ON RECONCILIATION by Reverend Carolyn Patierno
A sermon delivered on the occasion of the installation of the exhibit Reflections on One Hundred Bowls of Compassion at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation, New London, CT. April 18, 2010
For six years, naming the American war dead has been part of our worship service at All Souls. We prepare for that weekly agony by holding in our hearts the families and communities that are in the throes of grief as a result of these deaths. We are reminded that each of these names represents families and whole communities that mourn. We saw that grief up close last week in the aftermath of Tyler O. Griffin's death from fatal wounds suffered in combat in Afghanistan. Griffin grew up in Voluntown. Quoted in The Day was Dezerea Pepin, age 14, "This is a small town. Even if you don't know someone, you still come out. We're just a big family. Everyone in town is on this street."
Tuesday's paper was rife with coverage--the headline of the front page of Tuesday's paper proclaimed that, "A Diehard Marine Comes Home." Tyler Griffin was 19 years old.
If you turned to the next page of The Day you would have found there a brief article bringing more news from Afghanistan. The headline read: "U.S. soldiers fire on Afghan bus." Five civilians were killed--whose names we will never know--and 18 were wounded. Like the Voluntown community, the community in Kabul was also devastated. They also lined the streets to express their grief, but in that community there was also an expression of anger to what the American-led military command in Kabul called "a tragic loss of life."
Our topic today is reconciliation. It is a complicated idea that is steeped both in theological and political meaning. It caught my attention when I heard the proposed billed named as the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. That certainly sounded hopeful! But with a little digging, I learned that "reconciliation" referred only to a Senate legislative procedure first introduced in 1974 and used at that time to push through a contentious budget. The procedure allows for a maximum of 20 hours debate on contentious bills such as those that deal with health care reform. So, the name had less to do with good will--as we all have witnessed--and everything to do with political process. That was that.
But still, I stayed the course somehow knowing that the topic would be an important one this weekend when All Souls would host this profound art exhibit created by Cate Bourke.
Lest we relegate reconciliation to priests, panelists on truth and reconciliation commissions, and politicians, witness an exchange on The Daily Show this past week between MSNBC newscaster Rachel Maddow and the host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart. Tomorrow night on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Maddow will be airing jailhouse tapes of Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for the bombing that killed 168 people. While discussing what it was like to listen to and then edit 30 hours of tape, Stewart asked if McVeign was disappointed that even those who he thought would support him, namely those in the patriot movement, distanced themselves. Maddow explained that regardless of a lack of support, McVeigh felt he ws ahead, no matter what. That even though he was being executed by the government, he'd managed to kill 168 people while the government was killing one. Stewart gasped in response, "Wow. Boy. You know, my problem is that intellectually I feel like, 'Boy, how can a human being kill another human being?' But viscerally, you just want to be in that room and pull his throat out through his face. It's very difficult for me to reconcile those two aspects of my personae."
To which Rachel Maddow responded, "I feel the same way about Bin Laden. I believe I could kill Bin Laden with a spoon because he's a cold blooded killer. Oops."
Like Jon Stewart, most people find it difficult to reconcile the contradicting aspects of who we are. In a 1999 interview with an Australian newspaper, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was asked how he was able to sit through thousands of stories of human depravity during the Truth and Reconciliation procedures in South Africa to which he responded, "You are often devastated by what you've got to hear of the things that we were capable of doing--all of us. All of us have an incredible capacity, in fact, for evil. All of us.... [T]he people who were the perpetrators of these atrocities don't have horns. They don't have tails. They are like you and me. They are men, mainly, who kiss their wives. Ordinary human beings."
We struggle with the different parts of our personas, our capacity for good and evil both, every day. Today, we focus on just one question: How do we reconcile the wild swing of our hearts between the newspaper's front page and page two. How do we reconcile who we are as a nation from the front page to page two?
Reconciliation: meaning "to exchange." In the New Testament it is understood to be the process of bringing oneself into a changed relationship with God through Jesus. The Hebrew scriptures rest reconciliation on atonement and in fact there are several biblical translations that use "atonement" in place of reconciliation. The Dictionary of the Bible described reconciliation as the "improved relationship between individuals and/or groups who were previously estranged." In Catholic tradition, the sacrament of penance is also known as a sacrament of reconciliation--again, putting oneself in right relationship with God.
In secular parlance, it's meaning is to cause, submit to, or accept something unpleasant; the achievement of consistency or compatibility.
