For practicing Jews, this is the most solemn - the most sacred - time of the year. Termed the ďDays of AweĒ, this is a ten-day period which began Wednesday evening with a feast day, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year - 5758 in the Hebrew calendar), and will end next Saturday with a day of fast: Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. This period of observance is opened and closed by the sounding of a ramís horn - the shofar. Observant Jews believe that, during these ten days an angel opens the Book of Life inscribed with the particulars of each personís life, death and judgment. A record of our deeds, which can be altered only by atonement and forgiveness.
In the words of the traditional Kol Neidre, or Prayer of Absolution, ďAll vows and oaths, all promises and obligations, all renunciations and responses, that we have made from last Yom Kippur to this one we cancel. May we be free of them all, may we be released from them all, may they all be null and void, may they be of no effect. ď
Forgiveness, fortunately, is not limited just to the Jewish tradition. In our culture, children are taught such adages as ďto err is human, to forgive divine,Ē and the old standby to forgive and forget. Iím told that the Kennedy family motto is a variation on this: forgive, but never forget! Can we do one without the other? In reality, is forgiveness always possible or even desirable? Forgiveness is a central tenet in Christianity, especially during the season of Lent. In Christian churches the Lordís Prayer, or prayer of Jesus, is regularly recited, with the entreaty: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Most recent translations now replace the term ďtrespassĒ with ďdebtĒ - forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Thatís probably closer to the original, but somehow I prefer ďtrespassesĒ - it seems to have a broader range of meaning.
Unitarian Universalists are often uncomfortable with any concept of sin or guilt. We somehow extend our position against the doctrine of original sin to a position which claims that humanity is totally good. A generation ago, we were especially fond of the quotation which claimed, ĒLove means never having to say youíre sorry.Ē But thatís not what our Principles say: We proclaim the inherent worth and dignity of each person. That doesnít mean that any of us is incapable of wrongdoing. So how are we to handle those circumstances when we are culpable for less-than-perfect actions?
The Catholic Church initiated the Sacrament of Penance. Itís gotten a terrible reputation over the centuries, primarily because of commercialization - the sale of so- called indulgences which supposedly could buy a sinner into heaven. And, more seriously, the argument that people do not need a priest or intermediary to get right with God. But, in my opinion, the underlying concept has much to commend it, when properly practiced. Penance begins with a nightly examination of conscience; an honest replay of oneís activities and thoughts during the day, with an acceptance of how some things could have been done differently - more lovingly. Then, at regular intervals, oneís sins were confessed privately to a priest. A good confessor asked questions concerning the most serious sins and, in addition to required prayers and penance, stipulated acts of atonement and compensation for the aggrieved party, much as would a civil judge. Once forgiven, the sinner was expected to leave in peace, relieved of the burden of neurotic guilt.
The Protestant Reformation did away with the role of the priest, substituting a general confession for the whole congregation, followed by a prayer of absolution. The continuing need for forgiveness is a given in many Protestant churches, yet has virtually disappeared in most UU congregationsn. I looked through our new hymnal and found one Act of Contrition which verges on tongue-in-cheek. It begins, ďFrom arrogance, pompousness, and from thinking ourselves more important than we are, may some saving sense of humor liberate us.Ē And ends, ďGod of our mixed up, tragic, aspiring, doubting and insurgent lives, help us to be as good in our hearts as we have always wanted to be.Ē I think we could benefit from a bit more humility in this area.
To return to the prayer of Jesus, which asks God to forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Itís interesting to note that most Christians concentrate on the first part of this petition. Yet itís the second part that gives us the most problems: our ability to forgive others. My understanding of this prayer is that both parts are linked - we ask forgiveness for our personal lapses in proportion to the degree in which we can forgive others. Itís not a one-way street.
For me, the Jewish ritual of atonement - of forgiveness - is enormously powerful. Like so many of the rituals in Judaism, itís a healthy practice - a spiritually, emotionally and psychologically sound practice. It relieves practicing Jews of much of the baggage which can hamper their relationships with each other, and with their God.
Another traditional observance of this period is reading the old story of Jonah. Jonah who accepts as his due Godís life-saving forgiveness when he initially refused to serve as Godís prophet, yet who goes into a gigantic sulk when God also decides to forgive and spare the sinful citizens of Ninevah. I sometimes call Jonah a reluctant Universalist: one who is unwilling to share his Godís loving forgiveness and extend it to all people.
Yet, is it really possible or even desirable to forgive, and even forget, everything? ďTheodicyĒ is the term used to justify the coexistence of a good and loving God with the profound evil in the world - evil which, like rain, falls on the good and wicked alike. Nowhere is that paradox more poignantly experienced than in the Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures. Job, whose undisputed loyalty to God was tested by stripping him of everything - even his children. Tested because of a bet God made with Satan!
Eli Wiesel, the eloquent Holocaust survivor, once taught a course on Job for French TV. He confessed to being deeply troubled by the ending of the tale: Job challenges God to a debate and succeeds in gaining Godís attention. Yet God avoids direct answers, much less an apology, intimating with heavy sarcasm that the concept of human moral justice is of a lower order of magnitude than is Godís principle role of bringing order to a chaotic universe. Job accepts this mystery, withdraws his complaint, and is finally rewarded by the return of his worldly goods and a new family.
