When I first heard that the Grand Jury had decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, I had some anger. Today I've been looking up what I could find and reflecting on the issues.

photo by BBC
My Unitarian Universalist faith is famously rational. My heart cries for justice – and its habit is to ask my head to help it figure out what the heck that means in a particular case.

We’ve got big problems, and they require our commitment of hearts and heads. I would like to be indignant about the Grand Jury’s decision, but the fact is I’m not sure they were wrong in this particular case. I am sure, though, that there are big wrongs in our land.

What Happened
11:54 a.m. Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson leave Ferguson Market and Liquor. Surveillance video shows Mr. Brown stealing some cigarillos. They walk along West Florissant Avenue and then in the middle of the street on Canfield Drive.
12:01 p.m. Officer Darren Wilson arrives, alone in his police vehicle. Speaking through his window, he tells the two men to move to the sidewalk. He sees that Mr. Brown fits the description of a suspect in a convenience store theft.
12:02 p.m. Officer Wilson makes a call to the dispatcher about the two men. He positions his S.U.V. to block the two men as well as traffic. There is an altercation between Officer Wilson and Mr. Brown, who is standing at the window of the vehicle. Officer Wilson fires two shots from inside the vehicle, one likely grazing Mr. Brown’s thumb, and the other missing him. Mr. Brown runs east. Officer Wilson pursues him on foot. Mr. Brown stops and turns toward Officer Wilson, who also stops. Mr. Brown moves toward Officer Wilson, who fires several more shots. Mr. Brown is fatally wounded. (SOURCE)
Wilson testified that Brown reached into the vehicle and fought for his gun. Wilson fired – plausibly in self-defense at that point. Brown’s blood (evidently from the shot that grazed Brown’s thumb) on the inside of the police vehicle and on Wilson’s clothes indicates that Brown had reached in the vehicle. Some witnesses said Brown punched Wilson while Brown was partly in the vehicle.

Brown then ran 150 feet from the car. Wilson pursued. Brown then ran 25 feet back toward Wilson. Perhaps Brown was trying to indicate surrender. Witnesses differ on whether his hands were up. Wilson interpreted Brown’s move toward him as a charge, a re-initiation of the assault. Wilson fired 10 more times – a total of 12 shots (counting the two fired in the vehicle). The autopsy said Brown was struck with at least 6 bullets – one in the right hand, fired from inside the vehicle, plus 5 more hits – three in the right arm and two in the head. As many as 6 of Wilson’s 12 shots missed entirely. No bullets struck Brown from behind.

Under those circumstances, I, too, might have found that Wilson acted within the guidelines for use of lethal force. Maybe. Maybe not.

Even so . . .

The fact remains that Michael Brown was unarmed. We need our guidelines and trainings to better ensure that alternatives to lethal force are used when an assailant is unarmed.

Moreover, it remains likely that race played a role and that Wilson would have been less likely to have shot a white man in similar circumstances.

It’s About Police Brutality and Growing Police Militarization

Statistics on police abuses are inconclusive, but the trend of militarization is clear. Beginning in the 1990s, Congressional authorization has allowed local police forces around the country to become militarized to a degree never seen before in the United States. Transfers from the Pentagon have included tanks, armored personnel carriers, grenade launchers, helicopters Then, after the September 11 attacks, the Department of Homeland Security paying for new military-grade equipment for local police departments. An ACLU report released last June found
“police overwhelmingly use SWAT raids not for extreme emergencies like hostage situations but to carry out such basic police work as serving warrants or searching for a small amount of drugs.” (SOURCE)
Some SWAT teams are sent out as much as five times a day.

