Wrestling with the Angel of Forgiveness

This sermon was first preached at First UU in Brooklyn, on October 3rd, 2010. It was later read again in the Outer Banks by a local Youth Group for their youths service on bullying in 2011.

“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.” That refrain has been returning to me throughout the last few weeks. I’ve heard stories of eighth-grader Asher Brown, who shot himself in the head after enduring anti-gay bullying at school. Or of 13-year-old Seth Walsh, who died after 10 days of being on life-support following a hanging attempt that was his response to years of bullying. Or Billy Lucas, age 15, who hanged himself in September, on the same day he was suspended for cursing back at girls who were harassing him, which was — according to friends and family — a regular occurrence. Or just a few days ago, Tyler Clementi, jumped off the George Washington Bridge. According to the New York Times, he is thought to have committed suicide, days after he was secretly filmed having sex with another man, and it was broadcast on the Internet; allegedly by his Rutgers roommate and another friend of the roommate’s. That’s four teen suicides in the month of September, that we know about, after being harassed or bullied for being gay or being perceived as gay.
We have dreams for our kids. We imagine schools where they learn about the world; where they learn to live with folks who are different than they; where they learn to find and be themselves. We send them off so that they can figure out a little bit more how to make it on their own – whether they’re 13 or 19. And sometimes, we learn like these families did, that not all of us have internalized the lessons of compassion and morality we might hope for. Sometimes, the results are catastrophic. Sometimes, our hearts break.
I can relate to these four teens. I was the target of violence, largely due to my sexuality, from the age of 8 to about 13. Fists, pipes, wood, metal – groups of young teens working in concert at a time, weekly or monthly, for years. … We want to imagine that when these sorts of things happen to our kids, it’ll be obvious. We want to imagine that we’ll know. We’ll be able to affect it – reactively. We want to imagine that our children will come to us; that they’ll tell us.
But all too often it’s not clear. Injuries are below the neck so they can be hid – I remember protecting my face so that it wouldn’t show. Kids don’t speak up. Teachers and principles want the problem to just go away. Parents protect their little-bullies. Politicians claim it’s not that frequent, or not their problem, or that boys will be boys (forget about girls just being girls, because we almost never talk about that.) I was angry with my victimizers, but I blamed myself. Shame trumped safety. I couldn’t forgive myself for letting it happen, or face my differences long enough to seek help. For Asher, Seth, Billy and Tyler, I can see how shame trumped safety. I can see why shame won out. We’re typically raised for that response. It’s part of the broader system that lets this continue to happen.
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
At some point in my early college years, I realized that the violence wasn’t my fault. I think I made the connection listening to a talk on domestic violence – which was not my situation – but the connection finally clicked. I learned how to shift the blame rightfully off myself and onto the perpetrators. A lot more anger bubbled up. I remember the anger often being crippling. My new burden was learning to forgive, although definitely not to forget. Lance Morrow, a long time writer for Time Magazine, once wrote, “Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another’s control…to be locked into a sequence of act and response, of outrage and revenge, tit for tat, escalating always. Forgiveness, on the other hand, frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else’s nightmare.” This was true for me, although it would take me years to learn it. Forgiveness extracted me from someone else’s nightmare. Murrow’s words really hit home. Some of those boys who tormented and beat me would later be men who I would occasionally run into at various gay settings. As a child and as a teen, they vividly enmeshed me in their personal nightmares, and as an adult I had to do the long work of releasing myself from their hold. I never said what those other kids did to me was OK. I’ve never said they weren’t responsible for their actions. And I am very aware that they’ve never done the hard work of coming to me and facing honestly the effects of their actions. But I’ve learned to let it go, to forgive.
