“Social justice was crucial to the monotheistic scriptures, and, like all scriptures, they insisted that compassion cannot be confined to one’s own group. You had to have what Mozi had called jian ai, ‘concern for everybody’; You must love the stranger, the foreigner, even the enemy; and reach out to all tribes and nations. (Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture, Rescuing the Sacred Texts, p. 461)
If Armstrong’s assessment, as a scriptural and comparative religion scholar rings true, and for our part, we can only say that we wish and believe it to be, then there are some other caveats attentive to her hopeful conviction:
One: we are all complicit in generating the contemporary conditions, planetary, sociological, economic, political, racial, cultural and religious in which we are all attempting to make our way.
Two: while we pour tanker-loads of ink and emit zillions of digits into exclaiming and pontificating our differences, dividing ourselves into seemingly armed camps, our commonality, while not nearly so magnetic and headline-generating, and not nearly so histrionic, nevertheless continues to uphold, undergird, sustain and offer the promise of hope for our survival.
Three: regardless of the early faith education and indoctrination of our youth, our family, our community and our church/synagogue/mosque/temple/sanctuary/monastery, we share a deep and profound consciousness of our personal, familial, communal, and national sins.
Four: While all of our faith communities hold liturgically significant dates, rituals, attire, readings, diets and venerated ‘saints’ and respecting our own rituals potentially enhances our capacity to honour those of other faiths, there is one period of time dedicated each year, in all monotheistic communities, for the need to reflect on our past deeds that hurt ourselves, and those who believed they were our loved ones, including those we do not know who were also impacted by our misdeeds. Whether it is Lent, or Yom Kippur or Ramadan, there is a deliberate need for every one of us to pause and to consider those things for which we feel deep regret, and wish to ask for forgiveness.
How we feel and think and believe about our transgressions, and how we express our confessions may have different features. Those differences, however, do not so much divide as ‘distinguish’ our faith communities. This morning, I found a prayer, written by a Rabbi Susan Talve, founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis MO, that captures what might be a common theme given our shared moment in history:
(This is a confession of sins recited on Yom Kippur)
Long ago the Prophet Micah told us to hurl our sins into the sea. Now we are sinking into this sea of sins that threatens our lives as we struggle to breathe.
Sins of pollutant, the byproducts of greed that assault, making toxic the air, earth and water of our planet.
Sins of putting profit before life, breaking our bodies with systems of sick care—not health care—that serve too few.
Sins of embedded white supremacy that bruise our very souls as children remain in cages, families are separated, refugees drown in desperation, and People of Color are shot by militarized police. Black and Brown bodies as the fuel under the pot of oppression, burning with the salty tears of their mothers.
Sins of transnational colonialism that have led to genocide after genocide, with those of privilege using their power to make some lives matter more.
Sins of the legacy of slavery and discrimination that continue to exploit women and People of Color through cheap labour.
Sins that at this moment need us to do more than name them with ancient acrostics and the beating of our chests in grief—for we have cast our sins into the sea for too long.
Sins of the golden calf, that sin of certainty that we could make a god from our own hands.
Sins of the spies, who lacked the vision to move forward, to change and transform and to do more that talk about equity, equality, and justice. Making a place where the citizen and the stranger are one until there is no stranger requires us to sacrifice privilege and go beyond our comfort zones.
Sins of Korach*, leaders who care only for their own seats at the power tables, hoarding and gaining advantage at the expense of others.
Sins of hitting the rock—that momentary loss of humility, when even our beloved Moses, exhausted and afraid and in mourning for his sister, acted out of anger and beat the rock.
With our family at the Tree of Life at Mother Emmanuel, and Christchurch; with Mike and Trayvon and Tamir and Breonna and Ahmaud, and with George, and with countless others who were swallowed by these sin-filled seas of broken planet body and soul—I, too, am sinking in this sea of sin.
And I can’t breathe.
For these sins (S’lach lanu) God forgive us if we do not turn this moment into a movement for change.
(M’chal lanu) pardon our past failures to do and be better
(Kaper-lanu), lead us as we dare to be courageous and bold enough to redeem the future of our planet and humanity with fewer sins hurled into the sea
If any of our faith communities, their legacies, their traditions and their scholarship are to have any real, lasting and sustaining meaning and purpose in our lives, in this critical moment in the history of the world, it would seem that pausing even for just long enough to repeat the words, the thoughts and the feelings of this prayer, might offer some new insights in how each of us might begin anew to live a life in congruence and in support of those green shoots, those heroic men and women on whose shoulders we walk, those courageous and life-giving thoughts, poems, symphonies and canvases and dances that have lifted our spirits for centuries.
The simple phrase “I can’t breathe” echoes not only Lloyd George; it also echoes the thousands gasping for breath inside ventilators around the world, and the many more thousands whose gasps have gone silent under the scourge of COVID-19, and the many more thousands whose gasps for breath signalled their drowning on their desperate search for freedom from war, famine, anarchy, terror, and disease.
“I can’t breathe” also evokes the silent burning of consciences and larynxes, when confronted with the denial and the equivocation of so many complicit in the perpetuation of ravages to truth, to authenticity and to integrity.
“I can’t breathe” signals a spiritual war, not restricted to the streets of Kenosha, Portland, Chicago, Atlanta, Berlin, London, Paris, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver or even HongKong…..
While the specific circumstances may have changed from 1950 when William Faulkner delivered his speech on receiving the Nobel Prize, his words continue to inspire:
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man in immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock and hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, then even then there will still be one more sound; that of his puny inexhaustible voice still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail. (nobelprize.org)
Confronting our own failures, individually, communally, nationally and certainly globally, we will be more able and willing to see that political rhetoric like “we are all in this together,’ while true, rings hollow in the echo chamber of our public discourse. Confronting them before God, however, offers a different and perhaps new perspective, and the act of humility can be the seed for compassion irrespective of our ethnicity or our faith or family tradition.
This moment must not be left to the reverberations from the political podiums, or the talking heads, or the ideological pundits. It is a moment for each of us to seize TOGETHER, in the name of and in the spirit of compassion, empathy, truth, resilience and hope. And none of these gifts are low lying psychological fruits; they are hard earned gifts of the spirit, about which the poets and the artists seek to be our shamans and our mentors.
*Korach..the Book of Numbers tells of Korach's attempt to overthrow Moses