Last spring in Georgia,
“a SWAT team, attempting to execute a no-knock drug warrant in the middle of the night, launched a flashbang grenade into the targeted home, only to have it land in a crib where a 19-month-old baby lay sleeping.” (John Whitehead, Huffington Post - SOURCE)
In Minnesota, a
“SWAT team raided the wrong house in the middle of the night, handcuffed the three young children, held the mother on the floor at gunpoint, shot the family dog, and then 'forced the handcuffed children to sit next to the carcass of their dead and bloody pet for more than an hour' while they searched the home.” (SOURCE)
As one reporter concluded, the problem is
"not that life has gotten that much more dangerous, it's that authorities have chosen to respond to even innocent situations as if they were in a warzone." (ibid)
It’s not just the increasing use of SWAT teams. We’re seeing
“a transformation in the way police view themselves and their line of duty. Specifically, what we're dealing with today is a skewed shoot-to-kill mindset in which police, trained to view themselves as warriors or soldiers in a war, whether against drugs, or terror, or crime, must 'get' the bad guys -- i.e., anyone who is a potential target -- before the bad guys get them. The result is a spike in the number of incidents in which police shoot first, and ask questions later.” (ibid)
Perhaps it is necessary that police be permitted to use deadly force if they have probable cause to believe a suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm either to the officer or to others. The reality, though, is that an officer’s subjective assessment of “probable cause” is rarely questioned – with the practical result being that it’s almost impossible for a police shooting to be judged a crime. And when police do shoot,
“most officers are trained to shoot at a target's center mass, where there is a higher concentration of vital areas and major blood vessels, according to a report by the Force Science Institute, a research center that examines deadly force encounters.” (Sabrina Siddiqui, Huffington Post - SOURCE)
It’s About Our Insane Gun Culture

In many ways, the police are simply doing the best they can. If police are using deadly force more often, sometimes without good reason, it’s partly because the prevalence of guns creates a context in which more situations appear threatening even if they aren’t.

We’ve become a society without the capacity for sanity about guns. As a result, the police, as do all of us, have good reason for suspecting that any angry person may be on the verge of pulling out a gun and opening fire. This reality of contemporary US life forces our officers to react very quickly and extremely. When real guns are as common as they are, a child’s toy gun looks like a threat. As Rev. Christine Robinson notes:
“The wide availability of guns changes everything. We are not living in the world of our childhoods and it is not fair to blame the police in general, or scapegoat any individual police officer for that change. We could, however, work to change this insane gun culture we live in."
And, Yes, It’s Probably Also About Race

White officers mistreat, and are perceived as mistreating, African Americans. As President Obama noted when he addressed the Grand Jury's Brown decision last night, “there are still problems, and communities of color aren’t just making these problems up.”

Yes, Brown reacted with hostility to Wilson’s initial request that Brown and Dorian Johnson step aside. And that hostility was perfectly understandable. There is a widespread sense among the African American community and anyone else who has been paying attention that our police are unfair – often violently unfair – toward people of color. To some extent, the police racial bias becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you treat a population as presumptively hostile, threatening, and needing to be subdued, often violently, then this will tend to make them, in fact, hostile and threatening.

I’m a middle-aged white man. I’m going to respond an officer’s requests as respectfully and cooperatively as I can. I have every reason to believe that this strategy will work for me. Increasingly, African Americans and other marginalized groups have no such reason. Police brutality has become epidemic and it is disproportionately directed at black people.

Over the seven years, 2005-2012, white officers killed a black person on average almost twice a week. Blacks constitute about 12.3% of the population, but are 24% of all people killed by police officers in the US. (These statistics on police shootings, particularly of blacks, are likely to be significantly understated. Police departments self-report the numbers, and these are based on the reportage of only 750 of the 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the US. SOURCE.)
“A widely publicized report in October 2014 by ProPublica, a leading investigative and data journalism outlet, concluded that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts: ‘The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police.’” (SOURCE)
We’re not in Mayberry anymore, Toto (if we ever were), and today’s police are not Sheriff Taylor (if they ever were). Surveys of Latinos and African Americans show that their confidence in law enforcement is low. And its no wonder. The NY Times reports last Nov 26:
A Huffington Post-YouGov poll of 1,000 adults released this week found that 62 percent of African-Americans believed Officer Wilson was at fault in the shooting of Mr. Brown, while only 22 percent of whites took that position. In 1992, a Washington Post-ABC News poll foundd that 92 perccent of blacks -- and 64 percent of whites -- disagreed with the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers involved in the videotaped beating of a black man, Rodney King. (SOURCE.)
Opinions differ because experience of law enforcement differs.

We need justice. I don't know if we needed a different decision from the Ferguson Grand Jury. Maybe. In any case, we certainly need better training for our police officers, better community relations between police departments and the neighborhoods they serve -- and we need to address the insanity of our gun culture. None of this will be easy, and none of it will be quick. We've got to be in this for the long haul.


