Four Reflections on Atonement

Rev. Josh Pawelek


leavesA Reflection on Atonement: Teshuvah For UUs?

Our October ministry theme is atonement—making amends for whatever pain or hurt, large or small, we have caused in others; acknowledging our imperfections; correcting our mistakes; offering genuine apology; offering forgiveness to those who apologize to us; moving back across the borders that have kept us separated and isolated from each other; seeking reconciliation with whatever it is we regard as most holy. We select this theme at this time of year in part as a way of seeing and valuing Judaism and Jewish tradition. The Jewish High Holy days—the “Days of Awe”—occur in late summer or early autumn every year. This year they concluded yesterday, October 4th, with Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.” In a message to children about the “Days of Awe,” author and Rabbi Malka Drucker[1] says, “these are delicate days, when people look at the year that has passed and face up to their mistakes, errors in judgment, or wrongdoings. This is called teshuvah, which means return.”[2] I understand return in this sense to mean a return to right relationship, a return to community, a return to God. Teshuvah is also often translated as repentance meaning, again, making amends, offering apology, seeking forgiveness for wrongdoing. 

I also understand the experience of teshuvah during the Days of Awe as an opportunity for Jews to not only repair external relationships, but to repair the relationship one has with oneself—to return to one’s true self, to regain grounding, to regain wholeness, to once again recognize and speak one’s own voice. It seems repairing one’s relationship with oneself and repairing one’s external relationships are intertwined. We might say it is difficult to forgive others if one hasn’t forgiven oneself. I found a poem from Rabbi Burt Jacobsson entitled “Prayer Before Yom Kippur,” which expresses this aspect of teshuvah: “I now prepare / to unify my whole self— / heart / mind/ consciousness / body / passions / with this holy community / with the Jewish people everywhere / with all people everywhere /with all life and being / to commune with the Source of all being. / May I find the words, / the music, the movements / that will put me in touch / with the great light of God. / May the rungs of insight and joy /that I reach in my devotion /flow from me to others / and fill all my actions in the world.”[3]

I mentioned in my October newsletter column that it’s somewhat of a cliché for Unitarian Universalist clergy, myself included, to point out at this time of year that we UUs don’t have a spiritual practice akin to teshuvah.  We don’t have a set of rituals for atonement, let alone a Day of Atonement. In saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that we ought to somehow copy what Jews do. Generally speaking, Unitarian Universalists are not rigorously ritualistic in our collective spiritual life, and it may be too out-of-spiritual-character for us to create and engage in such rituals.  But not having such a ritual should in no way imply that we don’t need a practice of atonement in our lives.

It is indeed part of the human condition to find ourselves from time to time—and sometimes for extended periods of time, if not permanently—out of right relationship with family members, friends, work-colleagues, neighbors; out of right-relationship with ourselves;  and indeed, out of right relationship with whatever it is we regard as most holy. It is part of the human condition to find ourselves bearing grudges, unable to let go of past hurts, harboring anger, resentment, hatred. It is part of the human condition to find ourselves feeling isolated, separated, alienated from whatever it is we regard as holy. And, odd but true, we can and do dedicate enormous energy to keeping our broken relationships broken. This is not new to the human condition. It is an ancient human experience. It makes perfect sense to me that the ancient Hebrew priests would place rituals of atonement at the center of their highest holy day. It makes perfect sense to me that we modern Unitarian Universalists would recognize the importance of cultivating religious and spiritual identities that invite us to atone in response to those moments when we falter.  

How can we return to right relationship given our inevitable propensity to miss the mark, to make mistakes, to hurt others’ feelings, to misunderstand, to react out of anger?” That’s the question I feel we are continually called to answer in our own lives, in our congregation, and in the world. It’s a question that has gone missing from the public sphere. An obvious example is the politician who refuses to acknowledge an ethics violation, even as they walk through the prison gates; or perhaps the spate of recent revelations of professional football players behaving abusively towards spouses and children. I wonder if such high-profile unwillingness to admit wrongdoing sets a tone for the wider society, or if the wider society has somehow set an “I did nothing wrong” tone for its leaders and celebrities to adopt. Either way, the question has gone missing. How do we bring it back and cement it in our spiritual lives? How do we say I’m sorry when I’m sorry is what’s really needed?

