Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt / and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance; / Who does not persist in anger forever, / but delights rather in clemency, / And will again have compassion on us, / treading underfoot our guilt? / You will cast into the depths of the sea / all our sins; / You will show faithfulness to Jacob, / and grace to Abraham, / As you have sworn to our fathers / from days of old.
Hosea 7: 18-20
Recently I was catching up on some podcasts that I had missed while I was in Rome for some meetings. One of these was from On the Media, and it concerned the question of a people’s reckoning, or not, with the truth of their own history. It was a comparison of how modern Germany memorializes and faces the reality of Nazism and World War II and the United States and its refusal and avoidance of taking up the genocide of the Native American peoples, the centrality of slavery in the building of the American nation, the Civil War, and the continuing place of racism in our culture. In Berlin, Germany, it was pointed out, it is impossible to go any distance without there being some memorialization of those arrested and killed in the 1930’s and 40’s. The horrors of that era are continually taught in the schools and are referenced in German law itself. Yet, when the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, it was repeatedly stated that this was the first experience of terrorism on American soil. It was as if the common and pervasive experience of African Americans who had lived their entire lives in terror did not and had not existed.
On April 26th of this year, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. It is described as “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” The oft-quoted insight of George Santayana is no less true despite its ubiquity and trivialization: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If we ponder the words of Hosea and reflect honestly on our own cultural experience, we would have to slightly revise Santayana’s words. It is not an inability to remember the past but rather a deliberate refusal to do so.
Freud taught us that it is of the very nature of our unconscious to live in repetition. The truths that we refuse and evade become the controlling forces in our lives. There is a reason that one introduces oneself at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous by stating one’s name and then admitting that “I am an alcoholic.” Similarly, when Pope Francis was asked to describe who he was, his first words were: “I am a sinner.” This was not mere surface piety; rather, it was a deliberate act of his remembering who he was and is.
The United States as a society and culture has always teetered on the fault line of racism and slavery. Our lack of maturity as a people is seen in the fact that we have always feared that coming to grips with the truth would destroy us and the “dream” expressed in the Declaration of Independence. To be sure the nation was “conceived in liberty,” but it was not yet liberty for all. Its assertion was that “all men are created equal,” but its reality was that this only applied to “men” of a certain race. As President, Barack Obama often stated that our task as a people was to engage in the formation of “a more perfect union.” To do so, however, requires an acknowledgement of failure and sinfulness, what we call in religious terminology repentance and contrition.
Hosea speaks of a God who is full of mercy, understanding, and compassion. God, he says, is always ready to tread “underfoot our guilt.” The problem is that we cannot know that God until we acknowledge our need of that mercy. At the heart of Christian revelation concerning our relationship with God is Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The one who, with head bowed, continues to pray, as a sinner, for God’s mercy, is justified while the one who refuses to remember his sins is not.
This is a psychological as well as a spiritual truth. In the personal lives of each of us, we cannot change until we recognize our need for change. As long as we have no need to be forgiven, we shall never know the God whom Hosea describes. As we repress our sins, we shall continue to be influenced, if not dominated, by their impulses. We shall repeat, not only in our own lives but down through generations, the deformities of heart and character that we have received.
To be honest with ourselves, however, is among the most difficult of our human and spiritual tasks, at both the personal and group/societal levels. As often noted, we have for a couple of years been involved in a process with the community that we call “Graced Crossroads.” At the heart of this process is a recognition that it is a time for us, as a Congregation, to deliberately and responsibly choose a path for our future. For us, as for most humans, we often prefer to remain passive and to let circumstances or others choose our direction for us. To truly be responsible for our own and our common lives is always a bit terrifying. This is due, in large part, to our inability to understand that God is a God who “delights in clemency” rather than persisting in anger. Our difficulty in believing in the love and mercy of God makes us fearful of our errors and failings, of our sinfulness. As a result, it is difficult to really and truly acknowledge where we have failed and are failing our call.
Without doing this, however, we shall never be able to see clearly the crossroads at which we stand. Instead of choosing the new, we shall, because of refusal to remember, repeat the past. This is the more “typically human” way. Unlike the free choice that emerges out of the promptings of spirit in us, the “unconscious” choice comes out of the belief that if we keep doing the same thing, we’ll finally get it right. This is why we keep repeating the patterns of our own early formation throughout our lives. This is the source of our greatest frustrations in life, for the same way of doing things cannot elicit a different result no matter how often we repeat it.
The spiritual traditions speak of our being renewed, of our being made new in the spirit. The condition, however, is that we dare to face the truth about ourselves. As a community, we have, through the fidelity and generosity of our forebears, done much good in the world. We have a legacy for which we can rightfully can be grateful. Yet, as Psalm 115:1 reminds us: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory.” Because we are sinners, however, we have also betrayed our call and our vision. The truly “new” can only come out of the humble ashes of that realization. For in God’s mercy, kindness, and love, God longs to create us anew. It is our stubborn repetition of the past that impedes our transformation.
All times are perilous times. A new memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, however, is a beacon of hope for our time. By remembering our horrific failures to live the truth of the aspirations of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal,” may we discover what is now required of us to give new life to those aspirations, to form “a more perfect union.” For, as dark and terrible are the horrors we have visited upon people in our arrogance, superiority, and inhumanity, God “does not persist in anger forever, / but delights rather in clemency.” It is our memory of our guilt and sin that keeps us from continuing to inflict its violence and hatred on the world. We cannot know forgiveness for what we refuse to acknowledge. Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death has written:
If we had to offer the briefest explanation of all the evil that men have wreaked upon themselves and upon their world since the beginnings of time right up until tomorrow, it would be not in terms of man’s animal heredity, his instincts and his evolution: it would be simply in the toll that his pretense of sanity takes, as he tries to deny his true condition. (pp. 29-30)
The violence we wreak on each other in life comes from our pretense of sanity, our self-justifications. We come to know our need for and communion with others in the recognition that we are all sinners, dependent on a God of mercy, clemency, and compassion.
If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of that wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.
This wound is in me, as complex and deep in my flesh as blood and nerves. I have borne it all my life, with varying degrees of consciousness, but always carefully, always with the most delicate consideration for the pain I would feel if I were somehow forced to acknowledge it. But now I am increasingly aware of the opposite compulsion. I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured; I want to be free of the wound myself, and I do not want to pass it on to my children. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking; perhaps such a thing is not to be done by one man, or in one generation. Surely a man would have to be almost dangerously proud to think himself capable of it. And so maybe I am really saying only that I feel an obligation to make the attempt, and that I know if I fail to make at least the attempt I forfeit any right to hope that the world will become better than it is now.
Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, p. 4