ON MAKING AMENDS

OCTOBER 5, 1997
R.M. FEWKES

Many of you have heard the statement, attributed to 19th century minister Starr King, about what distinguishes Unitarians from Universalists. "Universalists," he said, "believed that God was too good to damn anyone forever, while Unitarians believed they were too good to be damned." In those days William Ellery Channing used to wax eloquent about the dignity of human nature in contrast to the old Calvinist view of the total depravity of human nature. Today our Unitarian Universalist Principles begin by affirming the worth and dignity of every human person. This is a part of our heritage that we treasure and take some pride in. When we christen our children we do so not because we believe they need to be cleansed from original sin, but because we believe they are born with inherent worth and dignity and have a great potential for actualizing goodness. In terms of adult behavior and religious practice we prefer to look on the bright side, to emphasize the possibilities for positive personal and social change and progress, rather than to dwell on guilt and sin and the dark side of human nature. Consequently, we tend to be optimists more than pessimists when it comes to considering the human prospect.

This morning I would like to suggest to you that as helpful as this part of our heritage may be it has something sorely lacking when we stack it up against a more mature and realistic view of human nature. Do we really believe that human beings are too good to be damned, or at least too good to be called to moral accountability? It is clear that we don't really believe such a thing. All we have to do is pick up the newspaper or turn on the CNN evening news and we come face to face with another side of human nature which is clearly not all goodness and sweetness and light. We hear about men who abduct and murder 10 year old children, or young people who shoot their parents and gun down their classmates, or parents who let their children starve to death while they buy all the latest and best of entertainment appliances, or people who scam life savings from unsuspecting elderly people for phony investments, or politicians and priests who abuse their office for personal pleasure or gain.

If we read our history books correctly we learn that war and terror, violence and abuse, selfishness and greed have been with us for a long time, from the genocide and slavery of Native Americans and blacks, to the holocaust of Jews and Gypsies, to the war crimes in Bosnia, to drug dealing and organized crime. If we are to live in the real world and come to terms with all that human nature is capable of becoming, the good and the bad, the saintly and the demonic, then we need to acknowledge it, not only psychologically and politically, which I think we all do, but religiously and spiritually as well. Virtually every religious tradition has some rite or ritual or practice for helping their adherents come to terms with what Jung called the shadow side of human nature. Jews have the high holy days which begin with Rosh Hoshanah, the New Year, and conclude ten days hence with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a period of moral self-examination, of making amends and seeking forgiveness, of getting right again with God and with one's neighbors. Muslims have Ramadan, a time of fasting and spiritual purification. Catholics have the tradition of the Confessional and orthodox Christians have customarily used the Lenten season for similar purposes of renewal and reflection. The A.A. 12 Step Program, which clearly has a religious and spiritual base, puts a great deal of emphasis upon a personal moral inventory and the need for the alcoholic to take responsibility for his or her past behavior which may have hurt others, and where possible, to seek amends. It is a vital component on the road to recovery. I'm not suggesting to you that Unitarian Universalists reinstitute the practice of the priestly confessional, I really have no interest in hearing weekly inventories of venal and mortal sins, or prescribing ten Hail Channings to absolve you of your failure to live up to our seven principles. What I am suggesting is that religiously and spiritually we find a way to embrace the fullness of human nature, the light and the shadow, the yin and the yang, the good and the evil, of which we all partake and practice to a greater or lesser extent. And to not be afraid of that old three letter word that gives some of us the hebbie-jebbies--SIN. The origin of the word means "to miss the mark" as in shooting an arrow at a target. Once in a while we get a bulls eye, the perfect mark in the center of the target, but most of the time we all miss the mark one way or another, some times we come close, sometimes we are wide of the mark, and other times we miss the target entirely and hit other people with our arrows.

We can never be perfect, but we can be whole. And we can only be whole when we are able to admit to ourselves and others that we miss the mark time and again, but that we are in the game to enjoy it and to do the best we can. It is no sin to fail. It is a sin to believe that we never should or to blind ourselves to the fact that we do. As the old saying goes, there is a little bit of bad in the best of us, and a little bit of good in the worst of us, and we need to be able to acknowledge both as part of who we are. Jesus said, "If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your neighbor has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your neighbor, and then come and offer your gift." What he was suggesting, as it were, is before you can get right with God or your conscience, you first have to get right with your fellow human beings, beginning with those with whom you live, your loved ones, and then your friends and neighbors, and finally the stranger and the enemy. I was particularly touched by the recent news coverage of the 40th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower, you will recall, federalized the National Guard in Little Rock, Ark. and forced Gov. Faubus and the local government to integrate the high school. Elizabeth Eckford, who was a young black girl at the time, came back to Little Rock Central High to be welcomed and honored by President Clinton for her courage and forbearance. Elizabeth was also warmly welcomed by Hazel (Bryan) Massery, the young white girl who had yelled racial slurs at her when she walked up the steps of the high school, and told her to "Go home". Hazel was only 15 at the time and was caught up in the heat of the moment. She said, "I was not a fully mature person at 15. We weren't thinking about how she (Elizabeth) felt."

Some five years later Hazel was troubled in conscience by her previous behavior and she called Elizabeth on the phone and apologized. Now at age 55 the two women, who are both mothers, met for the first time since that troubled day. This time it was a friendly encounter. Elizabeth thanked Hazel for agreeing to meet her so many years after the event, and Hazel commended Elizabeth for her bravery to face the cameras again. Hazel (Bryan) Massery stated that she hoped others would know of her regret and her acknowledgment that intolerance was wrong. It took guts and courage for her to say that in front of the whole nation. Jesus would have been proud of her.