leavesA Second Reflection on Atonement: On Avoiding Conflict Avoidance 

I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that I’m an adult child of an alcoholic, an ACOA. As I think many of you know, one of the unfortunate and false lessons children sometimes learn in families in which one or both parents struggle with addiction is that nothing can go wrong. That is, as long as nothing goes wrong, the family system won’t get out of control, won’t become dangerous, won’t become embarrassing, etc. That’s a general statement. It’s always more complicated than that, and I don’t want to suggest for a minute that as I child I never did anything wrong. But in looking back on my childhood—especially my adolescent years—through the lens of ACOA literature, I recognize I was one of those kids who was motivated to do well in school and extracurricular activities in part because I didn’t want to upset the family system. I didn’t want to be the cause of any extra stress. I didn’t want to rock the boat.

I also became the kind of kid and, eventually, the kind of adult, who’s instinct in the event that something did or does go wrong, is to smooth it over as quickly as possible. Make it go away. It’s dangerous. Today I joke that I wish my own kids would be more like this—start showing a little more motivation; stop adding undue stress to our family system; and when something goes wrong, please, please, please show me you’d like to see it smoothed over—at least a little. Please? But I also know that if a child lives in a home where they can’t make mistakes, where they can’t miss the mark, where they can’t hurt others’ feelings, where they can’t be a jerk from time to time, it’s much harder for them to learn the use of those two blessed words, “I’m sorry.” Effective parents don’t raise children who never misbehave. Effective parents raise children who, when they do misbehave, know how to take responsibility for their actions and apologize.

For the person who’s learned to avoid conflict for whatever reason, or the person who has learned to make conflict go away as quickly as possible, it strikes me that this these character traits—at least as I encounter them in myself—make it challenging to accept and live with the inevitability of disagreement and conflict in human communities. I can see this now, though I remember when I began in ministry, despite having conflict management training, I really thought my job was to just make conflict go away. So, instead of always trying to ensure that nobody’s feelings get hurt in the first place, I’ve come to understand it is much more healthy, much more life-giving, much more spiritually sound to embrace the reality that we may hurt each other from time to time. This means that knowing how to apologize is an essential skill. When we enter into conflicts, we need to do so fully expecting that at some point along the way we will either be offering an apology, offering forgiveness or both.

We need the possibility for atonement.

The absence of any possibility for atonement makes human conflict terrifying. The presence of that possibility makes human conflict palatable and even productive.

In the absence of any possibility for atonement, we are forced to conclude that broken relationships will remain broken, separation will remain separation, isolation will remain isolation. The presence of that possibility assures us that broken relationships can be restored, separation and isolation can be overcome.

In the absence of any possibility for atonement, our first chance, it turns out, was our only chance. There is no new beginning. But in the presence of that possibility, we get second chances. We can keep trying until we get it right. We can always begin again in love. 

Autumn BirdsA Third Reflection on Atonement: “Micro-Atonements”

I’m calling this reflection “Micro-Atonements,” but I originally called it “I Didn’t Mean It That Way,” in reference to that gut response we may sometimes have when someone informs us we’ve hurt them or crossed some line they find problematic.

“What you did hurt me.” “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“That’s a racist thing to say.” “Oh, no, not at all. You don’t understand what I mean.”

“That was harsh.” “Well, I didn’t intend to be harsh.”

“You didn’t do what you said you were going to do.” “Well, it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

“Your response sounds sexist.” “Oh please, I don’t have a sexist bone in my body.”

“Stop making fun of me.” “I’m not trying to make fun of you.”

“Ughh, please don’t keep saying that. You’re making me angry.” “That’s not my intent.”

“It just feels homophobic to me.” “No, you’re not hearing me correctly. This isn’t that.”

“Ouch, that stung.” “That’s not how I meant it.”

