September 13, 2009
The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
I’ve been a little depressed lately. It worried me because I couldn’t think of a reason for it. After all, I’ve got the right job and a great congregation and a home I’m truly comfortable in — well, a crushing mortgage, but who doesn’t? — loving friends and children… Who needs more? I wondered if perhaps I should see a doctor about it. Then I realized that there was a reason. I am really saddened by the pervasive ill-will I see around me. Angry letters to the editor burdened with unpleasant lies that the writers refuse to abandon even in the face of evidence; angry people threatening to bring guns to town meetings to preserve their sacred freedom (who do they think they’re going to have to shoot?) and probably the thing that made me saddest, blocking the speech the president wished to give to motivate our school children to work hard and take responsibility for themselves for fear that he would brainwash them. If that’s brainwashing I sure hope it works! So, I thought I would talk about the only remedy for ill-will I know, loving relationships.
The perfect personal relationship, it seems to me, is one in which you can be as foolish or as complacent or as wicked as you sometimes naturally are without feeling a fear of losing the love of the other person or people in the relationship. Often even in the most intimate relationships people seem to be, as much as possible, on their best behavior, hiding their sincere reactions and feelings and being less than honest even about some of their behavior for fear of losing another person’s good opinion. We’re often, if not always, a little bit on the qui vive, not quite relaxed, if another’s affection is important to us.
I’m not saying that we should not take into consideration the other’s feelings and concerns in that intimacy. I strongly agree with my mentor Miss Manners when she says that being related either by blood or marriage does not give us the right to treat others with less consideration than we give to strangers. Good manners in the home are at least as important as they are anywhere else, and when she deplores our rudeness to the members of our own families, she’s talking about a significant issue. However, the motivation for good manners toward our intimates should be our love and consideration for them, rather than the fear that if we don’t behave well they won’t love us anymore.
Whether it is or not, people perceive love as being conditional on approved behavior, and they may even be right a lot of the time. We expect those we love to behave in certain ways. We decide what particular people are supposed to be like, and then we expect them to behave in the way that we have decided. If they don’t, we think they have failed us, and we get angry and withdraw from them.
Are any of you fans of the late lamented Erma Bombeck? One of my favorite columns of all time was her response to a reader whom she had made very angry by something she had written. The reader had written a letter saying that she had been a faithful follower of Bombeck’s for twenty years, but after she had written whatever it was that the reader was angry about, she would never read another word of her columns. Erma Bombeck’s response was that she had pleased the reader time after time for twenty years, and she was hurt that she couldn’t let them disagree one time without severing the bond that they had established as columnist and reader. Did she, she questioned, refuse to write for that reader because she went out of town one week and missed reading the column or used it one day to wrap the fish? No indeed, she forgave such peccadilloes, and could not the reader forgive her once in twenty years without totally rejecting her? Could not twenty years of good behavior outweigh in the balance one column with which she disagreed?
One of the things that we know but find hard to internalize is that people are not perfect. No, not even me or you. No single person is without flaws of one sort or another. We all have occasional failings of reason or temper or even virtue. There is no exception to that. Even Jesus blasted a perfectly innocent fig tree because it wasn’t bearing fruits for him out of season. If you haven’t done anything recently that you’re ashamed of, you just haven’t been paying attention. Since we all need forgiveness for ourselves, it behooves us, then, to forgive others, and I’m talking about real forgiveness, ungrudging and complete. Sometimes people may say that another person is great except for one tiny flaw, and they’ll try to change that one imperfection. When the person doesn’t change, it creates anger. They’ll forgive them sometimes, but only conditionally — only on the condition that the person change now. “I’ll forgive you this time, but don’t let it happen again!” It will probably happen again. True love and forgiveness will let it happen again without loss of affection. Real love loves because — because of who the person is, virtues and flaws together.
One of the finest lines in the Bible is Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I often wonder where some of us find the self-righteousness to be so critical of others as we are — to list others’ faults and failings. That particular passage goes on to talk about the log in our own eye while noting the mote in that of the other person. I quote the Bible, as you may have noticed, with serious restraint, but there are unquestionably some things that it says better than are said anywhere else, and this is one of the most important ones: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Actually, escaping being judged oneself may be possible where God is concerned, but probably not from other people. Your refusal to judge others may not keep them from judging you. However, the last thing anyone has a right to do, it seems to me, is to judge others. If you really could walk for a while in another’s shoes, you might be able to begin to judge them, though you would more likely begin to feel love and acceptance for them. Perfect understanding, it is said, brings perfect forgiveness. That understanding can only be completely achieved if we have the same personality and experience as the other, but it can begin by careful attention to the logs in one’s own eyes. Even if my log is of a different character than another’s mote, simply reminding myself of my own imperfections may help me forgive the different flaws of others.
