“Be the Bridge: Removing Roadblocks to Reconciliation”
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, October 4, 2020
Rev. Paul Ellis Jackson
21 Even if you draw your sword against a friend,
do not despair, for there is a way back.
22 If you open your mouth against your friend,
do not worry, for reconciliation is possible.
But as for reviling, arrogance, disclosure of secrets, or a treacherous blow—
in these cases any friend will take to flight.
23 Gain the trust of your neighbor in his poverty,
so that you may rejoice with him in his prosperity.
Stand by him in time of distress,
so that you may share with him in his inheritance.[a]
–Sirach 22:21-23 (Sirach is found in the biblical Apocrypha)
In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people. – Nelson Mandela
“”Be the Bridge: Removing Roadblocks to Reconciliation”
On the evening of June 17, 2015, news of a shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, started appearing in our news feeds. The tragic event is now known as “The Charleston Church Shooting,”– a mass murder in which nine people were killed. As the story unfolded, we found out that a 21-year-old man walked into a church and harmlessly joined a bible study. The regular attendees welcomed him. . . . and yet the man killed them.
Just two short days later, several family members of those who died in the Charleston Church Shooting attended the shooter’s bond hearing. Some gave victim impact statements and spoke directly to the man who shot their loved ones. As reported in the Washington Post on June 19, 2015, “One by one, those who chose to speak at the bond hearing did not turn to anger. Instead, while he remained impassive, they offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for his soul, even as they described the pain of their losses. Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, said at the hearing, her voice breaking with emotion. “I forgive you–You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
How many times have we talked about an incident like this from this pulpit that resonates with the same theme? Terrifying death and then unlikely forgiveness. The story of Charleston Church’s response to terror stays with us because it resonates within our Christian hearts. It was so unusual, a counter-intuitive, counter-cultural response to a situation in which the culture often responds by demanding revenge or angry calls for severe punishment or retribution. Many of us take the opportunity to call for legislative action. But these families weren’t on the offense. Instead, they freely shared their pain but also offered forgiveness. Stories such as this are rare. But we need to listen to them and hear the reconciliation that is taking place.
Last week Robin asked us to consider this: “…[we] need to listen to one another’s stories when we encounter pain. [We] need to acknowledge and lament with others when we encounter pain.” And then I encountered this timely quote last Monday: “You can have empathy through a one-way mirror, but you can’t have compassion.” Empathy is feeling the emotional pain of another person. Compassion requires taking action on those feelings. Today’s work is about how we prepare ourselves to do this—it’s one step on the road to wholeness. And it’s about the roadblocks we encounter on that road: Those pieces of a conflict that we can’t get around—those things that stop us from moving forward. You can’t reach your destination if you can’t get past a roadblock. And here, our destination is the wholeness of a human relationship—a reconciliation.
In the book Robin and I are using for this sermon series, “Be the Bridge,” the author, Latasha Morrison, writes this: When we honestly acknowledge and lament the truth of our sins (especially our racial sins), we will come face to face with the shame and guilt of our collective past. Dealing with that guilt and shame, really owning it, can be a tear-filled, painful process. But if we’re going to find freedom, if we’re going to build bridges to freedom for others, it’s a necessary part of the work. We can’t bypass the weight of our guilt and shame if we intend to arrive at true reconciliation and justice. And in America, we have plenty of collective guilt and shame to acknowledge.”
For me, an essential question in our age is this: Are we a group of individuals? Or individuals in a group? On its surface, this question may seem facile, but I believe how you approach the answer determines a number of things about how you live in community with other humans.
Let’s build a continuum here with individuality, the lone human on one end—never needs anything, completely self-sufficient (which none of us are, but for the sake of our model this morning, let’s just say that such a person could exist). And on the other end of our continuum is the ultimate collective—the hive mind as envisioned by science fiction writers and the occasional Marxist. We all fit somewhere on this continuum, and we move around on it (probably daily), depending on the situation we find ourselves in. When I’m out on my bike, I take great pride in riding alone, not having too set a plan, in pointing my bike towards an exciting landmark or vista I want to check out. I’m a lone rider, and I love it. However, I’m biking on streets and sidewalks that we have collectively built and are maintained by our collective taxes. I didn’t pour the cement or wire the stoplight, but I take advantage of these benefits of living in a modern society. And on the other end, when I sing with the choir, I love to lose myself in the collective—to allow my voice to blend (hopefully) with the other tenors as all of the musicians work to create a beautiful and meaningful moment for ALL of us.