When you tell me I hurt you, it is quite possible that my gut response will be to deny that I hurt you, to try to absolve myself of any wrong-doing before you’ve had a chance to explain. I don’t experience myself as a hurtful person, so it just isn’t possible that I hurt you. I know I didn’t intend to hurt you, so clearly you’ve misunderstood, misheard, mis-interpreted what I’ve said or done. My intentions are good, so your hurt isn’t justified. Frankly, it isn’t even real. Get over it. Surely, if I explain that I didn’t mean it that way, your hurt will go away.

This gut response comes from multiple sources. In me, it may have something to do with the way our society socializes boys to turn away from emotion. It may have something to do with being an ACOA and wanting to make any negative or difficult emotion vanish as quickly as possible. It may have something to do with being a perfectionist, with not wanting to admit that I, too, can make mistakes. I’m sure it also has something to do with being white, male and heterosexual in a society that privileges white, male, heterosexual people, and thus not fully understanding how deep racism, sexism and homophobia go, or how they are experienced in the tiny things we say and do that we don’t know we’re saying and doing. By the way, the term for those tiny sayings and doings is ‘micro-aggressions.” They are indeed small—“no big deal,” we might say in our own defense—but they add up through the course of a day, a year, a life.

If this gut response to defend exists in you, it may have similar origins to those I am describing for myself. It may have other origins. Regardless of where it comes from, in my experience, most of us say these kinds of things from time to time when confronted with the negative impact we’ve had on someone else, no matter how unintentional. “You hurt me.” Well, that wasn’t my intent.”

But in this gut response lives the seeds of more hurt, the seeds of distance, separateness, isolation. It took me a long time to figure this out—and I am still figuring it out: the fact that I didn’t mean to hurt you, doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt. The fact that it wasn’t my intent to cause you pain, doesn’t mean your pain isn’t real. Telling you “I didn’t mean it that way,” is equivalent to saying “your feelings are wrong.” It’s an attempt to end the conflict without actually doing the work of reconciliation. When someone is hurt, before we explain ourselves, we need to tend to the hurt. Those two blessed words, “I’m sorry,” spoken with love and care, more often than not, will be sufficient to begin repairing the breach. But not “I’m sorry” with sarcasm, not with a rolling of the eyes, not with a huff and a sigh, not with a tone that suggests I’m only saying this because I know you need to hear it but I don’t really feel it; and not “I’m sorry, but….” And not, “I’m sorry that you misunderstood my intentions.” Just two words: “I’m sorry.” Let’s call this micro-atonement.

I know this isn’t a perfect science, but I’ve come to trust that when we acknowledge and honor another’s feelings, when we say “I’m sorry,” they have a much better chance of hearing and believing that causing pain was not our intent. And we also have a much better chance of learning how our words and actions have power beyond our intent.

bombingA Final Reflection on Atonement: If We Must Go To War

The United States of America and its allies are at war with a barbaric and, in my view, pathological enemy calling itself the Islamic State. I won’t rehearse here the events that led to this war as I trust they are widely known in this room. What I hope to do in a few minutes is describe my own struggle to come to terms with the idea that this war is necessary.

I am deeply suspicious of American war-making in our era. My suspicion emerges when I detect the possibility that American or multinational corporations stand to profit from our war-making. I don’t agree that innocent people anywhere ought to suffer—that is, have their cities or villages bombed, lose their homes, lose all their worldly possessions, be driven into mountains, deserts and swamps, driven across borders, driven into refugee camps, experience starvation, dehydration and disease, lose limbs, see friends and family members die—simply because a corporation’s interests are threatened or because a corporation stands to make a profit. Whenever there is a justifiable reason to go to war, i.e., ending fascism in Europe and Japan or stopping genocide, I know there will always be those who profit—some corporate entity must produce the weapons used in fighting the war. But all too often I fear our leaders allow the discernment process to go in reverse: the lust for profit comes first, and the moral (and often thin) justification for war (recall Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction) comes second.