I wish we had a word in the English language that meant, “What you did was horrible. What you did to me was not and will never be OK. But I have to let it go. I have to move on. I release your hold over me.” Until we come up with that word, I’ll continue to use the word “forgive.” I think that distinction traps us. It makes it harder for us to move on. We often mistakenly think that in forgiving someone for their actions – particularly when their guilt is so extreme, that we’re condoning what they did. We fear that we’ve let them off the hook. That somehow the world is still not right, and our being easy keeps it so. I feel the truth is this – the world is still not right, but our forgiving or not-forgiving will not make the world right. Trapping ourselves in our mental anguish only serves to continue allowing ourselves to be our own victims. We need to allow the other to seek whatever repentance they need, and not hold their actions over ourselves.
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
There’s a lesson in the Hebrew Scriptures that’s helped me for years. It’s the story of Exodus. The Jewish people are enslaved by the power of Egypt. They’re caught up in a cycle that tells the world that folks that look a certain way, or share a particular culture, or lift up one set of values over another, or who’s faith is different than another’s, deserve being enslaved to the might of another. Oppressor and oppressed are captured, like bugs in amber, within the system of violence, within the system of hate and power; their shared humanity drowned and paralyzed. The story teaches us that we are not born to remain in that nightmare. The sacred scriptures teach us that we are born to live free of the trap; free of the cycle. They teach that we are to move on; we are to build new communities, to live different lives. But God commands that we not forget the story. Each Passover Seder we remember the story. We relive the pain long enough to teach the lesson that demands we live in relationship with one another; so that the next generation knows what exactly is at stake. That college educator teaching about domestic violence, shared in her own way her Egypt retelling for me. She told me the path was trod by someone else before that was different than my own story but in some ways the same; there were lessons learned; and there is a way forward. Forgetting what came before us keeps us forever trapped. But (as it was true for me) not learning to let it go, also keeps us trapped.
Just the other day on her talk show, Ellen DeGeneres shared with us a brief message about these tragedies and all those we don’t hear about. She began her message in the spirit of God’s commandment to the Jewish people to remember their Egypt. She said, “I just can’t be silent about this, and I hope you won’t either.” She ended it with her message from the road out of Egypt. “Things will get easier. People’s minds will change. And you should be alive to see it.”
And you should be alive to see it. Thank you, again Ellen, for all you say and do. She’s found the core of the religious message. We should be alive to see this life, this world, this crazy, frustrating, awesome and humbling world. We should strive to forge real connections with the people and creatures we share this small planet with. We should have the opportunity to be ourselves; to find the abundant newness of creation; to love and to be loved. We should be alive to see it.
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
“When I breathe in, I breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I breathe out love.”
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin once wrote, “I would feel far more sanguine to learn that the various world religions could agree on the desirability of teaching their followers, from childhood on, the significance of moral distinctions; to teach them that forgiveness is almost always a virtue, but to teach them that cruelty is evil and the murder of innocent people an unforgivable evil. In other words, to teach people the harder, more morally worthy path – to repent of irrevocable evil before, not after, they commit it.” His writings were in reference to the Holocaust, not gay or gay-seeming teens. Although the broader Queer community was most assuredly targets in the Holocaust. I will not engage in the intellectual exercise of determining how and where nightmares as large as that begin or end. I know not whether I am even capable of finding such an answer, or if anyone might be. But I will seek to lift up the spirit of Rabbi Telushkin’s request.
This is my request of us; here in this Sanctuary, in Brooklyn, New York in 2010 on a cool October Sunday morning. Let repentance start with us. It is not within our power to help those bullying children and bullying young adults figure out how to repent of their ways. We may be drawn like those bugs in amber once more to the attractive mental exercise of pin-pointing blame where it is due. We could spend hours classifying and sorting all the ways in which those teen bullies made bad choices that led to tragedies that can never be undone. We could find comfort in our distant solidarity with those families who will never be the same; but it would be a false comfort – it would be false comfort. I call us, this gathering now, and any others who may hear or read this later, to commit to a genuine solidarity by acting in ways to transform our society – for we are the only ones who are now able to do this. Those who are alive on this day and every day forward. There is no society, or human nature, outside our own to change. And it will truly be a perpetual challenge.
