Text of a sermon delivered at Saskatoon Unitarians December 15, 2019
Rev. Karen Fraser Gitlitz
Service Leader: Nicole Kidder
Reading “no path” by David Whyte
Read it here , (there are other versions of this poem on the internet, but some of them are slightly different – I went with the one published by the poet himself)
Sermon “Betrayal and Forgiveness”
There is a card in the classic tarot deck that, for me, perfectly symbolizes betrayal. The image is of a person lying face down on the ground with a bunch of swords in their back, 10 of them. Blood pools around their body. The rest of the world looks normal — it’s an everyday landscape scene — just one with a jarring note of violence in the foreground.
Betrayal approaches from behind, I don’t see it coming.
The words associated with it are violent — it cuts, it punches.
It’s heavy stuff.
But that is what we do here. We come together to explore the human condition, it’s crevasses and abysses as well as it’s flower-filled meadows. This tradition of Unitarian Universalism invites us to treat our own life experience as a primary document, and then to range widely through the sources of wisdom, knowledge and inspiration to help us understand and interpret our own experience.
As Unitarian Universalists we are encouraged to consider all sources of insight — the arts as well as the sciences — the secular as well as the religious — the activists as well as the great thinkers. Our job is to sift through these lessons to find those that are life-giving and life-affirming.
This is a very personal form of assessment. We discover what is life giving only through the practice of living of our lives. It is a felt sensation in our bodies, of being opened up, enlarged, warmed. It is the choice that gives us more possibilities, not less. The choice that brings more love and connection into our lives. The choice that moves us toward health, integrity and wholeness. The love that nudges us, maybe even transforms us.
We do this sifting and winnowing in community because we are not always able to read the results well ourselves. Others can see what is life-giving in us even if we can’t — just as we can see and feel and hear it in them, when they have that glow of purpose and their voice is filled with excitement. And most important, we see and feel and hear it when it is not there. When a person feels trapped or made small or in any way lesser, less likely to flourish, it is visible to those around them.
This sifting and winnowing of our lives requires us to be present with ourselves and others in a sustained way. It a vulnerable. Therefore, I invite us to hold ourselves and one another with some tenderness today, especially. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
When it comes to betrayal and forgiveness, even a brief glance at the history of religion and spirituality, at least in the western world, reminds me that actually, religion has not always been helpful. While there are streams of life-giving wisdom, there are also streams of harm.
Two of the guides who have been most helpful for me in unpacking the harm are Rita Nakashima Brock, a Christian feminist theologian, and Rebecca Ann Parker, who is affiliated with both the United Methodists and the Unitarian Universalists.
Their ground-breaking book, Proverbs of Ashes, published in 2001, remains one of the best books of practical theology that I have ever read. It demonstrates how personal experience and intellectual inquiry can go places together that they would never have been able to access on their own.
In Proverbs of Ashes, Nakashima Brock and Parker explore the relationship between the Christian doctrine of redemption (that Jesus death on the cross is what saves us) and how this belief is intimately bound up with the harm caused by clergy who encouraged people — mostly people with less power in a relationship, often women — to stay in abusive relationships by pointing them toward Jesus’ death on the cross as the ultimate example of self-sacrifice.
(Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).
By valorizing an event that was a demonstration of political power, by making it seem inevitable or necessary, we lose connection with the suffering of Jesus and his followers. We lose connection with the just anger that is a normal and appropriate reaction when an important boundary is crossed.
Before we say “yes, and we know better than this now,” it’s important to note that this emphasis on redemption through suffering is not exclusive to Christianity. Many popular, secular understandings of forgiveness carry this message within them. God and Jesus may have been stripped out, but the pattern of benefitting those who caused the harm is still there.
It’s there when forgiveness is imposed from without — when we are told that forgiveness is the only way to health, and if we don’t choose it, somehow our healing will be incomplete. This is a form of spiritual violence. Forgiveness is one tool among many. Love is not limited to one path.
It is there when we are encouraged or pushed to choose suffering because it will somehow be better or more transformative for us. If there is one thing we can trust, it is that there is enough suffering in life — it will come to us, we don’t need to seek it out. It is always worth checking to see who benefits most from the results.
It’s there in the premature encouragement to find the silver lining. To feel that if we don’t somehow find the good in what is happening to us, we are not good people or not spiritual people.
It’s there in the encouragement to turn the other cheek, when that phrase is mis-used as an encouragement to people with less power in a relationship to stay in the relationship or otherwise keep themselves exposed to harm.
Always the first step is to remove yourself or those who are being hurt from harm’s way. It doesn’t matter if the other person needs you — this is a misuse of our compassion.
Just as anger needs to be channeled to find a healthy expression, so does compassion. Compassion can be manipulated, just like any other human emotion — our compassion for the perpetrator is not a reason to allow the situation to continue — this does not aid our healing or theirs (Proverbs of Ashes, 197)
But most of all, harm is caused when we tie forgiveness to guilt. When forgiveness is presented as something that we must give the person who hurt us (regardless of where we ourselves are at) it places emphasis on the healing of the person who caused the hurt, not the person who received it.
