and empathetic friend, spouse, parent, colleague, child, and overall person!
But all that is in the sermon I preached last year, which is on the web and maybe even still in print on the book cart. Indeed, I have preached about forgiveness every year around the time of Yom Kippur. When I was serving my internship during seminary my supervisor told me “Preach on Forgiveness at least once a year, it is always needed.” But after three years in a row, with an especially well put together sermon last year, I thought it might be a good idea to give it a rest. Then back in the spring during the Question Box sermon I received several questions that asked about Forgiveness. This caused me to reconsider dropping the topic, and instead you now will experience with me our annual sermon on Forgiveness.
There were two questions from that Question Box service that were particularly cogent. The first was from someone asking how to be forgiven: “How do you begin to atone for deeply hurting someone you love?” Repentance is the offenders work; forgiveness is the work of the one offended. And then from the other side of the equation: “How do you close your mind to hurt, pain, or injustice and open your heart to forgiveness?” Both of these questions forgo the questions ‘Why’ and ‘When,’ and go right for the ‘How.’ How do I do this, I understand that it is a good thing to do, but how do I do it.
The book, Wounds Not Healed by Time: the power of repentance and forgiveness by Solomon Schimmel, from which I found this mornings reading, has a chapter entitled “How to Forgive.” The book explores the concept of Forgiveness from the perspectives of the three major monotheistic traditions. He writes primarily from within his own Jewish perspective, and the book is heavily weighted with examples from Jewish writings and traditions. From there the author gives a fair rendering of the Christian perspectives as well, comparing and contrasting them with the Jewish perspectives with insight and proficiency. I was less impressed with the presentation of the Islamic perspective; not because it was unfair, rather for the meagerness of the examples and evidenced research.
One exception to my complaint is in Schimmel’s comparison of repentance among the three traditions. Most of the book compares Christianity with Judaism to explore the different aspects of the topic, but now and then Islam was lifted up for comparison as well. For example, in the book I read that all three religious traditions say that your sin is not simply a sin against the victim, but also a sin against the heirs of the victim and against God. Judaism goes further saying that your sin is also a sin against the community and against yourself! If I steal something from you, you as the victim are not the only one to suffer. Your children will also suffer that loss. It also creates a rift between me and God, – even with my sometimes odd theology that does not a personal concept of God with whom I can have a relationship – there is still, arguably, a rift caused between my actions and my deepest principles. And additionally, my theft contributes to the decline and break down of society because now I have become one more person working against the good of the whole.
To repent from my transgression is not simply to seek forgiveness from God, but to seek out the person or persons against whom I have committed my offence, and make amends or restitution. Judaism, Islam, and most Christian traditions agree that this at least must be done, if not more, to atone for your transgression. There are, Schimmel points out, certain Protestant denominations that are more focused on getting the sinner to confess the sin to Christ and trusting in Christ’s saving forgiveness without demanding the sinner to go through the work of making restitution, maligning such a requirement as “legalistic.” “With this approach, God’s love can offer a detour around reparation and justice, enabling the sinner to avoid facing up to their difficult demands.”
A few months ago I wandered into the big Arrowhead Christian bookstore over by Airport road. I do this every now and then, occasionally I’ll buy a book, but usually I’m just looking through to see what is occupying the attention of evangelicals at the moment. Well, a few months ago I bought a small silver smooth stone inscribed with the word “forgiven.” I had an odd feeling as I drove home from the store. I was thinking about this stone resting in my pocket. It said “forgiven. Am I? Forgiven of what? Everything? Even … I tried to imagine the various inequities and iniquities that I owned by myself, not even counting yet the cultural, national, and global sins in which I participate, just my own personal crop – and to have that little stone resting in my pocket with that word, “forgiven.” What if it were true? I dare you to try it. It was a very powerful feeling.
There is that little saying that whenever you sin or make a transgression it is like you reach out with a pair of scissors and cut the string that binds you to God. Then, with forgiveness, the string is retied, with the string being a little bit shorter because of the knot. Re-ligare, to bind together again: each time we break faith with ourselves and with God we cut the string. And each time we commit to the reconnection we are brought closer to God. Here’s the thing though, I know God’s love encompasses everyone. I’m a Universalist all the way to my toes and know that just because God loves me does not mean that anyone else does. Likewise, just because God forgives me does not mean anyone else does. While it can be powerfully healing to seek God’s forgiveness for my transgressions, to feel forgiven for even some terrible thing I have done, God’s forgiveness is but one step among several steps for me to take. God’s love is not a detour around proper justice and reparation.