Weisel saw this as a cop-out; perhaps a deliberate distortion of the original text. He believed Job should have held his ground. Job should have said to God: ďVery well, I forgive you...but do my dead children forgive you? I will not be an accomplice to their deaths.Ē At the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Wiesel again implored God not to forgive those who murdered innocent children. For Wiesel, the argument that evil is an unfortunate by-product of free will holds no solace in an event as horrendous as the Holocaust. An event which individual Jews may finally forgive, but will never, never forget. Nor should they, especially in light of the growing attempt at historical revisionism.
But what about forgiveness in our everyday lives? Thereís considerable controversy, for example, as to whether incest victims should forgive their perpetrators. In the crime of incest, not only is the childís person violated, but her sense of trust is destroyed. Yet, according to psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, the trust of childhood is the most important prerequisite for a healthy adulthood. So the crime of incest can rob a child of any meaningful future. Little wonder so many of these damaged children develop multiple personalities as a means of coping. Incest survivors are urged to confront their perpetrators with the lasting damage they have inflicted - to rail at a dead parentís grave, if necessary - and then to let go and forgive.
For some that is possible; for others it is not. I have a friend in Maine who, as a very young child, was repeatedly raped by her father and older brother, while her mother pretended not to know. As a young woman she found that two of her sisters had been similarly abused. Lois sought counseling. Then she started a support group and traveled the state, helping other women tell their stories. She found an outlet by using incest as the centerpiece of a novel she wrote on rural Maine. But the wound would not heal. She found that her anger sustained her. And she wanted others to share her anger. Her children and grandchildren were immersed in her story, lest any of the family feel anything positive for the long-dead perpetrators. Peace has never come to Lois. Nor has forgiveness. But she has survived, and seemingly helped others to survive. And thatís a lot. We need Lois to remind us of continuing evils. Last year the news magazines reported on the violent death of rap singer Tupac Shakur. One young mourner articulated the loss of one who spoke to the schism of black male anger: ďTupac said the things I thought and felt a lot of times.Ē Some segments of our society also need the voice of a Shakur.
Iíve never had much trouble in accepting responsibility for the things Iíve done wrong - typically, women learn to apologize for everything. If itís raining, somehow we feel the need to tell people how sorry we are. My problem was in feeling victimized. So I have become, somewhat selfishly, a proponent of forgiveness, though more on psychological than moral or theological grounds. Iím in agreement with Norman Cousins and Dr. Bernie Siegal that the negative emotions destroy oneís physical and mental health, while the positive emotions (like love and laughter) promote healing. I know how obsessive my anger can be - how I can let it control me and my environment. How hate and anger can blind me to the good and beauty which otherwise could be mine. I recognize that my anger does little really to punish those who hurt me. Rather, it extends their power over me - ultimately hurting me far more than did the original offense.
So Iíve learned to pick my fights carefully and then to express my anger appropriately. To forgive and forget, if possible, but mostly to finally let go. Sometimes I can put my pain in context with the life of another. Even if the offender does not apologize or make amends. Even if there is no real resolution or restitution. But at least I have the satisfaction of not remaining a victim. Of getting on with my own life, with its potential for happiness. Of being in control of how I let things affect me. One of the surprising results is that, once Iíve recovered my own mental health and sense of humor, I am sometimes able to reestablish a relationship with the person who hurt me. Especially if that person is important in my life.
An incredible example of this was reported a few years ago - Iíd like to read the item verbatim from Newsweek: ďIn a culture of victimization and blame, it is rare to witness a public act of forgiveness. Thatís what happened when Chicagoís Cardinal Joseph Bernardin revealed his tearful reconciliation with Steven Cook, the man who in 1993 accused the cardinal of sexually abusing him in the 1970s. Cook later dropped his $10 million lawsuit, saying his memories were unreliable. Forgiveness is, of course, the core of the Gospel. Yet in this vengeful era, acts of genuine forgiveness are as unusual as the recognition of sin itself. At their two hour meeting in a Philadelphia seminary, Cook apologized Ďfrom the bottom of my soulí but said that he needed to have Bernardin `look him in the eye and say no, he didnít do it. Bernardin obliged, then celebrated a private mass for Cook and a gay friend. ĎI think I have grown spiritually as a result of this,í said Bernardin. In reconciling, both ceased to blame - and thus ceased to be victims.Ē
So I find great personal freedom in forgiveness. I find real empowerment. I canít claim itís for everyone, or that itís appropriate or even possible on all occasions. Iím not a Holocaust survivor. I have not personally suffered from prolonged racism or homophobia. I am not an incest victim. And I canít presume to apply my situation to others whose sufferings in life have been far deeper and more pronounced than mine. Neither can I feel smug and sanctimonious in having learned how to forgive: I freely admit that much of the time Iím just no longer willing to expend the emotional energy needed to sustain hate and anger. Yet, for all that, Iíd like to suggest that you try forgiveness. When the process of reconciliation is possible, it can be very liberating. In the Book of Life, may you be well inscribed. Shalom...Amen