Collective Responsibility (10/6/2019)

We are all Jonah sometimes. There are moments when we make choices that we know are not guided by truth or love or whatever leads us to act as our best selves. The experience of having insight into moral clarity and wandering in the opposite direction anyway is very common. That’s a human thing. Maybe we have a fish-belly experience to help us turn it around, maybe we make a change on our own, maybe a trusted friend tells us the truth. For as long as we live, there are opportunities to notice we’re going in the wrong direction and to turn around. 

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’m Jonah at the end of the book. Sometimes, in the less compassionate part of my heart, I hope to witness negative consequences for people I disagree with. Sometimes the universe offers more forgiveness than I would offer if it were up to me. I’m not talking about situations where someone in a marginalized group is pressured to show forgiveness to someone in a privileged group, that is a whole other sermon. I’m talking mostly about petty disagreements that could be reconciled if the willingness were there. When I’m not my best self, I am sometimes like Jonah, and I pout when punishment is not forthcoming. This happens fairly regularly when I see people driving on the highway in an inconsiderate manner. Luckily, the eventual reconciliation of all beings with mercy, holiness, and love is not something I am in charge of, even though I have faith that it may be so at the end of time. 

Letting go of grudges is something I struggle with, and I’m still working on it. For some people, letting go is a more complex process, and it’s not healthy or justice-oriented to rush, especially when it involves trauma or repeated and prolonged harm. Within in the realm of everyday forgiveness and reconciliation, I still struggle, I keep returning to the work, and I hope I’m going in the right direction. Meanwhile, the Book of Jonah reminds me that the universe contains more potential for growth, for change, for making amends, and for forgiveness than I am able to contain within myself at any one time. So the High Holidays gives me signs and reminders that every so often I need to turn around, to turn toward life. 

There is a way in which the Book of Jonah is about the redemption of the Ninevites, and there is a way in which it is about the redemption of Jonah, the lesson that sometimes things are not all about him. It’s not about any one of us. The world isn’t about me, even though the ways I am privileged might lead me to think otherwise. Spiritual community is about our shared mission and shared strength, which means people don’t always get what they want. The demonstration about the plant that provided shade over Jonah’s head for one day was to put compassion in a larger context; the earth is so much larger than any one person can experience. There are sources of grace, and reasons for limits, that are beyond our knowing. 

On the other hand, sometimes we are the Ninevites. Sometimes we’ve been participating in a society, going ahead with business as usual, not really conscious that the collective impact of our way of life could lead to disastrous consequences, not just for ourselves, but for our entire sphere of existence. For ancient people, large scale consequences may have been understood as Divine response. I don’t know if the story happened exactly that way, but I believe it’s true that we bear collective responsibility for some of the negative consequences have befallen our communities, our nation, and our world. 

For me, this is a key point of resonance between the High Holidays prayers and Unitarian Universalism: the interdependent web. We know that what happens on any part of the web affects the rest. We know that we are connected to each other in proximity, to neighbors around the world, to the earth we share. We know that we are made of stardust, and that the whole universe of which we are a part moves together in a dance of gravity and matter and energy. Knowing that cause and effect are a complex network of responses, we as Unitarian Universalists have many opportunities to contemplate our call to community, our call to build coalitions, and our call to face the consequences of societal structures as one body. 

This stark understanding that all of us are in this together, that the consequences of our societal choices will affect all of us, is part of the sentiment in the Aveinu Malkeinu, which we’ll hear after the sermon. Aveinu Malkeinu is a prayer of acknowledgement of collective responsibility, and most of all a prayer that disaster will be averted and we will have time to demonstrate a new way of being. It matters that people gather together in community for this prayer. High Holidays services are opportunities to acknowledge widespread harm, to anticipate shared consequences, and to pledge collective action to change. The prayer is addressed to a Higher Power, but all over the liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, it’s clear that humans have responsibilities for creating and repairing the better world that we pray for. We face consequences together, we commit to change together. Maybe that’s a flavor of what the Ninevites did when presented with Jonah’s prophecy. 