Biblical Politics

The latest in a long tradition of US Presidents citing Jewish or Christian scripture in political rhetoric was included in President Obama's address to the nation on Thu Nov 20. He said:
ABC News photo
"Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger -- we were strangers once, too. My fellow Ameicans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too."
Various commentators were critical. (The following four were cited in a Huffington Post article HERE):
"So there, the president of the United States last night in the Cross Hall at the White House invoking scriptures which I believe had to do with feeding the poor and the hungry and nothing to do with visas." (Steve Doocy of Fox & Friends)

"It's repugnant, for this guy specifically, the president who spent his career defending late-term abortion, among other things, lecturing us on Christian faith? That's too much. That is too much. This is the Christian left at work, and it's repugnant. To quote scripture? That is totally out of bounds" (Tucker Carlson)

"To guilt someone into [supporting immigration reform], that's not what the scholars behind the Bible would interpret as proper use." (Elisabeth Hasselbeck)

"I always thought that Scripture was eternal and unchanging, but apparently, now that Obama is President, Scripture gets rewritten more often than Bill Cosby's Wikipedia entry." (Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee)
The President, however, was not "re-writing" scripture. He cited it accurately and in context: that is, if moral principles from the Ancient Near East 3,000 years ever have relevance to situations today, then this one pretty directly applies.

There is, in fact, a long and deep theological grounding for for the kind of action our President announced on Nov 20. The Bible doesn't address the extent of presidential authority for executive orders allowed by the US Constitution. Nor, in this post, will I. The Bible is, however, pretty clear about an obligation to justice for immigrants. It's a point made, in fact, repeatedly:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21)

“You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33)
(From the NRSV. The term translated here as "alien" is variously rendered in other translations as "foreigner," "sojourner," "stranger," and "foreign resident.")

The theological basis of this commandment is crucial. The land belongs to God, not to the Israelites whom God allows to settle and use it. God tells them:
“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23)
The authors, Hebrews writing under the conditions of the Babylonian captivity, were making the point that there is no true ownership of land – the land and the trees and the water under it and flowing over it – belong to the earth, belong to all life, not to me or you. We're all just aliens and tenants here.

If the spiritual is whatever lifts us out of “I, me, mine,” lifts us out of protective fear into a spacious perception of abundance -- lifts us out of any “we, us, ours” that doesn’t include all sentient beings, then recognizing that all of the Earth belongs to all of life is a spiritual act. I believe that’s what the Hebrew people were really saying, in their own way. The moral and emotional truth of “the land is mine, saith the Lord, with me you are but aliens and tenants,” is that the Earth is not truly ours.

You may have deed and title to your house and a plot of land, and the law may say that you own it – but this is a legal fiction. For the squirrels, finches, juncos, and various other assorted wildlife who pass through your yard, that land is as much theirs as yours. The spiritual truth, articulated in the second and third books of the Bible, is that all of the Earth belongs to all of life, a.k.a. God.

There is a fear and a hatred in the land. As people of faith, we are called to stand against it, to stand on the side of love, to know and to renounce our unjust privilege in the name of the much greater rewards of connection and solidarity and siblinghood. Our national heart is closing against itself, but the scriptural resources of our Jewish and Christian heritage enjoin us to hospitality.


This Week's Prayer

Holy and loving reality, we come to this season of Thanksgiving knowing that every season, every moment, every breath must be a season of gratitude – that the most basic spiritual practice, discipline, virtue, and grounding is gratitude.

Grateful constantly for earth and sun, air and water, life and love, life becomes possible. Without thanksgiving, life is only a kind of walking death.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for “this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees,” (many now displaying the beauty of their bare branches) -- “for the blue, true dream of sky.”

Thank you for our home – and our capacity to find ourselves at home wherever we are – for the earth, the universe, wherever we go, is our home.

We will always have problems. Approached with gratitude, we can learn to love our problems, for they are the arisings of life. With hearts of thanksgiving, we can respond with compassion to all that arises.

Grateful for life, we can respond compassionately to those who are sick, supporting the medical teams in West Africa fighting against a deadly virus.

Grateful for our capacity for concern and respect and fair treatment, we can respond compassionately to both perpetrators and victims of unjust abuse, oppression, racial distrust and prejudice.

Grateful for what we know of peace, we can respond compassionately to those whose lives are torn apart by war, supporting the efforts of peaceful and fair conflict resolution.

Grateful for the abundant bounty of our lives, we can respond compassionately to those who suffer poverty.

Grateful for simplicity (beautiful simplicity that liberates from the burden of things, for the things we own and consume also own and consume us) we can turn away from the crazy getting and spending that lays waste our powers.

Grateful for the love of family and friends, we can respond compassionately to affirm those bonds in ways other than buying stuff.