OK, so when we live in community, we sometimes must take responsibility for another individual’s actions. For instance, many of you are members of this church—well, should another member go out in public and do something or say something that reflected poorly upon this congregation (I’m not suggesting anyone do this) but, say, someone misspoke on TV about something this church stands for and the community was up in arms. We would, as a church, need to respond to this. Our community—this church– would need to push back against the harm done to us. The same is true for your family, or any group or organization you belong to and identify with. If harm is caused, healing must be pursued.
So, follow me here; if we’re all citizens of the United States of America, then we do actually have responsibilities to push back when things are said or done in the name of our country that reflects poorly upon us. This is one of our civic duties. And yet, too often, we stand aside and let words and actions that we would never tolerate in our living rooms flood the airwaves and pollute our public discourse. We are at a crucial moment in our history where we as a country are in critical need of reconciliation.
Black Lives Matter is an excellent example of this. We need the lament and reconciliation being offered to people of other races that reside within Black Lives Matter. Let me say that again: We—all of us—are being given an opportunity for lament and reconciliation with Black Lives Matters—but we let our guilt and our shame get in the way. That’s a roadblock to wholeness—it stops us dead in our tracks because we can’t even get past the name of the movement. We often can’t even hear the cry for lamentation because we’re too busy wallowing in our guilt and shame. We’re too angry at being reminded that this country, though it claims justice for all, denies justice for many.
Our nation is proud of its “rugged individualism” heritage, and I know I often talk about this concept. I don’t mean to disparage this critical attribute of the North American psyche. Still, I hope to point out the inherent conflict in our desire to be rugged individuals and live in community. These ideas seem paradoxical, no? I suppose the next question becomes this: Does the community exist to help me be a better individual? Does it supply basic needs and resources? Does it allow a market where I can exchange goods and ideas? Or do I exist to help the community? To be a good citizen? To help my neighbor? To create a better world?
Isn’t it a combination of the two? And isn’t the balance between them always challenging to maintain. Many tensions in our modern world are from this desire to be BOTH an individual and a community member—whatever that community and its identity might be: From our largest identity as citizens of a country all the way down to our families and smaller, more intimate individual relationship—you and me.
In her book “Be the Bridge,” Latasha Morrison writes that “our Western society is highly individualized and our measure of morality is based on individual guilt or innocence. We’ve all heard the justification: Why should I repent of racism? I never owned slaves. But in our Holy Bible, Guilt and shame aren’t described in such a narrow individualistic sense. In the Bible, guilt and shame are often communal and point to the need for corporate repentance.” The Hebrew Bible is full of stories where the community bears the brunt of the guilt and shame. Today, we tend to think this is more to be borne by the individual rather than the community, but the crux remains—why should I bear any responsibility or guilt for what another member of my community does? Or my church does? Or my family does? Or, going the other way, my city or my state or even my nation. I’m not asking us to feel guilty for just being who we are, but I am asking that we seriously consider what it means when one of our countrymen demeans an entire group of people, and when we push back against it, we are called unpatriotic. Everything is topsy-turvy today—by design—to keep us off balance and at each other’s throats.
I believe we might look to the South African people’s experience, as they struggled to come to terms with the cruelties of apartheid when they created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with apartheid. The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses.No section of society escaped these abuses. The Commission’s emphasis on reconciliation was in sharp contrast to the Nuremberg Trials’ approach and other de-Nazification measures. The reconciliatory process was seen as a successful way of dealing with human rights violations after political change.
Consequently, other countries have instituted similar commissions, though not always with the same scope or the allowance for charging those currently in power. South Africa’s lament and reconciliation used to address apartheid is a powerful reminder of what humans committed to reconciliation can do. It created a space for the lamentation of abuse and racial discrimination to be addressed; for victims to be heard and empathized with, AND it created a way for the perpetrators of the violence and hatred to return into community.
