“Let Go of Guilt, Put Love Out Front” by Jolie Olivetti, May 21, 2017
“To Savor the World or to Save It” by Richard Gilbert
I rise in the morning torn between the desire
To save the world or to savor it—to serve life or to enjoy it;
To savor the sweet taste of my own joy
Or to share the bitter cup of my neighbor;
To celebrate life with exuberant step
Or to struggle for the life of the heavy laden.
What am I to do when the guilt at my bounty
Clouds the sky of my vision;
When the glow which lights my every day
Illumines the hurting world around me?
To savor the world or save it?
God of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!
No, you will not let me be. You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes to the sight of the afflicted.
What is that you say?
To save, one must serve?
To savor, one must save?
The one will not stand without the other?
Forgive me—in my preoccupation with myself,
In my concern for my own life
I had forgotten.
Forgive me, God of justice,
Forgive me, and make me whole.
by Dr Yolanda Pierce
Let us not rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.
Let us not rush to offer a band-aid, when the gaping wound requires surgery and complete reconstruction.
Let us not offer false equivalencies, thereby diminishing the particular pain being felt in a particular circumstance in a particular historical moment.
Let us not speak of reconciliation without speaking of reparations and restoration, or how we can repair the breach and how we can restore the loss.
Let us not rush past the loss of this mother’s child, this father’s child… someone’s beloved son.
Let us not value property over people; let us not protect material objects while human lives hang in the balance.
Let us not value a false peace over a righteous justice.
Let us not be afraid to sit with the ugliness, the messiness, and the pain that is life in community together.
Let us not offer clichés to the grieving, those whose hearts are being torn asunder.
Let us mourn black and brown men and women, those killed extrajudicially every 28 hours.
Let us lament the loss of a teenager, dead at the hands of a police officer who described him as a demon.
Let us weep at a criminal justice system, which is neither blind nor just.
Let us call for the mourning men and the wailing women, those willing to rend their garments of privilege and ease, and sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.
Let us be silent when we don’t know what to say.
Let us be humble and listen to the pain, rage, and grief pouring from the lips of our neighbors and friends.
Let us decrease, so that our brothers and sisters who live on the underside of history may increase.
Let us pray with our eyes open and our feet firmly planted on the ground.
Let us listen to the shattering glass and let us smell the purifying fires, for it is the language of the unheard.
From “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” by Audre Lorde
“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.
Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; Anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.
My anger is a response to racist attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. If your dealings with other women reflect those attitudes, then my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures.
I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.
SERMON “Let Go of Guilt, Put Love Out Front”
Last Sunday, I was on the bus getting shuttled from City Hall back to Fields Corner where the Mothers’ Day Walk for Peace had begun. I recognized the woman who I invited to sit beside me from previous years’ walks, but I had never really met her. She introduced herself and asked if I had lost someone – meaning, had I lost a loved one to homicide, was that why I was there at the walk? I told her I was there as a supporter. She said nothing. I asked her if she was honoring anyone at the walk, and she showed me the two buttons she wore – two of her sons were murdered. Also, three of her nephews – her sister’s sons. The bus rolled off City Hall Plaza and eventually we made our way onto the expressway. We passed billboards and navigated traffic in the rain and wind. I asked, tell me about your sons, what were they like? Her eyes lit up: “They were wonderful. They were amazing.” She showed me pictures on her phone. Pictures from a different peace walk, one that she organized in Upham’s Corner for 11 years. Pictures of her at a breast cancer walk, since she has also lost family members to breast cancer. She showed me pictures of newspaper clippings about her peace work. She told me about a place where she feels great peace, where she embraces forgiveness – at the four different prisons where she regularly works with people who are incarcerated for murder.
As I listened to her story, did I feel guilty that I’ve led a life with so much less loss than this woman? Yes. This word privilege is so loaded and so inadequate. As I sat next to her, I felt like my relative affluence and my whiteness glared like a neon sign, since I am so protected from the effects of a system that I ultimately benefit from, the very same system that means she as a working class immigrant woman of color is subjected to so much loss and violence. I felt guilty that my family, my circles of friends are shot through with vastly fewer holes than hers.
Did I feel guilty that I wasn’t sure what to say as she spoke about her unimaginable losses? Yes. People usually don’t want you to tell them you think they’re strong or brave, because they don’t want to be strong or brave, they would rather have their loved one back, or not have cancer. So I didn’t say much, just listened and asked questions and expressed my sorrow. And I sat with these guilty feelings that bubbled up in me, and then let them go, and made room for love instead. I made room to witness her story and be humbled by it, to feel grateful for what she was teaching me.
When I first started working at ReVision Urban Farm and homeless shelter in Dorchester almost 10 years ago, it was much harder for me to get past the guilty feelings. I didn’t even always realize I was feeling guilty when I’d act defensive or pretend to be someone I am not, trying to hide or downplay my relative privilege when I was talking to shelter residents or my coworkers. I would trip all over myself to say I had bought my clothes at the thrift store or to seem like I was a “good” middle class white person. I soon learned that everyone read me for exactly who I am and no one was judging me unless I was pretending. All my embarrassment and need to apologize threw up a wall between us. I realized that the point was not to feel guilty for being who I am, but instead to just be grounded in myself so we could all enjoy one another’s company while we ran a shelter and grew vegetables together. Guilt is a barrier to relationships; guilt gets in the way of the possibility that we can work together to break all these patterns that benefit some at the expense of others. If I’m too busy feeling guilty, I miss out on the fact that my humanity is wrapped up in everyone’s humanity. Guilt robs me of the knowledge that my own liberation is at stake too. We don’t work for change for other people, but for all of us.