Let our hearts, then, overflow constantly with gratitude.


The Ground of Hope

“Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
- Radio DJ Casey Kasem’s signature sign-off

Hope can go bad. We can use hope to evade reality and escape into rosy fantasies. In the name of hope, people may dwell in a hoped-for future rather than living in the present.

Psychiatrist Scott Peck’s very useful book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, gives many examples from his patients where evil and mental illness blur together. The evil/ill patients he discusses share a habit of attacking others instead of facing their own failures. When things go well, it’s just what they deserved; when things go badly, it’s always someone else’s fault. By contrast, an ideal of mental health would be just the opposite: when things go well, the healthy think with gratitude of all the others who made their success possible, and when things go badly, they examine what they might have done differently. Peck then defines mental health as “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” The evil/ill tendency to blame others and credit the self is a refusal to face reality. The evil/ill prefer the comforts of the illusion of blameless virtue and undeserved victimhood to “a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination and honesty with oneself” (Peck).

When hope goes bad, it turns into the enemy of reality, honesty, truth. It beckons us to retreat into pleasant illusions of an imagined future – or succumb to temptations of visions in which other people have finally wised up and stopped standing in our righteous way.

When hope is ungrounded, it is merely another name for fear. What commonly goes by the name “hope” – hope for a specific result – is nonacceptance. This kind of hope is no more than fear of the world as it is, or the world as we are afraid it may become. "I hope the bill passes," or "I hope I get the promotion" is not substantively different from "I'm afraid of the bill not passing," and "I'm afraid of not getting the promotion."

There is surely a place and a need for hopeful visions of a better future – for powerful dreams such as Martin Luther King’s. (There's a place and need for fear, too.) Hope, by its nature, wants to reach for the stars. To keep hope from going bad -- to hope within the context of "dedication to reality at all costs" -- we must also plant its feet in the ground of love of reality. Hope’s grounding lies in making peace with the possibility that the future may not be different in any particular way that you or I would call “better.”

Hope’s grounding is action taken here and now without knowing what effect, if any, the action will have. Hope is grounded in what the poet John Keats called “negative capability” – the capacity not to insist on a determinate knowable meaning. Grounded hope reminds us to hold our visions lightly, for they are projections of our ego needs, and the best of them can become despotic and demonic. A grounded activist knows, “I do this not to make the world different. I do this to be who I am.” When our hope is grounded in loving what is, we can be courageous, we can join the resistance (to injustice, oppression, sources of violence) with our hearts and our breath and our being, comfortable that we cannot predict what will come of it. Hope’s grounding lies in listening deeply, speaking truth, then letting go of attachment to outcomes.


Forgveness 4

Safety may sometimes be a higher priority than forgiveness. Once safety is established, however, and the long slow process of healing is well underway -- once blame and prosecution has long finished serving whatever purpose it may serve in our justice system -- then attending to the possibility of inviting the heart to release its blame becomes a key aspect of the continued healing.

The author Dwight Lee Wolter, was at a book-signing event for his book, Forgiving Our Parents. One person
“merely glanced at the title, glared at Dwight and asked, ‘Why the hell should I?’” (Buerhens 6)
That’s a person who has given up on forgiveness.

In such cases, the work will be hard, and no one can say “you should” – no one can say the work will be worth it. The grace of forgiveness – the grace of being able to forgive, and the grace of coming to be forgiven – can, if not short-circuited, have a power to raise new life from a kind of death. Forgiveness can
“break through the normal calculus of morality that calls for evenhandedness and balance.” (Lewis Smedes, religious psychologist)
We can’t make the grace come. We can take some steps to invite that grace: steps for both the injured and the injurer.

For the one who has been harmed, the first step is to tell the truth about our pain. We have to be able to say that we’ve been hurt and how. Even articulating that hurt may be arduous. It’s often difficult to speak one’s pain frankly.

One barrier is an inner belief in our invincibility. A person may deny her or his own suffering because to hurt is to have an unacceptable weakness. And acknowledging this hurt means recognizing that we can be hurt again. Or we may fear that acknowledging a hurt will make it worse.

An Offender Reconciliation Program in Wisconsin “brings the victim of a crime together with the perpetrator of the crime, in front of a trained mediator,” if the victim desires such a meeting, and the perpetrator is willing. One woman met with the drunk driver who had killed her husband.

He said, "I’m sorry."