And, it makes us less likely to address the need to forgive ourselves — it makes it seem like if we feel in need of forgiveness, we must somehow be at fault.
If, like me, you were raised with this understanding of forgiveness – the requirement to say I forgive you when someone says they are sorry – it is hard to let go of the feeling that if I feel a need to forgive myself I am somehow at fault.
I find it most useful to think of forgiveness as a form of acceptance.
Forgiveness is something that we offer ourselves for our own healing. It is not selfish — the most useful thing we can do for others and for our planet is to heal ourselves.
Forgiveness helps us heal from an unhealthy attachment to another, regardless of the cause of the bond. It helps us detach ourselves from a relationship that is causing harm. It helps us get clear on what is our business and what is not.
Rebecca Parker tells the story about sitting in a support group for people who’ve been impacted by alcohol abuse and discovering that the person beside her had abused his children back when he was drinking. As a survivor herself, her first instinct was to flee the group. But she sat there, listening to him speak about the harm he had caused his children. He wasn’t asking for pity. As she says, “He didn’t expect his children to be able to forgive him, but knew that whether they did or didn’t was their business, not his.” (Proverbs of Ashes, 214-5).
Parker realized that underneath her revulsion, she and this man did have something in common. They were both learning not to live a lie, not to hide.
Healing doesn’t require our perpetrator to feel guilty. It doesn’t require us to forgive them. It may be totally appropriate to address their behavior in some way. It may not be.
What healing does require is honesty with ourselves about what happened. This takes patience, love and time.
The tragedy of betrayal is that it shakes our sense of self. We feel we have a role in it, even if we weren’t the ones who caused the breach. Broken trust causes me to wonder if this is the person, or if these are the people, I thought they were. It can cast doubt on our own judgement: what does it say about me and my ability to navigate the world if I made such a misplaced choice? Especially when we are young, broken trust can affect our sense of self-worth—the lesson we may take away is that, apparently, we are not worthy of trust.
(Which, by the way, is an insidious lie and one that takes concerted effort to expose).
This is the essence of betrayal: someone we expected to be able to trust — because they are our friends or family, or in some way responsible for our well-being — someone we expected to be able to trust broke that trust in a way that makes it difficult for us to trust again.
This puts us in the situation described by David Whyte in this morning’s reading: there is no path forward, because a tremor wrenched at the foundation of our reality. There is a gap, a crevasse, and the path doesn’t re-start neatly on the other side.
As any wilderness course will tell you, when you lose the path in the woods, the best thing to do is stop moving. Thrashing about and frantically searching for the path basically guarantees that you will get even more lost.
The first steps are to stay still. Move only if you are not in a safe place. Finding a safe place, assume you will be here for a while. So, take a moment to identify your resources. Once you’ve got yourself set up, then you can calmly take a mental walk through your travels, recollecting how you came to be where you are.
My favourite quote about forgiveness became famous because it formed the last words of a convicted murderer. It lives on the internet attributed to the Dalai Lama, Oprah and Lily Tomlin. But it was first stated by Corinne Edwards as a re-wording of an idea by Gerald Jampolsky. My thanks to Aharon N. Varady for this research! (https://aharon.varady.net/omphalos/2016/04/first-said-forgiveness-giving-hope-better-past)
Here it is: Forgiveness means giving up all hope of having a better past.
Forgiveness means giving up all hope of having a better past.
If it helps to pray for the person who hurt you, do it because it helps you become more honest with yourself. If it helps you to imagine their suffering and the reasons they acted the way they did, do it because it helps you see what happened more clearly.
Notice your choices, and whether, as you are living them, they are life-affirming or life-denying. Are you becoming more honest with yourself? Are you becoming okay with feeling not very trusting? (It is normal, even ok, to feel this way.)
If you are in a place of no path, are you able to look down at the ground and find a safe place to sit for a while?
By these simple actions, life is rebuilt.
Amen, blessed be.
Ritual Salt and Water
From ancient times people have used taste as a metaphor for experience, for both the sweetness and the bitterness of life. The taste of betrayal is the taste of tears, the salt of grief and anger running down our cheeks.
There are many reasons to weep – for ourselves, for others, for our planet. Some of us cry readily and freely. Others go for years with not a tear on our face.
Regardless of whether our tears are visible for others to see or whether they stay inside of us, they are the salt that marks our suffering.
If you would like to come forward to put some salt in the water in memory of the tears you have shed, or in honour of the healing you have done, are doing, or will do, you are invited to do so now.
Meditation Read by Nicole Kidder
On self-acceptance and creating a safe place inside of ourselves
Concluding words Karen Fraser Gitlitz
The waves rush in and slide away,
The pulsing beat of the ocean
Wipes the footprints off the beach,
Clearing away the debris.
Each wave is an opportunity
to clarify who we are now.
Each wave an opportunity to begin again.
We forgive ourselves and each other,
We begin again in love.