By Rev. Kate Braestrup
From the prophet Jeremiah: O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord.
So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them.
There has been much talk of late about social justice and injustice, the sins of the fathers, the guilt that rolls down unto the second and third and fourth generations…
Hallowe’en just passed, but also, if you are Jewish, you have recently concluded Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur, the time set aside for the consideration of your own failings, the pondering of your own sins.
If you’d forgotten what your sins are, someone is bound to remind you.
My son Peter and I, for example, got into a long conversation this week about my manifold failures as a mother. That was nice.
No, really.! It was nice: Peter wasn’t attacking me, or demanding reparation. He was, instead, sorting out his childhood experiences in preparation for, some day becoming a father.
I could contribute to this worthy effort not by wallowing in guilt but by listening to his account and confirming the basic facts of Peter’s recollection: Yes, that is what happened. And no, that isn’t the way I would handle the same situation today, knowing what I know now and didn’t know then (even if, arguably, I should have).
This is, I think, the minimum each of us owes to our own, immediate past and the people with whom we shared it: not just apologies but an honest re-collection of the facts set in their context, the assumption of that portion of humanity’s weight that is ours to carry.
It is a continuing project — as time goes on and folks mature, more facts are gathered, new sins identified, more apology and atonement and another in that series of promises each of us makes to improve, the recommitments we make to love.
This is the way — the only way — to limit the scope of our sins to our own generation, to prevent their consequences from rolling past the boundaries that separate one human lifespan from the next and bringing crushing weight to bear on our innocent descendants.
Our ancestors recognized that we all have sins — wickedness done and goodness left undone. They created space within the calendar cycle — for Jews there are the Days of Repentance leading to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For Christians there is the season of repentance, Lent. And, in between, should you need a quick moral spruce-up, there is confession and absolution.
Note: it’s a good idea to keep current. Sins, like dirty dishes, do tend to stack up.
Let me emphasize once more that it is our own sins we are to carry, confess to and apologize for. To atone for sins one hasn’t personally committed is a usurpation, a kind of theft, not a healing.
Should we be inclined, like son Peter, to explore grievances held against others, we must accept that apology and recompense can only come from the individual who actually caused us harm.
This is important.
Jesus, for example, was an individual human being betrayed by other individual human beings: Judas, Herod, Pontius Pilate, individual chief priests, the men and women of the mob. Each of them had a name, even if we don’t know what it was. Each had limitations. Each had free will. Each chose.
The story of Jesus’ death — told on Good Friday in the sepulchral gloom of darkened Christian sanctuaries — is usually taken from the Gospel of John and punctuated by that drum beat repetition: The Jews said crucify him, the Jews said, the Jews…the Jews…
Is it any wonder that, historically, Good Friday services presaged pogroms, or that Easter weekend was a particularly dangerous time for the Jewish communities in Europe? “The Jews killed Jesus,” sounded the cry, and mayhem followed.
Did the Jews kill Jesus?
Well, no. The Romans killed Jesus, but under every oppressive regime there are collaborators. Had we been present at the time, we might have been able to pick out the Quislings. Possibly by looking in the mirror.
Of course these would have been Jewish because everyone was Jewish—-Jesus, Mary, Herod, Judas Iscariot, Simon Peter, the priests and scribes…
But that isn’t what was meant when European gentiles sounded the call “the Jews killed Jesus!” It wasn’t about the particular and long-dead human beings who made the choices they made for reasons that seemed reasonable at the time.
It was an unanswerable accusation against everyone who belonged to the group called “Jews,” all Jews everywhere and for all time who must carry this stone. Attacking actual Jewish people was thus not considered sadism or thuggery.
It was justice.
Hitler would later promote a secular version of the calumny, this time undergirded by the supposed fact of the immutable inequality of “races.” Americans forget this — maybe because we want to — but a lot of the so-called settled science on which Hitler based his ideas came from the United States.
During the early 20th Century, the heyday of the progressive movement, Americans on the political left — especially, for some reason, Californians — were really into promoting doctrines of the genetic inferiority of just about everyone who wasn’t a blond, blue-eyed surfer-dude or dudette.
The progressive eugenicists thought the world would be a better place if we just found a way to subtract — you know, gently — black people, immigrant Asian laborers, Indians, Hispanics, East Europeans, Jews, hillbillies, the sexually suspect, poor people, the infirm, the mentally ill…
Eugenics would have been so much wacky Twittering (or the early 20th century equivalent thereof) had it not been for financing provided by the great philanthropic institutions like the Carnegie Institution (founded by Andrew Carnegie, whom we count as a Unitarian), who underwrote the efforts of some of America’s most respected scientists hailing from Stanford, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton.
Oliver Wendell Holmes — famous jurist, progressive (and Unitarian) wrote the following,
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.
Several feminist reformers advocated an agenda of eugenic legal reform. The National Federation of Women’s Clubs, the , and the were among the variety of state and local feminist organization that at some point lobbied for eugenic reforms.
In 1902, the American Unitarian Association published The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit. The author was David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University. Unitarians like John Dewey and Charles Francis Adams Jr were not only among the staunch supporters of progressive economic and social theories, but were also believers in racial purity, which put them in the vanguard of establishing the American apartheid system known as Jim Crow.
For these folks, as for Hitler when his time came, sterilizing the “manifestly unfit” was not cruelty or sadism. It was science. It was humane. Aren’t there unwanted babies who would be better off unborn? And no one wants to be anti-science, right?