And she said, “‘I’m sorry,’ won’t cut it. I lost the love of my life. My other half. I suffered depression. I had to deal with being a single parent with three kids.” (Larsen 3-4)

Sometimes we aren’t ready to get, don’t want to get, don’t need to get, to forgiveness. Just the first step of speaking her pain – without expecting that she accept his apology: “it became possible for her to get on with her life” (Larsen 4)

At the next step we do face a choice. Having named our pain, grieve it. If we don’t grieve, we are much more likely to pass on the very same injury to others. Unitarian Universalist minister Rebecca Parker writes:
“The capacity to grieve unlocks the psycho-magic of passing the pain on to someone else. Grief allows the pain to pass through one with its full power. The ability to mourn is the foundation of the capacity to forgive, and it is strengthened by those operations of grace which mediate comfort and consolation to us.”
The final step, then, is letting it go. Again: you can’t make yourself let it go, and you certainly can’t make anyone else let something go, but you can deliberately open yourself to inviting the release to come. Letting go releases the violator from the obligation you would place upon them to suffer for their violation, or be punished for their sin.

This is not a release from accountability. Forgiveness involves "calling another to accountability, but relinquishing the desire for retribution” (Parker 16). When I say accountability, I mean accounting for ourselves to one another – a relation in which we accept the task of trying to make our selves make sense to another human being – who has seen our past behavior as making no sense.

The injurer, for her or his part, also has steps that can help open the iron gate through which forgiveness may enter. Here, too, truth-telling must be the first step. Tell the truth about the violation. Acknowledge responsibility. Accept the call to accountability.

Step two is justice-making. This is about restorative justice, not retributive justice.
“One cannot always repair the damage one does, but one can commit oneself to create healing or transformation somewhere, somehow” (Parker 21).
In the example from Gandhi, the man could not bring back the child he killed. What he could do was commit to creating healing or transformation somewhere, somehow. We can’t always put thing back, make things right, but we can make things better – create healing or transformation somewhere, somehow.

In the end, as at the beginning, forgiveness is a form of love, and like love generally, it is a need. We need it in both directions. We need to love; we need to forgive. We need to be loved; we need to be forgiven. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said:
“Nothing we do, however virtuous can be accomplished alone. Therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own. Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
* * *
This is part of 4 of 4 of 'Forgiveness'
Previous: Part 3
Beginning: Part 1


Forgiveness 3

Then there’s the issue of forgiveness within an organization having conflicts. Congregational conflict can be huge and consuming. I haven’t seen it Community Unitarian Church at White Plains – yet -- but wherever there’s an organization the members care about, there will be conflict and it can really blow up. I have seen congregations in conflict to the point where it is hard to say what the conflict is about – what exactly is the issue – because the energy of the conflict is oriented toward other people rather than the issue. I talk to the people involved, and I find I have a hard time getting a handle on the issue, but it’s real easy to tell the sides – “those people” this and “those people” that. As the conflict plays out and decisions get made, I’ll hear “those people won” or “we showed those people.” That’s a whole organization in deep need of a process of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Forgiving is fore-giving: giving what was before. To forgive is to give back the relationship as it was before. When the offense is slight, we can just say “I forgive you” and it’s done. When the fabric of relationship is ripped through, it will take more than that. These are the cases on which I’ll focus for the remainder of this blog series – the difficult kind of forgiveness that the heart resists tendering.

I said that in these difficult cases, if forgiveness does come, it is a grace -- an unearned good. Ultimately, yes, it is unearned. Yet we also have to work on it. We have to earn our way up to the point from which grace takes over. In other words, do the work, but don’t think the work alone is sufficient. It's necessary, not sufficient. Do the work, and see if the miracle happens -- the miracle of human reconnection in love. Just saying the words, “forgive me” and the answer, “I do forgive you,” is only a start.

One woman said to her partner, “Why do you keep talking about my past mistakes? I thought you had forgiven and forgotten.”

Her partner said, “I have forgiven and forgotten. But I want to make sure you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.” That’s a couple that only began the process. (And, in fact, forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. You can arrive at a place where you are able to forgive – to let go of the burden of anger and resentment about the hurt you have received – but that doesn’t mean you forget it.)

The whole forgiveness thing can have its pitfalls. There are ways that forgiveness goes wrong. First, as in the this case, we might think it is done when it has only begun.

We might think that saying the words “I forgive you,” – even saying them as sincerely as we can muster – means that the limbic system actually has released its attachment to rehearsing the narrative of its hurts. And we might be wrong about that: we can mistakenly think forgiveness is easy when it’s actually hard.

