War, Fear, and Forgiveness

“War, Fear, and Forgiveness”
9-19-04
Rev. Douglas Taylor

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year.  This year Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Friday September 24th.  It comes as the tenth day of the Days of Awe, the first day of which is Rosh Hashanah, the new year.  The Jewish new year is similar to the secular January 1st new year in that we spend time reviewing the past year’s faults and problems, make promises to be better, and then have a big party.  One difference is that the Jewish new year puts the party first, on Rosh Hashanah. Then the real work comes on the tenth day afterward.  Yom Kippur, is THE big day on the Jewish calendar.  Christians talk about church members who are “C & E Christians” meaning they only come on Christmas and Easter.  Judaism has the same phenomenon with “YK Jews,” members who only come on Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and self-reflection and the seeking and offering of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is the predominant theme throughout the prayers and readings during the services on this day.  I had a UU colleague who used to say every UU church should do a sermon about Yom Kippur every year because forgiveness is such a deeply religious topic with which most people typically have very little familiarity.  Forgiveness really involves three steps: confession, atonement, and repentance.

First you must admit to the errors you have made.  There is a cliché that “confession is good for the soul,” and generally this is very true.  It is good to articulate your faults and failings from time to time, self-reflection toward the end of self-improvement.  This is a very powerful step in and of itself.  And perhaps it is this point that is so difficult for most people.  How easy it is to see and lament the faults of others, yet to look and see clearly your own faults is an arduous task indeed.  Jesus said (Matt 7:3-5 &Luke 6:41-42) it is so easy to see the speck in your neighbor’s eye and yet completely miss the log in your own!  So, make a list of all you own specks and logs.  Make a list of situations you wish you had handled better, people you wish you had treated better, bad habits you wish you had corrected by now.

The next part of forgiveness is Atonement: You need to follow through on your list.  Call up those people you have injured or hurt and say, “I am sorry.”  Call up people who have hurt you and say, “I forgive you.”  Now is the time of turning.  Now is the time of reconciliation.  The word “Atonement” does not have a fancy Greek or Latin origin.  It is simply the mushing together of the phrase in English “At One.” To atone is to be at one again with God, the universe, your neighbor, or yourself.  Atonement is about being in right relationship with the world.  To do that we may sometimes need to do more than just say “sorry.”  Sometimes we need to make amends.  Often during the Yom Kippur season people will perform service to atone with God and the world; service such as donating money to charity, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked.

Finally, the third step to forgiveness is Repentance.  We confess our faults and failings, we atone for them with apologies and amends.  And then we repent.  We promise ourselves we will return to the path of goodness.  We promise ourselves to not repeat the wrongs that were on our list this year.  We promise to return to our best selves.

This work of repentance and atonement leading toward forgiveness is not meant only to repair our personal relationships but also to renew and rebuild the world.  Judaism teaches that our personal actions contribute either to the good that upholds the world with peace and justice or to that which destroys us.  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”  Lucinda Duncan, a UU colleague, recently wrote that, “The tradition invites self-reflection [and] offers a release from self-centeredness that allows people to turn toward a fresh consciousness of universal redemption.”  Yom Kippur is not only a time for repairing our personal relationships but also a time to renew and rebuild the world through our acts of forgiveness and atonement.  And let me tell you, the world could certainly use some help.

My children are learning geography this year with a curriculum called “Mapping the World by Heart” which is very interactive and creative.  For example, yesterday they drew map lines on a grapefruit before peeling it and trying to lay the skin flat so as to experience the problems inherent in two-dimensional world maps.  Earlier this month the whole family sat down to do the very first lesson of the curriculum, which was to draw a map of the world from memory.  Artistic ability aside, I drew a pretty comprehensive map.  But I noticed that most of what I know about geography comes from the news and from history lessons about wars.  Afghanistan, for example, would not have even made it on my map three years ago, now I have a pretty good idea of where it fits, thanks in no small part to the news coverage of that war.

While searching through the internet this week, I discovered a website with several “Top-Ten” style lists on the topic of wars around the world today: “The top ten most violent wars today,” “The top ten civil wars today” “The top ten wars you should worry about today.”  It felt like all the world was at war in one way or another.  The litany of locations was a little overwhelming to me: Kashmir, Israel, Afghanistan, Sudan, Chechnya, Haiti, Congo, Albania, and Iraq.  Iraq usually appeared low on these top ten lists if at all.  But from what I hear on the radio and read in the paper lately, there seem to be only two wars that matter: the war in Iraq, the war in Vietnam.