It is easier to preach glibly the virtues and pragmatic value of forgiveness and reconciliation than it is truly to understand why, when, whom, and how to forgive. Forgiveness is a complex phenomenon. It is affected, among other factors, by the nature and extent of the injury we have suffered, our relationship with the person who has hurt us, our sense of self, and whether or not the person whom we contemplate forgiving has expressed remorse for his [or her] deed or sought to repair the emotional, physical, or material damage wrought upon us. Mature forgiveness entails difficult emotional and intellectual work. (p42)
There a story of a boy who had a hard time controlling his anger. He would often lash out when he was angry. Finally his father told him that every time he lashed out in anger he should go out to the back yard and pound a nail into the fence. During the first few days, the boy was out in the back yard pounding nails several times a day. Over time, the boy went to the fence less often. Then the boy went an entire day with out going out to the fence to pound in a nail. The boy said this to his father who replied, “Now every time you control your anger and do not lash out I want you to go out and remove one of your nails from then fence.” And this the boy did. Sometimes he would still pound a nail in, but more often he removed nails. Eventually there came a day when the boy had not pounded a new nail into the fence in weeks, and he had removed all the nails from his earlier visits. His father then took him out to the fence and said, “I am proud of you, you have learned to control your anger. I want you to remember, however, that although you have removed the nails you had pounded into the fence, the holes from those nails are still there. You cannot take those away. You can always remove a nail that you have pounded into the fence but you can never remove the hole that you make with the nail. So it is when you lash out with your anger. You can apologize and be forgiven, but the damage you cause will always remain in at least some fashion. It is good to apologize, better to not need to.”
And, of course my first reaction to that ending is, “it is good to apologize and better to not need to, but you will need to. No one can move through this life without creating a few nail holes.
In the reading this morning it said, “forgiveness is a social action that happens between people. It is a step toward returning the relationship between them to the condition it had before the transgression.” This, however, is not possible because the damage done in the past will never not be a part of the past. But as Jack Kornfield once wrote: “Forgiving means giving up all hope of a better past.” Forgiveness is a way of getting unstuck, of loosening the bond that held you to the person or event.
So, you have been lied to, or robbed, betrayed, slandered, denied, devalued, hurt, beaten, violated or vandalized, or – God forbid (at least I wish He could) – something worse! How do you move to a place of forgiveness? How do you close your mind to hurt, pain, or injustice and open your heart to forgiveness? That was the original question: “How do you close your mind to hurt, pain, or injustice and open your heart to forgiveness?” Well, for starters, don’t close your mind to the hurt, pain, or injustice. Forgiveness may very well mean giving up your anger, but it doesn’t mean you just accept pain and hurt and injustice!
Schimmel, in the beginning of his chapter “How to forgive,” acknowledges a whole host of benefits found in forgiving when the offender is repentant and then writes this:
Although forgiveness in the absence of the offender’s repentance might have some of [these] benefits as well, its emotional and moral costs may outweigh its benefits.
In the same way that some Protestant denominations will focus on securing Christ’s forgiveness without requiring the sinner to do the hard work of repentance, the companion assumption that to be a good Christian you must follow a commandment of radical forgiveness. This vicarious repentance and required forgiveness at all costs is a grave injustice with significant moral consequences for all involved! If someone is hurting you don’t forgive them while they are still hurting you. If they stop hurting you but promise to come back and hurt you again later, don’t rush to forgive them! Instead, rush to remove yourself from that situation!
I sometimes wonder when people say to me, “How can I forgive this or that?” if it really is time to forgive. If the offender hasn’t offered apology or even acknowledged the offence, then you probably have no business forgiving this person. What makes you think you must rush to forgiveness when there has been no repentance? That just furthers the injustice! There is likely other work you need to do at this point; perhaps to help bring the offender into a better understanding of the nature and extent of your injury. But I think forgiveness is not yet a part of that work. [At least for the ‘social’ side of forgiveness. If you are plagued by this injury or offence to the point that it is really hindering your life, then we can talk about the ‘internal’ side of forgiveness as a way of letting go and moving on within yourself.
But let’s assume that in your life there is an opening where the offender has shown remorse, has apologized, has perhaps even offered to make amends. Yet you still can not see your way to offer forgiveness to this person. Your anger and your pain are too great. How do you move from there? One of the first phases is to develop an understanding of your offender’s context. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I understand how someone could do that terrible thing; I don’t condone it, but I understand it”? This is an exercise in walking in another person’s shoes, it broadens your perspective. It doesn’t mean you give up your perspective, or agree with or condone that perspective. It doesn’t mean your saying, that if the roles were reversed you would have done the same. All it means is that you begin to understand the point of view of the one who hurt you. But think on this, by withholding forgiveness, you continue to hold judgment of your offender. If you are to serve as judge you’d best learn to see the full context of the one you would judge. If you focus exclusively on the injury they have caused you cannot ever see your way through it to the other side of forgiveness. The abusive parent, the disloyal spouse, the drunk driver, manipulative ex-friend, all have full lives beyond the offenses they have committed. All of them have an inherent worth and dignity that can be uncovered if you are willing to see it.
From there, you can perhaps begin to empathize with the one who caused you pain. You can begin to see their pain, fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, repression, trauma, abuse, stress, or any number of mitigating factors leading to the transgression. As you stand in judgment, whether you acknowledge that this is what you are doing or not, – as you stand in judgment, taking into account the full context of the other person, you can empathize with their side of the situation.
And then you have a choice. You can choose to accept your pain, hurt and injustice – not to close your mind to it, but to accept it. To accept it rather than passing it back to the offender. Rather than choosing to exact due justice, rather than choosing to pass it back to the offender with punitive words and actions, you can choose to forgive. “Forgiving means giving up all hope of a better past;” forgiveness is a way of getting unstuck, of loosening the bond that held you to the person or event. Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.
Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity. Religion is about relationships, and every relationship is imperfect and is strained; Love, Justice, and Forgiveness are the larger elements that ease the strain and keep a relationship alive and healthy. Forgiveness is arguably the least understood and most critical of these three for restoring harmony to the fractures in our relationships.