Second, forgiveness goes wrong when the forgiver comes off as superior. I say, “I forgive you,” and that can cast me as the magnanimous one, all superior. Rather than return the parties to equality, it maintains a reversed inequality. That can happen when we don’t seek a more extended reconciliation process.

Third, forgiveness goes wrong when it is expected or demanded. Recognizing the virtue of forgiveness, we can come to expect or demand that others – or ourselves – forgive.

“You should forgive him,” someone might say. Or, “You really ought to forgive her.” Or even, “you should forgive yourself.” The understanding that forgiveness is a noble and virtuous thing conspires with a misperception that forgiveness is always easy. When emotions are deep, forgiveness cannot be commanded.

Let me be concrete about this. Some minister or priest somewhere in North America, very probably today, will tell a battered woman that she should forgive her husband and take him back, no matter how much he beats her, because marriage is forever and good Christians forgive. It breaks my heart. I have some anger about that, and I'm not inclined to forgive those pastors -- though I think I would forgive any who recognized and repented that horrible error.

Situations of abuse require an intentional and extended process if the relationship is to be repaired at all. Yet a certain concept of "forgiveness" -- as if it were easy and instantaneous -- short-circuits the process that is needed. This concept of forgiveness undermines the possibility of the very healing that is needed. Gandhi could not have simply said to the man, “You’re forgiven,” or “Ask God to forgive you.” When the tear is substantial, it will take a lot of sewing to repair it – it doesn’t happen just from saying the words. Even if they are heartfelt words. Tears and emotions of the moment all too quickly pass without commitment to the long-term work.

Forgiveness also goes wrong if we think that’s the only important value. In the case of domestic abuse, we have to consider the possibility that no plan for repairing the relationship may have enough chance of success to be worth pursuing, and getting out of the relationship needs to be the priority.

Finally, things have gone wrong when we give up on the possibility of forgiveness at all. This is the flip side of expecting or demanding it or treating it as if it were an easy and momentary thing to do – a simple act of a moment that sets things right again. Once we see that forgiveness isn't simple and instantaneous, we might go the other direction and give up on it entirely. Don't demand it or expect it -- but please don't give up on forgiveness either.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Forgiveness"
Next: Part 4
Previous: Part 2
Beginning: Part 1


Forgiveness 2

Forgiveness: Many Levels and Kinds

I hear there is a Unitarian Universalist church out west somewhere, in a downtown area where parking is at a premium. A lot of people not coming to the church would park in the church parking lot. The church put up a sign:
Church Parking Only.
Violaters Will Be Forgiven.
The congregation didn’t really mind people parking there through the week – and I’ve always thought that was a clever way to advertise the forgiving nature of the church.

Forgiveness is an issue in such a broad range of situations, and you’ll have a chance to explore them in this month’s Journey Group packet (HERE) and at your Journey Group.

There’s the casual forgiveness as a social courtesy, like forgiving people for parking on your lot, forgiving them for being a few minutes late.

There’s also those situations of much deeper emotional hurt, where forgiveness is hard to ask for and hard to give. When we are wronged, it’s normal to be angry and hurt, to rehearse the narrative in our minds. We give over our personal power to the individual who hurt us, continuing to let their past actions dominate our present experience. In such a case, forgiveness is liberating, for in letting go of the grievance, it loses its power over us. Sometimes forgiveness takes the form of unilaterally deciding to stop carrying the weight of that resentment. The other person might not have asked for your forgiveness, might not have apologized, might not know that you forgive them, yet letting go of the anger is something you do for your own sake because the burden of your own resentment is weighing you down.

Other times forgiveness is a bilateral process of two people working together toward reconciliation, intentionally engaged in a process of rebuilding of trust. There’s the kind of forgiveness you can choose to give, and saying the words, “I forgive you,” is all it takes. Then there’s the kind of forgiveness that you can’t choose, can’t make yourself do – the heart just isn’t ready. The head might compel the mouth to say the words, but the heart feels the emptiness of the words because the heart has not, in fact, forgiven. The heart – or, to be more precise, the emotional center of the brain – as always, has a wisdom that bears attending to. The emotions are clued in to some things the upper cortex doesn’t get. In those cases, coaxing the limbic system toward letting go is a different matter from the upper cortex deciding to forgive.