Besides which, mentally ill, handicapped and impoverished people are a burden for the healthy worker. As Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood — a woman who, if not quite a Unitarian or a Universalist, definitely ran in those circles — wrote in 1922, charity “encourages the healthier and more normal sections of the world to shoulder the burden of unthinking and indiscriminate fecundity of others; which brings with it . . . a dead weight of human waste.”
That’s not fair, is it? To make healthy people bear this stone?
The National Socialists in Germany — the Nazis — were aggressively progressive. Hitler’s revolution intended to lift that dead weight of caring for the unfit from the German people, even as he brought them single-payer health care, free national education and social security for the aged and promised liberation from bloodsucking capitalists.
Under National Socialism, gentile Germans had many rights…but these were not the rights of individuals. Rather, they were to have the rights of their group, their “master race.” Within that privileged group, moreover, individuals’ interests were subordinate to the collective interest of the Volksgemeinschaft, the “People’s Community.”
Hitler described this ambitious program, by the way, as social justice.
If that phrase makes you wince, join the club: it’s a shock to see those words used in that context.
But there it is: Social injustice exists when rights are given to groups — royal, noble, rich, white, male, capitalist — rather than to persons.
In the USA, social injustice was exemplified by slavery and the Jim Crow laws,
Social justice was what happened when these unjust laws were eventually changed — by the 13th, 14th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution, and by the Civil Rights Act.
The goal of social justice in the U.S. was, however, to ensure that each of us would receive actual justice, individual justice, the justice that comes when every man and woman is understood to be endowed by her creator with certain inalienable rights, and at the same time expected to follow the same rules.
Historically speaking, human beings have seldom understood justice to be anything other than social justice. Only after the Enlightenment — a mere few hundred years out of millennia of human history — was there broad acceptance of the novel idea that the same law should apply to commoner and king: that it was the individual who was free and responsible for his or her own choices, the individual who must bear the weight of her own — not her group’s — failures.
Perhaps the relative novelty of this notion explains why we retain the impulse to condemn, excuse or define individuals on the basis of their membership in a group. Maybe this is more natural to human thinking: Groupishness might be our default mode, and when we act according to our groupish instincts, the result will be proudly proclaimed as “social justice.”
I don’t know about you, but I am just as glad that I don’t have to bear the burden of the sins of Oliver Wendell Holmes — just because he was a Unitarian, or Margaret Sanger because she was female — let alone Adolf Hitler just because he was white. Every group that I’ve chosen to belong to — Unitarian Universalist, feminist, progressive, American — has a history that includes some terrible ideas and bad behaviors…but I’ve got plenty of sins of my own to atone for.
Just ask Peter.
Not too long ago, I found myself, for reasons I’ve forgotten, staying at the hotel adjacent to the Bangor Airport. Going down to the hotel bar for supper, I found it was was absolutely stuffed with stranded troops. Their plane to Iraq had developed engine trouble. Squishing my way through the crowd — wall to wall desert camo — I found myself face to face with a very broad slab of chest. The name tape attached to it bore a familiar surname — actually, a family name. It was my grandmother’s name, my daughter’s middle name, one of the names I thought of as “mine!”
“Hey!” I said, looking up. “We’re related!”
The owner of the chest and name tag looked down at me. He had a nice, friendly, African-American face. He laughed.
Well, we might have been related, mightn’t we? And by any number of ways. Maybe his and my great- grandfathers knew each other somehow…and someone married someone else’s sister…Or…
…okay, yeah. Maybe some cousin of my great-great grandfather’s moved down south and bought slaves?
Should I have bought this guy a beer?
There are those who would say that I owed Sergeant Elkins something.
Not because he was heading off to fight a war on my behalf… nothing, indeed, to do with who he is and who I am, as individuals, but rather because I am white and he is black, and American history is what it is. And because of this, our interactions are not and will never be a matter of ordinary, sinful, flawed and forgiving humans being friendly and kind to one another; they are eternally and inescapably about race, privilege, marginalization, oppression, stones and… social justice.
You know, I think it’s possible that, even here and now, calls for “social justice,” can do more harm than good.
I think we should be sparing with them, cautious when we claim the right to distribute the weight of history, determine cosmic guilt and innocence and appropriate recompense; we should be humble in the face of history’s enormous complexity.
We are merely human. Faced with a past filled to the brim with stones and bones, it is hubris to imagine that we can do more than try to understand how the bones came to be where they are. We cannot lay sinews and bring up flesh upon them or cover them with skin; we can’t give them breath and life. All we can do is learn from them and recommit ourselves to love, so that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow better still.
Surely the goal is to recognize and love the human in each other, to grasp that there really is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female but each of us and all of us are one?
Sergeant Elkins and I forgot that our interaction, that night in Bangor, was supposed to be about social justice.
So he was himself — a nice, young black Marine from VirginI-A. And I was myself — a middle-aged white lady from Maine.
He was a little worried about getting his Devil-Dawgs properly deployed.
I was a little worried about him getting hurt in Iraq and also about the class in Death Notification I was teaching the next day.
Sergeant Elkins had three children (small).
I had six (mostly grown).
And the Sergeant bought me a beer…because, as he firmly explained, he is a man and I am a woman.
I can’t apologize for all mothers from all times to all sons from all times. I can’t even ask forgiveness for what I’ve done and failed to do to Peter from the people reading these words — sons and daughters, all of you, of mothers who made mistakes.
I can only apologize to Peter, my own beloved son, and rejoice that I — for all my maternal failures — somehow managed to raise a generous and forgiving man.
Copyright 2017 © Kate Braestrup