I don’t feel suspicion toward our war against the Islamic State. I feel fear, anger and sadness, but not suspicion.  I feel fear particularly when I learn of the arrest of a cell of Islamic State operatives in Australia who were planning to conduct random kidnappings and beheadings. I wonder: was that really what it was? It’s not completely clear. But if that’s what it was, I wonder further: have such cells already formed in Europe, in the United States? I wonder also about the Khorasan Group—not part of the Islamic State—whose base near Aleppo, Syria the United States bombed last week, citing the presence of an imminent threat to the United States. I want to believe these threats are not so real, that this talk is an inflation of a much more distant threat. The word “threat” raises suspicions for me. Is this just the government and the media attempting to build public support for the war—by frightening us into believing there is a direct threat to us? I also know that when the government and the media talk about threats to the “homeland” from radical Islamist groups, there is almost always an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment and a violation of the civil rights of Muslims in the United States. Allegations of threats are immensely complicated. I never quite believe they are as imminent as we hear. But my heart also remembers: it’s happened before. What if the threats are real this time? And I feel fear.

I feel anger at the litany of atrocities the Islamic State has committed—killing, raping, disfiguring, destroying sacred sites, attacking religious minorities, viciously silencing opposing viewpoints, enslaving women, marrying girls to multiple fighters at a time, and lying again and again about the teachings of Islam. I fully accept that people across the Middle East are angry at the United States, other western nations, and corrupt Middle Eastern regimes for a century of colonial oppression. Fight if you must—I get that. But the wonton slaughter of innocents invalidates the grievances you have against perceived enemies; and it demands a principled response from the global community.

I feel deep sadness that we are dropping bombs again on Iraq and anew in Syria—sadness in response to the loss of life, especially the innocents who will become our collateral damage statistics; sadness in response to the money and resources we’re dedicating to war-making that are so desperately needed in our own nation; sadness about the long-term psychological and spiritual damage American war-making does to us, let alone the damage it does abroad; and sadness at the thought that I hate war, that I take to heart Dr. King’s warning that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence.”[4] And yet when I weigh every fact I can learn about this situation—and I acknowledge I don’t know all the facts—I come to the heart-wrenching conclusion that we cannot abandon the millions of people who live in Iraq and Syria to this barbarous tyranny; that there is no solution other than to meet these atrocities not only with every available economic and diplomatic tool, but with resounding military force. I can barely imagine myself saying such a thing; but a chaotic, relentless, brutal and unfeeling spirit drives the Islamic State. I know of no word to name it other than evil. I am not suspicious of our intentions in this new-old war. I am fearful, angry, sad and resigned. The fact that so many traditional antiwar voices on the American left have not spoken out forcefully against this war leads me to speculate that there are many others who feel similarly.  

War, more than any other human endeavor, destroys relationships, creates separation, dehumanizes, murders. What I long to be assured of now is that there will be some way to atone for the violence we are perpetuating.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister and committed pacifist who joined a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler said this about his own embrace of violence to confront evil: “The ultimate question for a responsible [person] to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”[5] I don’t know enough about this quote to say for sure what Bonhoffer meant by it, but it speaks to me today about this war that feels so tragically necessary. If we must pursue it, let us do so in a way that minimizes the killing of innocents—let that be our first principle of engagement. If we must pursue it, let it not define us as a people. Let it not become who we are as a nation. Let it not obscure and decimate our vision of a more just, peaceful and fair world. Indeed may that vision—not this war—serve as the moral foundation for the coming generations; and may we who live now do everything in our power to make it so. In this way, may we begin to atone for all the wrongs that will surely come with this  new-old war.

Amen and blessed be.

hope

[1] Malka Drucker’s website is at http://www.malkadrucker.com/.

[2] Drucker, Malka, The Family Treasury of Jewish Holidays (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1994) p. 5.

[3] Jacobson, Burt, “A Prayer Before Yom Kippur,” is posted at Velveteen Rabbi, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2014/10/before-yom-kippur.html.

[4] King,Jr., Martin Luther, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968) p. 62.

[5] Carroll, James, “Who Is Jesus Today? Bonhoffer, Tillich, and the Future of Jesus Christ” Harvard Divinity School Bulletin (Summe/Autumn 2014) p. 46. See: http://bulletin.hds.harvard.edu/articles/summerautumn2014/who-jesus-today.