There are varying opinions about whether the restorative justice method (as employed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) is more or less effective than the retributive justice method (which was used during the Nuremberg Trials). As Nelson Mandela reminds us: “In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.” And as we, as people of faith well know, spiritual processes are often hard to measure.
Our traditional word says: 21 Even if you draw your sword against a friend, do not despair, for there is a way back. 22 If you open your mouth against your friend, do not worry, for reconciliation is possible. But as for reviling, arrogance, disclosure of secrets, or a treacherous blow—in these cases, any friend will take to flight. 23 Gain the trust of your neighbor in his poverty, so that you may rejoice with him in his prosperity. Stand by him in time of distress, so that you may share with him in his inheritance.[a]–Sirach 22:21-23 (Sirach is found in the biblical Apocrypha—non-canonical, or not part of the “official” Bible, but still useful, I believe, nonetheless.
“If you open your mouth against your friend…” Why do certain things trigger me? Why do certain things cause a roadblock in my heart so that I stop listening? I always wonder about this. Why does a specific behavior from another human make my eyebrow rise or my core clench up? I’ve been told that we only have a problem with those things we have a problem with. I believe this means that we need to look deeply and carefully at the behaviors of others that cause a reflexive dislike. I’ve also been told that we dislike in others those things we dislike in ourselves, so sometimes our reaction to someone else’s “faux pas” is actually a bit of self-hatred.
In my own life, I often balk at the idea of reconciliation. If someone offends me in our transactional world, I then feel that I have a right to offend them back. Tit-for-tat. Very transactional. But if I genuinely want wholeness, then I must let it go. I must let go of my desire for lashing back, for getting even, for making you feel as bad as you made me feel. In our society, we are trained from birth that we are to be transactional. It’s expected. Empire demands it, for Empire can’t exist without transactional justice. Retributive justice. Revenge. And Jesus taught that we don’t have to do this, that we forgive each other our wrongs, our debts, our cruel words, and easy betrayals. This “spiritual” work is difficult and can wear one down.
I have found that a “sweet hour of prayer” can heal my spirit. It’s not always an entire hour, but it’s a time when I acknowledge the sacred in my life and think deeply about my connection to God and to others—you who ARE the image of God…..I take refuge in a few moments of quiet to restore my soul and contemplate my relationship with God and with you. Daily I ask myself, are their relationships that I need to reconcile? And if the answer is yes, and if I’m in a position to work on the relationship, then I try to do just that….I try to reconcile the broken connection with another human. And I do that by removing the roadblocks. By really hearing your stories. By feeling the other person’s pain.
We can only move forward toward healing, whether racial, political, personal, civic, or even economic, by examining our own histories with each other: Our systemic advantages and disadvantages, and our own participation in or rejection of racism, political repression, or economic disparities. We have to honestly face our own complicity in the systems of repression before we can attempt reconciliation. We have to identify the roadblocks before we can remove them. And then we can move down the road towards our goal: Reconciliation. Wholeness. A repaired people in healed communities.
What relationships do you need to reconcile today? What wrong do you need to forgive? What betrayal of a promise, however slight, do you need to examine and make amends for? And….what slight has been done to you that you are holding in your heart—waiting to “get back” at that person because they owe you? Spend a sweet hour in prayer and see if you can unlock this burden from your heart. That’s how we remove the roadblocks to reconciliation. One act of forgiveness at a time. One act of grace. One act of love.
I believe that this community, this church, can address its own complicity in the creation and maintenance of roadblocks to reconciliation. And I believe we can do so in the spirit of love and in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, isn’t that what we, as a church, exist to do? Isn’t that what Jesus came to teach us to do?
I hope this coming week brings you opportunities to examine the roadblocks to wholeness in your relationships. And I hope you can start the work of dismantling those roadblocks and making your relationships whole again. Bless you, as you do this sacred work: The work of Jesus.
Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison, (Waterbrook, 2019)