Why is the war in Vietnam featured so prominently in our election banter?  Certainly there are a few similarities between it and our current Iraq conflict such as the division of public opinion, the demonizing of opposing opinions, the public awareness of military and civilian casualties, and the erosion of civil liberties in the name of security (although the bulk of the blame for that last one really lies with the War on Terror and the Patriot Act rather than the war in Iraq.).  I remember a political cartoon that hit the Washington Post about three weeks into the Iraqi war that showed a weary looking man behind the wheel with the kids in the backseat shouting, “Is it Vietnam yet? Is it Vietnam yet?”  Vietnam was Vietnam and Iraq is Iraq.  Yes there are obvious similarities, but there are also obvious differences

I don’t want to digress to far into Vietnam but one interesting possibility as to why it has become a hot issue in the elections, could be that we have not done the hard work of forgiveness over this issue.  Remembering that there are three steps to forgiveness, I don’t see that much of a problem today with step one, admission and confession of the errors.  There has been lots of information out there about what happened and what went wrong back then and what it was like.  A generation has come and gone since Vietnam and the general attitude toward that war seems to be fairly negative.  Our communal consciousness leans toward remembering the errors and failures of that war.  How about step two, atonement?  Have there been apologies and amends made?  What about step three?  Have we put any work into repentance, into stopping that situation from ever happening again?

To demonstrate a striking contrast, some of you may recall that as we reached the end of the Second World War, president Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “More than an end to war, we want an end to the beginning of all wars – yes, an end to this brutal, inhuman and thoroughly impractical method of settling the differences between governments.” He was saying, we must promise to not repeat the wrongs of our recent past; we must promise to return to our best selves again.  He was saying we must repent.

War is an atrocity that a government should inflict upon the world only as a last resort if ever.  The cost is far greater than simply the number of people killed and the gain is far less tangible or lasting than freedom and liberty.  My biggest fear, however, is the irresponsible way in which we now wage war.  I call it irresponsible because as we stand knee-deep in the quagmire that Iraq has become I look back and find the reasons for entering this war were fear and suspicion rather than real imminent danger.  I call it irresponsible because there seems to have been little preparation for the entrenched fight against insurgent forces we are now seeing, as if it were an unforeseen possibility.  I call it irresponsible because there has been no recognition of even the first step of forgiveness, which is confession where in we admit to the errors we have made.  By “we” I mean “We The People …” not we in In this room today.  I bet we in this room today could confess the errors of this war with ease.  But We The People continue to be speechless on that count. How can we repent and change our ways when We The People will not even admit there is anything wrong.  And of course something went wrong; if nothing were wrong we would not be at war.  War only happens when something has gone wrong.

In the reading this morning there was a line that read, “When we invite the power of forgiveness, we release ourselves from the destructive hold the past has on us.  Our hatred, our anger, our need to feel wronged – those will destroy us.”  If we cannot actively work to rebuild our relationship with those we have injured, we will be destroying ourselves, our hatred and our anger will destroy us.  The risk of continuing along our current path in this war includes the possibility of our destruction, not by those we call our enemies, but by our own eating away ourselves.  It is high time for the United States to remove itself from this situation and allow a truly international peace-keeping body go in and help Iraq rebuild.

I read in the paper recently that U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has described the war in Iraq as illegal by the U.N.’s charter standards.  I say the war in Iraq is immoral and unjust by the standards of religious conscience.

Unitarian Universalism is well positioned to cry out at the injustice of this war.  If we were in Old Testament times we could all be prophets, tearing our clothes, sitting in ashes, and lamenting loudly to repent for the sins of the people.  Today we will have to settle for writing letters to our elected officials and the local newspapers and marching in peace demonstrations.  Of course before all of that we will need to talk through this a lot.  To help with that discussion, however, allow me to point you toward our principles and purposes.

If you survey our Unitarian Universalist principles you will find it hard to see anything in there that could support this war.  There are a few mentions of justice that could be used, but in the principles they are balanced with peace, equity and compassion.  I saw little peace, equity, or compassion leading us into this war and see less as a result.  For that matter, I don’t see much justice either.  What I see a lot of is fear.  Last time I looked, fear was not in out list of guiding principles.

Fear is another errant visitor traipsing though our election landscape.  Fear is one of those characteristics that accompanies war so well and yet stands in such stark opposition to forgiveness and reconciliation.  Fear will freeze us hopelessly in our anger and complacency.  Forgiveness will free us to move forward to heal the world.  “Physical strength can never permanently withstand the impact of spiritual force,” another quote from FDR.  Physical strength can never permanently withstand the impact of spiritual force.  Or as Martin Luther King said, “No lie can live forever.”  And “the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.”  There is no room for fear in that.

And of course you will remember the ever-powerful FDR quote, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  Despite what the current climate would have us believe, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  We must move forward by setting aside fear and opening ourselves up to the possibilities of forgiveness.  We are now in the Days of Awe.  Rosh Hashanah has past; the party is over.  The work of Yom Kippur approaches.  The time to seek and offer forgiveness as individuals and as a nation is upon us.  For us to move forward we must confess to the errors and failings that brought us to this situation, we must atone for those failings, and then we can repent.  Then we can promise to not repeat the wrongs of our past.  Then we can promise to return to our best selves as individuals and as a nation.  Until then we are called to speak out against the injustice of this war.  Until then we are called to meet the rampant fear around us and within us with spiritual force.  Until then we are called to do what we can to repair and rebuild the world through our acts of peace and forgiveness.

In a world without end,

May it be so.