Aveinu Malkeinu isn’t the only prayer of collective responsibility in the Jewish liturgy. There are many. For instance, in the Ashmanu, the community recites a list of different transgressions, one for each letter of the alphabet. If you’re using an interpretive translation, the community might say we have Acted out of malice for the letter A, we have Backbitten for the letter B, on up to Z, we have lacked Zeal to struggle for our convictions. All of the examples are in the plural, things we have done. Even if I personally didn’t commit letter V for violence, I am part of a system that allows violence to occur, and I am here to support my neighbor who wants to turn aside from violence. No single person has committed every sin on the list, but we have all co-created a community structured such that these sins happen. 

There is a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a twentieth century theologian and civil rights activist, about this ethic of collective responsibility. He said, “…morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” (End quote)

Heschel had the Holocaust partially in mind when he said this. He was born in Poland in 1907. His mother was murdered by Nazis, and two of his sisters died in concentration camps. In Heschel’s understanding, some were guilty for the atrocities of the Second World War, but all were responsible for allowing the growth of the ideology that led to them, and for letting atrocities go on as far and as long as they did. The bystanders were also responsible. 

Heschel is well known for applying the same ethic of social responsibility to the moral crises in America that he applied to the moral crises of Europe. He marched for African American civil rights, calling it praying with his feet. In a 1963 speech to a conference on Religion and Race, Heschel said:

“Race as a normative legal or political concept is capable of expanding to formidable dimensions. A mere thought, it extends to become a way of thinking, a highway of insolence, as well as a standard of values, overriding truth, justice, beauty. As a standard of values and behavior, race operates as a comprehensive doctrine, as racism. And racism is worse than idolatry. Racism is satanism, unmitigated evil.” (End quote)

Heschel’s point that, while some are guilty, all are responsible, explicitly included collective responsibility of white people for a culture of racism. Today we might frame the discussion in terms of white supremacy culture, of the systems of inequality that are baked into our legal codes, our public policies, our expectations of etiquette, and our economy. Some are guilty of knowingly creating terror and exploitation for people who are marginalized while creating advantages for people with privilege. All of us are responsible for dismantling that system. 

This is just one example of our shared call to repair; the same goes for ecological repair, for justice for Transgender and gender non-conforming folks, for our health care system, for economic justice. Some are guilty, all are responsible. On Yom Kippur, I will be thinking not only of my personal confessions, but also about how we as communities and a society are collectively responsible for creating change, as the people of Nineveh took responsibility to create change together. 

It’s not usually that easy for a truth-teller to come along and energize an entire population toward making amends and changing behavior to bring about justice and wholeness. We change on a smaller scale, convincing one congregation at a time, one legislator at a time, one movement at a time. We are constantly called to the work of repair. We know that the consequences we face are bigger than any one of us can change alone. We know that how we bind ourselves together in ethical, spiritual, and economic ways affects other beings on a larger scale than we can grasp. So repair, reconciliation, making amends, learning from our mistakes … these are ongoing projects. We hope to be guided in that continuous repair by the spirit of love. 

Kindness, compassion, mercy are aspects of strength, and it is an ongoing project of renovation and rebuilding to infuse that strength into all our ways of being together. That’s one of the interpretations of Psalm 89, verse 3: Olam chesed yibaneh. You could translate that as, “the strength of kindness has been and shall be in the continuous process of being rebuilt.” In other words, a world shall be built from love. 

There is a song based on Psalm 89:3, composed by Menachem Creditor. You might have heard it at a Jewish spiritual gathering or at a social justice protest. The “we” is a key word in this song. We build this world from love.

Olam chesed yibaneh, tai dai dai, tai dai dai, tai dai dai (x4)

I will build this world from love, tai dai dai, tai dai dai, tai dai dai

And you must build this world from love, tai dai dai, tai dai dai, tai dai dai

And if we build this world from love, tai dai dai, tai dai dai, tai dai dai

Then God will build this world from love, tai dai dai, tai dai dai, tai dai dai

Maybe there is a Higher Power who suffers with us and strengthens us and urges us toward justice and compassion. Maybe all of the Divinity that is currently in the world comes from human beings being their best selves. In either case, that which is sacred waits for us as humans to collectively take responsibility, to acknowledge our interdependence, to face up to brokenness, and to commit to repairs. May we do so with love, in love, and empowered by the spirit of love. So be it, blessed be, amen. 

As we consider the challenges before us, let us join together in the spirit of meditation as the choir relates this prayer of lamentation, confession, and hope for a shared movement of humanity toward life.