In other words, in those tough cases where the emotions run deep – like how to forgive a father, or a mother, for the years of whatever it was – neglect, abuse, alcoholism, rage, disconnection, over-controlling or under-involvement – if forgiveness does come, if the heart finds that it is able to forgive, then forgiveness is a grace – a blessing that arrives that is ultimately unearned.

There’s the issue of forgiveness considered from the point of view of the person who has been hurt – whether, and, if so, how, to forgive. And there’s the issue of forgiveness from the point of view of the person who has hurt someone else – how to seek forgiveness.

And then there’s self-forgiveness – which some of us, I imagine, experience as harder than forgiving anyone else.

When Gandhi told the man to find a Muslim child and raise him as a Muslim, he was naming a path of restitution that would, we imagine, ultimately lead to self-forgiveness, though the process will be long and slow.

I can speak to you as a man who did find a child – about this high (my shoulder height) – of a different religion, different culture, different language. Yency Contreras was 17 when LoraKim and I met him while offering worship services at his detention facility in El Paso. Our relationship, just over ten years so far, has been many things. We were not called upon, as the man with Gandhi, to actively raise him in a different faith – he had already been mostly raised in a different faith. We did, though, have to grow accepting of the Pentecostal faith he has maintained on his own. One of the things going on in all this – not especially on the surface – has been a sense of a process of partial atonement. We, with our pale skins and middle class US lifestyles, our undeserved privilege, depending as it does upon a constant flow of resources from the rest of the world, and upon global systems that encourage a number of countries, including those of Central America, to adopt policies that effectively impoverish the people and denude the land. Having Yency has been by no means a total atonement, but a step on a path. So there is also the kind of forgiveness which is always in process and never finally achieved. We are always atoning, never atoned – never through with the work of repairing.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of 'Forgiveness'
Next: Part 3
Previous: Part 1


Forgiveness 1

Stage Setting

Before I begin sharing my own reflections on forgiveness, as I shall be doing in subsequent posts this week, please consider two scenarios and a poem.

Scenario #1

You’ve been grocery shopping. Now you’ve gotta get the groceries home and put away. You’re under some time pressure because you have an appointment coming up. You get to your apartment building, but the parking places on that side of the street are taken, so you have to park across the street. At the grocery store, you had asked for paper rather than plastic, and what you’ve got are three brimming-full paper grocery bags. You decide you need to do this in one trip, so you scoop up all three bags. Your field of vision is now somewhat limited. You wait for the light to change. You know it says “walk” for only a few seconds before it goes into its warning blink, and that stopped cars are ready to proceed the instant the light changes back. You’re making your way across the street, when some clod walking by the other direction bumps into you. Your groceries spill in the middle of the street. Your body floods with that anger reaction. Blood pressure up, you see red. You spin around, clutching the one bag of groceries that didn’t spill, and the angry, loud words that are already starting to come out of your mouth are definitely not words you would want your children to hear. In that moment you see . . . the white cane. The anger just drains right away as you see the truth of the situation with clarity.

Scenario #2

from the 1982 film Gandhi (and see video clip below):

Violent rioting has broken out. Muslim and Hindu mobs are attacking and killing each other all over India. Gandhi goes on a hunger strike – refusing to eat until the violence stops. In the film, we see Gandhi weak and in bed from fasting. Leaders of the fighting factions come in, throw down their swords and promise they will fight no more. One man then pushes through and flings bread on Gandhi.
Man: Eat! I'm going to Hell! But not with your death on my soul.
Gandhi: Only God decides who goes to hell.
Man: I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Gandhi: Why?
Man: They killed my son. My boy. [Holds out his hand at waist level to indicate the boy’s height.] The Muslims killed my son!
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed – a little boy about this high [holds out hand to indicate the same height the man had indicated] -- and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.
The man is astounded. Then his stunned expression seems to turn from disbelief to wonder. He turns to go. Stops. Turns back to Gandhi. Gets on his knees and bows to the ground.


"How Do We Forgive Our Fathers?"
by Dick Lourie

How do we forgive our Fathers?
Maybe in a dream
Do we forgive our Fathers for leaving us too often or forever
when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous
because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.
Do we forgive our Fathers for marrying or not marrying our Mothers?
For Divorcing or not divorcing our Mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning
for shutting doors
for speaking through walls
or never speaking
or never being silent?
Do we forgive our Fathers in our age or in theirs
or their deaths
saying it to them or not saying it?
If we forgive our Fathers what is left?