I came upon a book by a German author named Ralf K. Wustenberg. The title of his book is The Political Dimension of Reconciliation: A Theological Analysis of ways of Dealing with Guilt During the Transition to Democracy in South Africa and East Germany. I hardly had time to read the title much less order and read the book. But actually, it was the blurb that provided the key question: "Is the essential meaning of the word altered when applied to one realm or the other [theological or political]?"
Which understanding would we best engage for our purpose this morning. In Unitarian Universalist context wherein the lines between secular and sacred are not finely drawn, considering both the theological and the political makes sense to us. Therefore, before the issue we ponder this morning, questions having to do with war and peace, beauty and devastation, we consider reconciliation through both theological and political lens. Our self reflection would have us ask ourselves if we are in right relationship with a forgiving God, ask ourselves if we are in right relationship with our highest human values and aspirations, in right relationship with our brothers and sisters throughout the world, ask ourselves if we can accept something that is unpleasant and does not make sense. And if not, what must we do to atone?
Is there a time to love and a time to hate? Is there a time for war as well as a time for peace? Is there a time to kill as well as a time to heal? How may we engage with the question of reconciliation with integrity? I am inviting you to ultimately ask yourself if it is appropriate to submit to or accept these heavy matters.
Before these bowls we consider reconciliation. For me, this exhibit is an embodied attempt for reconciliation. Each bowl represents a life. Each is made from the Earth. Each is a common vessel, if we are fortunate, bowls with which we set our evening meal. But as the artist explained, their beauty buffers the shock of who and what they represent: the war dead. These Iraqi civilians, and nearly 100,000 others, are our legacy.
Created from a sense of urgency, Cate said that after September 11, 2001, she set out to do what she does best: create pottery. Inspired by Buddhist philosophy, she set her self to the meditative task of creation. It took 14 months and she estimates 500 hours to create the beauty we have been blessed to experience.
It was described by one observer as an aggressive exhibit. It is both aggressive and compassionate. Through it, I have been invited to consider reconciliation between my sense of complicity in the ravages of war and my attempts to be in right relationship with others, with God, with my belief in humanity. I feel this dis-ease every Sunday especially. Without remembering the Afghan and Iraqi people each week I would not be able to read the names of the American war dead. Even if one disagrees with the fact that we are engaged with these wars--and not all of us do--we are responsible. I feel that sense of responsibility therefore believe that we cannot forget that.
So the least we can do is look into these bowls and imagine who these people may have been. Imagine who they may have become. They lived under a brutal dictator. They died at the hands of violence that has destroyed their homeland.
Here it is: Sometimes there is no way to reconciliation. I can find no way to reconcile the front headline from the one on page two. I have more than an inkling that I may be complicit in something that cannot be reconciled. I ask myself, what can I do?
I admit to you today that I made the conscious choice to eliminate the age of the American soldiers who have died. I can't do it. I can't do it because I cannot reconcile the fact that as a culture we have said that we do not trust those under the age of 21 to make healthy and responsible decisions regarding alcohol use. I cannot reconcile, then, that we somehow do trust that these same young people--teenagers really--are able to make decisions about the nature of war before the age of 21. I cannot read those ages because I cannot bear that we allow, manipulate, encourage such young people to decide that because others have decided that it is a time for war that means it is a time for them to hate and a time for them to kill. Some thing cannot be reconciled. And when they cannot, we must atone--we must do something about it.
How is it with you and reconciliation? Is the relationship right between yourself and a forgiving God or yourself and human aspiration? Can you accept the unpleasantness between the front page and page two? Or do you have more than an inkling that you are complicit in what you cannot reconcile?
What will you do?
Art forces us to bear witness. At the panel on Friday night were were reminded that Van Gogh insisted that art be useful. So these bowls are useful. They remind us that there is something with which we must reckon: our complicity. And because one woman in our presence has done something about it, we know that we can and must do the same. We must each do whatever it is that we do best. Cate Bourke is a potter. What are you? Mother? Father? Teacher? House cleaner? Musician? Shop clerk? Librarian? Accountant? Social worker? Engineer? Student? Massage therapist? Mechanic? Chemist? Health care provider? Minister?
What would a Unitarian Universalist do? What would you do in the name of reconciliation? Turn the page and move on? Or endeavor to create peace out of brokenness?
In the words of Archbishop Tutu, "We are connected in the thing in which we glory while connected in the things of which we are ashamed. We can't pretend there is not that connection.... And it will be wonderful to be able to say, 'For those parts of our history where things didn't go as they should have, we're sorry.'"
Let us be inspired by the beauty and the devastation represented before us this morning.
Shalom. Saalam. Amen.