This service started not as a gathering for worship on a warm summer Sunday, but at a kitchen table in a dark and quiet house at the end of a long winter day. The children are finally asleep. The dinner dishes have been washed. The lamplight throws warmth in small circles. And the grown-ups sit at the humble kitchen table with a cup of tea -- or a glass of whiskey, if that’s a good choice for you -- and we talk about what matters.
And someone tells a story that becomes a kind of guide for your life.
This is how it was for me one night this past winter at a friend’s home. It’s the way-station where I sleep to ease my commute to Boston College where I am a student in the graduate social work program.
We must have been feeling weary. We were probably, each of us, annoyed with someone. Feeling resentment. Thinking about fairness.
My friend who told the story was probably annoyed with her neighbors. She lives in a close and interdependent community that requires people to consider one another’s perspective. All. The. Time! One way or another, this living in community is always asking people to be less selfish.
It can get pretty annoying.
I’m sure that I was feeling resentful. In the past several years, I have been coming to terms with some grievous wrongs that were done to me. Things that were not my fault, which cast a long shadow across my life. And it’s hard not to feel resentful that the authors of these harms seem entirely unbothered by them, and I’m the one who has had to work terribly hard to move past them.
I’m sure that we were talking about fairness. Even though the five-year-old was already sleeping.
I have a sneaking suspicion that there might have been whining. There must have been, in order for my Buddhist friend to come up with this story.
Here’s the story:
A student went to speak to her teacher. She was feeling annoyed. She was feeling resentful. She was thinking about fairness.
She might have been whining.
Her teacher -- like all the great spiritual teachers -- began talking about love. The teacher talked about compassion. About how the student could grow her compassion. How the student could be an instrument of peace.
And the student interrupted the teaching. She was annoyed. She was resentful. She was thinking about fairness.
She asked, “But Rinpoche, why do I have to be the compassionate one?”
Her teacher answered, “Because you can.”
I’ve thought a lot about this teaching: “Because you can.”
I don’t think we are required to sacrifice ourselves unconditionally to others’ needs. In community, in relationship -- I think there is a time and place for accountability, for reparations, for assertiveness, for taking care of one’s own self.
I think the key is in the student’s question. She didn’t ask “How can I be compassionate?” she asked, “Why do I have to?”
The first might indicate, “I’m not able” or “I’m not ready” to approach this situation, in a loving and compassionate way. And I think in that case, one has no choice but to approach one’s own self in a loving and compassionate way. To refrain from extending oneself, to seek peace in one’s own heart first.
What I like about the St. Francis prayer I read earlier is that it is aspirational. The person praying isn’t saying, “Hey, God, I got this.” They’re asking: “Make me an instrument of thy peace. Grant that I may be less selfish. Let me sow love.”
It is not always within our ability to extend ourselves in compassion.
But the second question -- the student’s question -- my own question, so often -- “Rinpoche, why do I have to be the compassionate one?” -- is about fairness. It’s about feeling that I shouldn’t have to work so hard, to be patient or kind or accepting or compassionate, when others seem not to try at all.
This reminds me of something I learned here at the Unitarian Society, about the difference between a contract and a covenant.
A contract is a quid-pro-quo, it’s a mutual agreement that requires equivalent action by both parties.
But a covenant is a pledge that is not dependent on the conduct of others. When we “covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people,” we don’t add a coda: “so long as they affirm and promote our worth and dignity.”
Being our best selves is not conditional on the behavior of other people. I am not called to be the compassionate one only under conditions when others are also being compassionate. I’m not exempted when others fall short.
If I am able, I am called to be compassionate because I can.
In trying to do what I can, because I can, I take inspiration from a lot of people. One person is my friend and colleague Sarah.
Sarah is a woman of color, and a woman of Christian faith, and a mom. She’s a graduate of Howard University and an instructor of writing and African-American culture at a number of D.C.-area colleges. And she shares on Facebook some of the profoundly and abhorrently racist things her white undergraduates have said to her, in person and in their academic writing.
These things are absolutely breath-taking, in their callousness and their wrongness.
As a professor of composition, Sarah’s job is to push her students to unpack their unexamined biases, to teach them to build arguments based on evidence, not assumptions. She walks with these students, and she helps them take their next step. They learn. And, sometimes, they unlearn racism. It’s an amazing thing to behold.
Witnessing the incredible composure and generosity with which Sarah handled a number of these assaults last semester, I and her other Facebook friends had to wonder -- how do you do it?
Sarah told us, “I try to stay prayed up, and I ask myself, ‘How can I move this mess along?’”
And also, she said, “I remember that everyone is somebody’s child.”
You know what? The friend who told me the story last winter says that a lot too. So now, I say it a lot too. Everyone is somebody’s child.
Thinking about unilateral compassion made me think about forgiveness.
I proposed this sermon before we were having a national conversation about forgiveness. In June, nine African American congregants of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal were killed by a young white man espousing white supremacy. And very shortly after the loss of their loved ones, some relatives of the deceased spoke publicly to offer the gunman forgiveness.
And very shortly after that, it seemed like everyone had a strong opinion about topic of forgiveness.
When I proposed this sermon topic I wanted to share my own reflections about the intersection of compassion and forgiveness, how they move in my own life. That’s all I really have to offer.