How do we repent before, not after – as the Rabbi demands? Do we acknowledge the wrongness of the systems of violence, and fear, and ego that lead to feelings of shame among our queer youth (and frankly all the youth of the world)? Do we acknowledge the stories of Egypt that tell us silencing our pathfinders by denying them the rights the heterosexual world enjoys, hides the truth to our gay children that they can in fact grow up to be in loving relationships? Do we acknowledge that learning healthier morals and values grounded on our faith tradition’s call for compassion, equity and justice in human relations is life-saving? Friends – repentance starts with us by acknowledging these truths. Fear and ego breed shame. Denying one people a right to their role models denies the God of Israel’s commandment to remember our Egypts and to retell them. Morals and values are the most critical thing we can teach our children, our youth and ourselves and they are often the very hardest lessons to learn.
We may not be able to change the lives of all those touched by Asher, and Seth and Billy and Tyler by their loss. We are not culpable for the actions of the teens who set these spirals in motion. We very likely do not even hold world-views that contribute to the pain that sparked these four tragedies and all those other stories we will never hear about. But we have it within our power to transform our corner of the world. We have it within our power to repent, as the Rabbi put it, of those inactions and views that keep this world forever punctured with these horrors. We have it within our power to live to our fullest potential now, here in this Sanctuary, in Brooklyn, New York in 2010 on a cool October Sunday morning.
The first steps are acknowledging all these wrongs, and failings, and short-comings that we are all guilty of on infinitely lesser scales and in often unrelated ways. In honor of Asher, and Seth and Billy and Tyler and all those others who will never be named by our national media, I want to call you to remember their stories when you see the faces of the congregants around you. Our adults, our children, our youth. Not just our adults, or just our youth, or just our children. I want to call you to see their stories in the faces of all of our adults and all our children and all our youth. That is what these teens so desperately were craving while they were alive and clearly could not get enough. That is the way to stand in solidarity with these teens. That is the way to make a difference. That is the next, most immediate, way forward.
You see, Rabbi Telushkin, isn’t saying we’re guilty. The Rabbi is saying if we know the things that contribute to the great evils of the world, and we can name what they are, that we are duty bound to seek, in every way possible, a different path that leads elsewhere. We seek to do this every week in our Religious Education classes. We seek to teach our children, youth and adults that there is another path. We seek to teach that Egypt loomed in our past, and reoccurs in our lives this day, and that there are lessons worth retelling to release ourselves from that bondage. When I speak with you and say that it is so very important that our children, youth and parents commit to attending these classes regularly – avoiding these stories of tragedy we see in the media is my dream. One more way to try to fix what is broken in our society – together. Not just for the years we teach Our Whole Lives – our comprehensive sexuality education. Not just for the years of Coming of Age – where our youth learn to seriously wrestle with forming their own sense of meaning in the world in the light of our shared values. Not just for our Adult Small Group Ministries – where we covenant with each other to support and nurture one another on our shared and individual paths. But every year and in every class. Soccer can wait. The violin class can happen another time. Our comforting Sunday afternoon brunch can happen on Saturday or later in the day. There is a dream of a world we hope to build, and we need to take the time to remind ourselves that there is, in fact, another way. Time for reflection in community is life-saving.
Education is life-saving – in the literal sense. Compassion in our daily human relations in this very building and this broader world is life-saving – in the literal sense. A commitment to justice-crafting in our nation and our town is life-saving – in the literal sense. To do any of these things is to be living hero. To do all of these things is a living miracle. This is the path this liberal faith calls us onto. This is the path of religious conviction. This is the path of standing in solidarity, on the side of love, with Asher, and Seth and Billy and Tyler and all those others who will never be named by our society.

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  1. #1 by Andrew on November 2, 2011 - 10:49 pm

    Great sermon. Thanks for posting!

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