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of 'Forgiveness'
Next: Part 2

- - - -
Clip from "Gandhi" (1982):


This Week's Prayer

We are held in relationships of belonging and dependence extending throughout the cosmos.

Let us practice at living.

Let us be in denial about nothing.

For there is no story, no picture or poem or movie or news account, that can be depressing in itself.

Reality is never depressing.

To call it depressing is to say that we were preferring to be in denial about some part of the wholeness of what life is – and are disappointed to be reminded of what we had denied.

Let us be in denial about nothing.

Let us be in full awareness at all times of the world’s suffering, for connecting with the world’s suffering allows us to connect with our own.

Indeed, the world’s suffering IS our own.

Let us be in denial about nothing, but open to all the fullness of life, for beauty and tragedy are interdependent, and joy entails connection with everything – laughter and tears, birth and death, wounding and healing – constant and continuous connection with everything.

May we laugh, not to forget our tears, but to remember them, and arrive at a fuller and wiser laughter.

May we celebrate, not to forget our grief, but to remember it, and arrive at a more thorough celebration.

May we be comforted, not to forget our and the world’s afflictions, but to remember them, and be more deeply comforted.

And from that memory, may we move toward living in compassion, caring for others, serving freedom, peace, and justice.

In denial about nothing, in touch with all heartache and anguish everywhere, compassionately serving, we will arrive at an ever truer and more enduring gladness.


Gratitude and Its Expression 4

Belongingness in Our Dependency

My own daily gratitude list extends beyond five items, and every day it includes Unitarian Universalism. Well, almost every day. I’m grateful that there is such a thing in this world as us. There is this amazing fact. There exist people – over 220,000 thousand of them in the world and about 250 or so adults and 100 or so kids in the congregation that I get to serve – people who, for historical reasons stretching back many generations, go by the name Unitarian Universalist. Every service we have washes us in the wonder and joy of that fact. It does me, anyway.

Medical Students
I understand myself within a context of dependence and belonging – dependence upon and belonging to something that I did not create, could never have created, and do not control. To give thanks is to honor our network of dependence and belonging. Expressing thanks to specific people in our lives happens to be helpful for keeping the relationship going smoothly. But gratitude also has this function that goes beyond facilitating specific relationships with other people. Being grateful for mountains, rivers, the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars -- being grateful to all those who came before who built the institutions that nurture us (institutions of marriage and family, schools, universities, libraries, legal systems to temper power with principle, our congregation) – doesn’t have any direct connection to relationships with living people. But having that gratitude and expressing it -- written in a journal or whispered in a prayer -- does change us. Gratitude and its expression makes us happier and more at peace with our world and our life. Expressing gratitude cultivates delight and the joy of belongingness in our dependency.

Without ever meeting or knowing the name or face of my doctor’s teacher or teachers’ teacher, I know they existed, and I’m grateful for the vast institutions of learning that they, and so many others back over the centuries nurtured and expanded and developed. Is there something to do? Yes. Notice everything I am grateful for. Write a few of them down every day. As I cultivate an abiding expansive gratitude, I know my natural generosity of spirit will slowly grow.

Each of us is held in a relationship of belonging and dependence with the whole universe: teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, secretaries, clerks, the unemployed, the homeless, friends, family, forebears, and all the humans who currently or have ever lived (estimated to be 115 billion humans); ocelots, ospreys, octopi, and all 7.8 million or so animal species; grass, grains, grapes, and all 600,000 plant species; phytoplankton and fungi; oceans, deserts, savannahs, and rainforests; red giants, blue dwarfs, black holes, and supernovae; oil and gas, cars and refrigerators, transatlantic cables and geopositioned satellites; wind, rain, and beautiful days.

All of that made me – and you – made us what we are, constitutes our being and sustains our lives as we know them.

It’s one thing to know that there is an interconnected web. It’s another thing to remember it, to keep it always in mind, and always with a tinge of awe. Gratitude is the practice of training ourselves to remember that, to maintain consciousness of it, to delight in things, understanding they are parts of the vast plexus on which we depend and in which we belong. Your every breath, your every thought and every move is then a paying it forward of everything. It is all of reality paying forward all of reality, instant by instant, in a form known to you as your life.

By expressing gratitude – saying thank you to particular people, or writing in our journals, or remembering in prayer, what we are grateful for – we are re-wiring our brains. We are practicing the opening of our hearts to the inherent joy of being. Thank you.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Gratitude and Its Expression"
Previous: Part 3
Beginning: Part 1
Photo by the author