One of the best of the New Testament stories is the one about the woman taken in adultery — a story which, according to New Testament scholars, has absolutely no basis in. John just made it up to make a point. The point he intended to make wasn’t precisely the one that most of us get from the story. John meant it as an example of the efforts of the scribes and Pharisees to get rid of Jesus. They brought the adulterous woman to Jesus to get him into difficulty. Mosaic law said she should be stoned, but Roman law would not permit him to pass sentence. However, the way he got out of the dilemma said more than that he was a clever twister. He said, “Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” and naturally all the villains slunk away because there wasn’t one of them who could honestly say that he was utterly pure. Jesus, seeing that there were no accusers left, said nothing to the woman but, “Go and sin no more.” One of the things I occasionally wonder in my more cynical moods, is how John would have told that story if he hadn’t been trying to show Jesus as faking out the bad guys. Would he have had Jesus condemn her himself, since he was the only person, according to John, who was entirely without sin? Whatever, as it stands, it’s a beautiful explication of the truism that none of us is perfect. There’s a rather ghastly little poem that my mother used to recite to us when we were being uncharitable toward others, usually our siblings:
There’s so much good in the worst of us,
And so much bad in the best of us,
That it hardly behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us.
Or to refuse to forgive.
I have a sneaking respect for one aspect of the beginnings of Protestantism. In spite of the fact that I believe utterly that faith without works is dead, Luther’s insistence that none of us is good enough to get into heaven without God’s infinite grace and forgiveness strikes a chord in me. Not that I believe in heaven and hell as rewards and punishments, but within that context it seems unlikely that any of us flawed human beings is worthy of eternal bliss. We are none of us in a position to cast any stones. Universalism agreed with that assessment of the situation, which is why they came up with the notion of universal salvation — God’s grace being extended to all sinners (that is, all human beings). Since none of us is worthy, then if any are saved, all are saved through forgiveness of our sins.
We Unitarian Universalists now, of course, use the word sin almost exclusively in the description of rich desserts: “That chocolate chiffon pie is positively sinful!” It may be that having given up the concept of sin we find it easier to judge others and easier not to forgive — to allow one failure to wipe out for us any number of good things. Unitarianism began with the idea of the perfectibility of human beings, and perhaps that concept in its rejection of the idea of original sin makes us less forgiving of flaws. If we are perfectible, then flaws should be overcome rather than forgiven. The paradox is that, though flaws indeed can be worked on and even overcome, nevertheless we need forgiveness. The perfectibility of the human being is like the achievement of the perfect society — or the perfect relationship. It is a goal to be sought but never to be reached. Though we are perfectible, we will never be perfect. We will need to forgive and be forgiven with complete forgiveness. We need permission to mess up without the fear of losing acceptance and love. We need to be loved as much for our flaws as for our strengths.
Sometimes in trying to explain our religion to a non-UU, I am told that we have it very easy, that our religion is a way to avoid the constraints of other religions.. Actually it is not easier, morally, to be a UU, but harder. We still have to follow our moral and ethical guides, but we also have to decide what they are before we can follow them. We can’t, with integrity, rig them to make it easy on ourselves. Religion, to be religion, must have difficult requirements laid upon us; it must call us to be greater than we would be without it. We could, without religion, be rational, we could even be tolerant of others, but we are called beyond that — we are called to love one another whether we like each other or not. We are called to love one another not only because we are in agreement on certain things, not only because some of us have charm or intelligence or good looks or exciting jobs or great educations or whatever we like about one another, but because we are human — because we have faults and virtues inextricably mixed. If we are called upon to love one another, unconditionally, we are also called to forgiveness. No matter how angry or disappointed we may be at the actions of others, we must understand and love and forgive.
One thing that makes it a little easier is that there is more than one kind of love, and the one that is required of us as a religious group which celebrates the worth of the individual is in many ways the easiest kind, particularly for people you don’t know. It is universal, however, and should pervade our relationships to those we know as well. It is the love which does not judge, which forgives, which continues to love in recognition of errors, of faults, of misdeeds. Other kinds of love require at least a degree of liking as well, but at least this sort doesn’t ask that of us. Even if the other does things that are disgusting or stupid or hurtful, we are called to love. We don’t have to let people get away with hurtfulness; it doesn’t mean we have to like the people or even have to associate with them, only that we have to love them. We have to be concerned for their wellbeing, care about them, do them good and not evil.
When that sort of love is easy is when the people we are called to love are distant or unknown; when they haven’t gored your ox or contravened one of your most deeply held values. It’s more difficult when the person is right before you, depriving you of a pleasure or need, treating you with harshness or disdain, hurting people you care about or yourself. How can you love these people? How can you accept and forgive them when they behave so badly? How can you forgive them not just once, but many times? You can’t, of course, not being perfect, but that is what the goal would include.
All real loving is loving because. Loving in spite of is never enough. If you love others in spite of a flaw you haven’t completely forgiven them for having that flaw in the first place. Love and forgiveness are only complete when we are loved because of our humanness, which includes the bad as well as the good. We are going to mess up, we’re going to do wrong, we’re going to hold different values, we’re going to rub others the wrong way — that being the nature of the human condition. We must accept that in ourselves and in others, and never give up on loving.