But I wanted to acknowledge that maybe you were troubled by the debate on forgiveness following the shootings at Emanuel AME. Maybe that’s the first thing that came into your mind when you saw this sermon topic.
Or maybe you have carried your own questions about forgiveness for far longer.
When I heard people talking about whether the gunman should be forgiven I heard hidden in their words a fundamental question that I have asked myself: What is forgiveness? What does the word even mean?
The truth is, there many different meanings for that word. And if we disagree about whether or not to forgive, we might be talking about entirely different things.
One definition of forgiveness means essentially absolving a person of their wrongdoing. The sin is erased, the mark against them drawn by their own hand, redacted.
This definition of forgiveness, for many of us, is not something we feel we can extend. I literally feel a stoniness in my chest when I think of letting someone off the hook, unilaterally, for harm they have caused.
And it’s not just my heart that balks, my intellect also says that there must be reparation, there must be repentance, apology, remorse.
In some traditions, and in some models of restorative justice, these are precisely the things that precede forgiveness.
And for good reason. I’ve had the privilege to study the intersection of interpersonal violence and spiritual community and encountered the idea of “premature forgiveness”: forgiveness that is imposed too soon, before a full accounting and reparations have been made.
It’s not hard to imagine why an imposed mandate to forgive, irrespective of the injured party’s own healing, might be damaging to survivors. And this is, in fact, what the evidence shows. In Christian religious settings, women who have experienced domestic violence who are encouraged to forgive prematurely, without consideration of their justifiable rage and resentment, experience bad effects. This negation of their suffering can cause them to feel cut off from their congregational community, from their faith, at a time when they most need these supports.
But what is perhaps more surprising, is something reported by Marie Fortune, a pioneering researcher who has been working in the area of religious communities and interpersonal violence since 1977. Speaking to a gathering of the Presbyterian Church in 1999, Fortune said that premature forgiveness not only harms survivors, but also harms people who have perpetrated violence.
She told of working with 25 Christian men who were mandated to therapy for offenses against children. These men told her, “Whenever you get a chance to talk to clergy and church people, tell them for us, not to forgive us so quickly.”
This is how Marie Fortune explained it,
Everyone of the 25 men, when he was arrested...had gone to his pastor and the pastor had prayed over him and sent him home ‘forgiven.’ Each one of these men said it was the worst thing anyone could have done to them at that point, because nobody was confronting them and holding them accountable….Their churches in fact abandoned them, and were not present to them in ways...that could enable them to really do the work they needed to do.
So there’s something about accountability and reparations that is important -- to those who are harmed, and to those who do harm -- that makes this first definition of forgiveness -- having to do with absolution -- more tenable. It makes it more aligned with justice.
And in the case of the virulent racism that grips our country, I think this is a place where those of us with privilege are obliged to step up, to call for structures of accountability and reparations aligned with justice that must precede this kind of forgiveness.
But there is another definition of forgiveness that is not about absolving wrongdoing. Instead, it’s about freeing the wronged from the burden of resentment.
This is the definition of forgiveness to which I have turned in my own life. For me, it is a balm to the sense of profound unfairness that surfaces when I realize how hard I have had to work to ameliorate things that were not my fault.
And it is my goal in this work of amelioration: Not to absolve the other person for bad acts for which there have been no reparations. But to be done with it. To put it behind me.
For this definition I turn to the words of the Christian writer Anne Lamott. She says,
“Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.”
“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person.”
This is the forgiveness I attempt in my own life: if I can, when I can, because I can.
There’s one other distinction about forgiveness and that is whether we are talking about forgiving an act, or forgiving a person.
I think there are some acts that will never be OK. There are things in this life that should not have happened and there is nothing that could make them right.
And yet I find myself believing that -- although there are unforgivable acts-- there are no unforgivable people. And this is because I am unwilling to put any person outside the bounds of humanity.
This is because our covenant to respect and affirm the dignity and worth of all people has no coda. It is one of the greatest spiritual challenges of Unitarian Universalism, this call to resist othering any person.
To remember that everyone is somebody’s child.
Or as Nadia Bolz-Weber, speaking from the Christian tradition, put it, “The lives that we would extinguish are still precious to their maker.”
And also, I think that this tendency to set the authors of grievous harm apart as unforgivable is another way that we practice premature forgiveness -- in this case, of ourselves. When we call the perpetrator other, we absolve ourselves from having to examine the darkest corners of our own nature -- or the collective forces of a culture that colludes to support the conditions of grievous harm through fundamental structures of injustice, like racism.
And isn’t that othering what lies at the root of the ways we humans harm each other in the first place?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking about the South African Truth and Reconciliation process, said,
...we are all extraordinary beings! All of us have the capacity for the greatest possible evil. All of us! None of us can predict that under certain circumstances we would not be guilty of the most horrendous atrocities and cruelty. That is why, when they said in the newspaper that someone was a monster, I kept saying, “No. That person carried out monstrous acts.”
Sometimes, when we witness the hurt and atrocities people deliver upon one another, we feel overwhelmed. We run around like chickens. We ask, “What can I do? What can I do?”
And then, because humans are so ridiculous, sometimes when we are faced with what we are able to do we ask instead, “Why do I have to?”
Because you can.