I wanted to preach about guilt this morning because this is a common response to bringing up the topic of racism and white supremacy, in any setting, including at church. And I talk about this stuff a lot, in a lot of different settings, so I am wary of giving off the impression that I enjoy making all of us white folks feel bad about ourselves. I don’t. I recognize that it’s sometimes a byproduct, for myself as much as for anyone else. But it’s never the point to make anyone feel guilty. Also, this topic is timely because there is a lot of upheaval in the leadership of our Unitarian Universalist Association right now, in the wake of people calling out a persistent pattern of institutional racism, and as a result almost 700 UU congregations all over the US have agreed to devote their morning worship to learning about white supremacy and racism in the past month.
It’s often said that UU’s don’t “do” guilt. Don’t we, though? The paradox of our faith tradition is that while we reject original sin and we insist on the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we also sometimes leave our church buildings feeling worse than when we came in. We hear about an issue during the service, or during social hour, an issue like climate change or poverty or violence, and we are guilt-stricken, wondering whether we are doing enough, despairing that we can never do enough. Unlike, for example, Catholicism with its rituals for admission and absolution of sin and guilt, us UU’s recoil from words such as “sin” or “guilt,” but still we find ourselves steeped in culpability and disappointment at our inevitable human failings.
When I was an intern at the Peace Institute I learned an activity to talk about feelings. The activity is called “Feelings as Messengers,” and the basic premise is that it’s really important to feel our feelings because they often have crucial messages for us. If we are feeling angry, it might be because someone has crossed the line, has stepped over a boundary with us, and so we need to reestablish that boundary. If we are feeling sad, it often means we need some time to grieve and let go of something, to nurse a loss.
What about guilt? What message might it send?
According to Audre Lorde, in the piece I read from earlier, guilt can be a wake-up call, an uncomfortable but sometimes necessary starting point to transformation. Lorde writes, “Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.” To me, this passage means we have to face the great wrongs of our society and the anger of those who have been wronged, even if it makes us feel terrible at first. Instead of avoiding or ignoring these wrongs, let us be unflinching as we learn about them. We learn about oppression not because anyone benefits from our guilty feelings and our urge to apologize, but rather because knowledge is power. Ignorance is bliss only for those of us who have the luxury of choosing ignorance.
Perhaps something that can help us heed the messages that guilt is trying to send us is to not harbor the illusion that we are innocent. I sometimes catch myself feeling surprised that I’m not pure and exceptional. “But I’m one of the good ones!” I want to protest when I learn how racism is not just interpersonal but instead a widespread system of dominance and oppression that I am unwillingly complicit in as a white person. If I can let go of the idea of my innocence, then it’s easier to wrestle with the guilty feelings rather than be afraid of them and get stuck in them.
James Cone, the great Black theologian, speaks of the “myth of American innocence.” It’s true, we imagine we’re the good guys. The version of American history I was taught in school holds that the American experiment perhaps made some mistakes in the past but good progress is inevitable because we are the protagonists, this nation is ultimately noble and pure at its core. Trump winning the election threw into stark relief that we are not free from white supremacy. The litany that the group read to us earlier put it this way: we still “sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.” Not only is there now tacit permission to express outright bigotry the likes of which many of us have not witnessed in generations, but also we are reminded that this country was built on a particular narrative about whose lives matter and whose do not, and still, 400 years later, we have not yet replaced that story with a truer, more human one.
Victoria Safford, a UU author and minister, wrote an essay on Universalists that addresses the contradictions in Universalism – how can we all be good and yet still cause each other such harm? Safford wrote, “the early Universalists did believe that every person is redeemable, salvageable, possessed of worth and even dignity no matter what.” Safford qualifies that this is not because humans are faultless but rather because God is infinitely forgiving. She goes on to explain, “They held that we are punished not for our sins but by them, every day; that in the soul something shrivels, disintegrates, and starts to die when we collaborate with evil. Our wholeness, our holiness, is torn; our spirit becomes sick.”
If that’s the case, if we are punished not for our sins but by them, if something dies in us when we collaborate with evil, however unwillingly or unwittingly, then our souls call us to go right towards our failings rather than recoiling from them. We prayed the litany this morning not in order to make ourselves feel bad, but because we need spaces for lament in our worship, we need to cry out in anger and in anguish, we need to name what is wrong even if it hurts. Facing this evil together, lamenting it together is a tool in our spiritual quest for dealing with guilt and seeking wholeness.
As I come to the end of this sermon, and to the end of my internship, I want to say that we do good work, holy work at this church.
We take care of one another, because we care about one another. We do social justice work because we care about our community.
It can be hard to take a look at ourselves and say, yes we have beautiful intentions and yes we do good work, but to still ask, how can we truly honor our banner that says, Black Lives Matter? How can we truly honor that rainbow flag that flies on Church Street? How can we live into our affirmation that love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law?
This is what it means to put Love Out Front, the other half of my sermon title and the name of the Social Action Committee’s initiative to talk about anti-racism as a church.
It means that we are not afraid to ask hard questions and listen to the messages that guilt sends us. It means we are not afraid of guilt because the benefits of understanding the roots of oppression far outweigh the cost of discomfort. Putting Love Out Front means we believe we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality that calls us to face all the harshness of reality, to witness others’ pain, and to keep on a spiritual quest for wholeness.
It is my prayer that the First Parish of Watertown continues this work, taking it on and making it your own, as though all our lives depend on it, because they do.
From “A Brave And Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every [person]
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.