This all works very well when we are dealing with domestic and personal relations, but it tends to break down when we are dealing with the actions of institutions and governments and collective entities. How do nations or cultures, ethnic peoples or races, social or religious institutions make amends for the wrongs they have visited upon others? Can or should nations or governments apologize or make restitution for the suffering and loss caused by past actions and policies gone awry? It is not often that such things happen, but we seem to be living in a time where it is happening more frequently, which I believe is a sign of both moral progress and political maturity. Let me cite some recent examples. Last November the British government returned the famous Stone of Scone, otherwise known as the Stone of Destiny, which they had stolen by force from Scotland 700 years ago. It is now on display at Edinburg Castle. Presumably, every king of Scotland before and every king or queen of England after, had been crowned while sitting on the stone or a throne under which the stone has been kept. There is some controversy about whether it really is the Stone of Scone or a sandstone fake, but its symbolic significance is important as an emblem of self-governance and rule. It was the first step towards England granting Scotland the right to vote for local self-governance which they did very recently by an overwhelming margin in the affirmative. I think England wins the metal for the longest gap between theft and restitution, but the important thing is they did return what they had stolen. Did you know that just ten days ago the nation of New Zealand made "the largest ever offer of reparations to native Maori, covering grievances that date back 150 years." (Reuters) Most significantly it included "a public apology from the Crown for breaches of the the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and European settlers." Is there anything comparable coming from the American government towards native American tribes? Not exactly, but did you know that just four years ago the United States Senate and President Clinton made an official apology to Native Hawaiians for the overthrow of their Kingdom in 1893 and the deprivation of their rights to self-determination? It was all set forth in a Senate Joint Resolution 19, passed on November 23, 1993, on the 100th anniversary of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The resolution, however, did not include any financial settlement of claims against the United States. Apologies to Native Americans in recent years have also come from Christian church leaders and institutions in Canada and the United States for the insensitivity of missionaries to the spiritual heritage of native peoples which expressed reverence for the earth and the Great Spirit that made us all. They were so intent on converting the Indians to their views that they failed to realize they had something to learn in return. This apology business is positively catching. I was stunned to learn that Michael Dolan, acting commissioner of the IRS made a public apology before the Senate Finance Committee for the discourteous and oppressive way that many of their agents handled taxpayers cases. Imagine that. An apology from the IRS! But as columnist Jeff Jacoby notes, the apology in effect changes nothing. "No unjustified lien has been lifted. No threat has been rescinded. No one has been fired for wrecking an innocent taxpayers life." An apology without amends is half a loaf or less. Some months ago you may recall that President Clinton in an official ceremony apologized to black servicemen who were used in experiments 40 to 50 years ago to test radioactive substances in their bodies without their full knowledge and consent. Some people are now suggesting that the President should consider an apology to black Americans for the nation's past history of slavery. Others suggest that cash reparations be considered much like the $1.5 billion the U.S. government paid out to Japanese-Americans held in detention camps during W.W. II. It has been noted that since we have a Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., commemorating the suffering and genocide of the Jewish people in the Second World War, shouldn't we also have a museum in our nation's capitol that commemorates the oppression of slavery and lynching suffered by black Americans over many generations, or the desecration of Native American lands and the violation of treaties made by past American governments, or the forced marches of native populations in the Trail of Tears and the genocide of native men, women and children at Wounded Knee. These, of course, are events that happened in our nation's past, done or condoned by previously elected governments. How do we atone, make amends, or give restitution for the sins of the past, both personal and institutional? I can understand the ire of white Americans who do not want to pay for the sins of past generations. But the truth of the matter is we are still living off the advantages--political, social, and economic--that those past generations bequeathed to us--knowing full well that they did not receive those advantages in a fully just, fair and equitable manner.

I must say that I have great admiration for the citizens of South Africa who are making yeoman efforts to own and acknowledge their recent racist past based on apartheid. They have appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a black, and Alex Borraine, a white Methodist church leader. The Commission goes from town to town inviting both victims and perpetrators of past policies to come forward and tell their stories. The victims are honored and blessed. The perpetrators are given opportunity to ask for amnesty and forgiveness. Scores of hearings have been held in city halls and rural community centers. Many of them have been broadcast. It is having a remarkable effect. Whites and blacks are beginning to come together in a way that no one would have thought possible. Many of them are earnestly trying to make amends, to own their shadowed past, to tell the truth, to share their suffering, to make apology, to forgive and be forgiven. No society that I know of has undertaken an effort at truth and reconciliation in such a forthright and deliberate manner. They are to be commended. I realize, of course, that there are no easy answers to institutional and historical misdeeds perpetrated by past generations or previous governments. You and I did not personally steal land from native Americans or impress black Africans into slavery. Neither Presidential apologies, nor reparations, nor even affirmative action can change what has happened though they can make a difference to future generations. Whatever you may think about such actions one thing is undeniable, their history of suffering and oppression is also part of our history since today we live together on the same native land and their children and our children have all been born here though we are still a nation of immigrants. We have to find our own way to truth and reconciliation, and to make Yom Kippur, a Day of Atonement, part of our national way of life as well as our personal spiritual practice. We all need to find ways to make amends and be reconciled to one another. Only then can we become as Isaiah once envisioned: "You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in....Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily."