This summer I started attending a small UCC congregation a mile from my house. One of the two co-ministers is my friend and colleague Shayna Appel. Like me, Shayna grew up Jewish; though unlike me she stands with a foot in Judaism and a foot in Christianity. As I was pondering this pre- Yom Kippur sermon, the lectionary passage Shayna preached on last Sunday, grabbed my attention. It came from the Book of Exodus, chapter 12, wherein the first Passover is instituted. Admittedly, last Sunday on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, I found it a bit strange to be hearing about Passover, but the text connected to World Communion Day. The chapter begins with the Lord instructing Moses and Aaron in Egypt how to sacrifice a lamb and eat it on the run. The vegan in me was already wincing but the twelfth verse of chapter twelve struck hard:
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. “
The theologically inclined often speak of God’s forgiveness, mercy in the form of grace; thus imagining God, the divine energy permeating the cosmos, smiting every firstborn across Egypt, doesn’t reconcile with the ground of being. Sure, nature revolves around cycles of life and death, composting and regeneration, but not wanton destruction instilling terror.
For my friend Shayna, and the Jews, historic and contemporary, whose theology bridges into Christianity, there may be some comfort in the teachings of Jesus in Matthew, chapter five:
If you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council…23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. … if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well… I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
What better homily for The Day of Atonement, what better recipe for being at one with self and other? First, be reconciled. Turn the other cheek. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.
While I embrace those instructions and give lip-service to them regularly in the course I teach on forgiveness and reconciliation, today, in early observance of Yom Kippur, which begins Tuesday at sundown, I can’t stir Jesus into the mix. I want to wrestle with a version of God who chooses irreparable damage, whose actions induce a grief like no other, where a cry is heard throughout the land.
Here’s why. The value in wrestling with a biblical passage where God exacts a wrath so hideous, hardening Pharaoh’s heart instead of softening it, is that it might illumine a path for us to atone for the terror we witness and do not stop, and the agony some of us experience at the hands of humans as violent as that firstborn-smiting God.
In the class I teach, I used to show a documentary about Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. A film called “Co-exist” that examines how victims and perpetrators live side by side. This year, as the tally of unarmed African Americans killed by police multiplies almost daily, and according to Al Jazeera America, Native Americans are even more likely to be killed by police, I decided to focus on this country and ask how African- and Native Americans co-exist with people complicit in systemic, often lethal, oppression.
If God feels irrelevant, because we are humanist, or our concept of God does not include vengeance or terror, we are still not free from grappling with how to bear unspeakable pain that arises out of connection. That’s what’s inescapable at Yom Kippur—restoring connection. The day is about repentance, returning to one’s truest self, one’s moral center, one’s ethical commitment to be in right relation with all being. Maybe no one here wakes each day to the reality that our child is more likely to be inadequately educated, suspended, expelled, stopped, frisked, arrested, incarcerated, or killed by dint of Native or African American identity, but we all reckon with the inevitability of pain—and often that pain emerges out of intimate relationship. Spouses, parents, children, relatives, lovers, friends. Sometimes the pain erupts from strangers but even they are woven into the fabric of our lives.
If I could show you the video clip of Christopher Kimble’s mother addressing the East Cleveland city council after her twenty-two–year-old son was struck and killed in a busy intersection with no functioning crosswalk signal by a police cruiser with no siren or lights on, I would. To hear her anguish is to hear the cry heard across the land when God smote every firstborn in Egypt. That the dashcam powered down right before the crash and the police officer did not turn on his bodycam only added insult to fatal injury.
“They left my baby gurgling in the street. I watched it on the news,” she cries.
In the week I asked my students to pair up and research the name of an unarmed African American killed by police or in police custody, two more unarmed black men died: Terence Crutcher in Tulsa and Alfred Olango near San Diego. And that matches the frequency for 2015, when police killed 102 unarmed black people, almost two a week.
In Rwanda, some perpetrators return from prison, some never went. It is not uncommon to encounter a person who slaughtered his neighbor’s family or burned down the house. What is so insidious is that perpetrators and victims cannot be neatly sorted and separated. During the hundred-day genocide, family members turned on each other, neighbors attacked each other; clergy led congregations to slaughter. The ethnic distinction between Hutu and Tutsi, exaggerated and exacerbated by the colonizing Belgians, blurred.
The legacy we labor within is no less fraught than the biblical landscape presented in Exodus wherein one people enslaves another, though here in this country, Yahweh did not bring forth the tenth plague. Yet still, we live alongside each other, or in striking distance. We who have privilege even when we feel we have so little power coexist with parents forced to instruct their children of color on how to avoid death at the hands of the public servants, how to keep hands out of pockets, hoods off of heads, and any language not obsequious out of mouths. How do we atone as we bear witness to that? And how do we imagine those parents and their children finding a sense of at-one-ment with those of us spared that reality?
For a few semesters now, I have invited a woman to speak with my class about her experience after the murder of her daughter. The guest, Margaret, theologically educated in the Quaker tradition, objected to the plea bargain that reduced the charge of first-degree murder to second because the man who killed her daughter, Molly, did so deliberately and with forethought. Margaret deferred to her son-in-law’s wish to avoid a trial so the plea bargain went forward and the defendant received a lengthy sentence in prison. In her statement to the defendant, a young Haitian man who had come to stay with his older brother at the farm where Molly and her husband lived, Margaret wrote,
I search for words and meaning to explain how you could commit an act so far beyond the pale. I believe you are too broken, and pose too great a threat to the safety of women, to ever return to the street, here or in Haiti. However, I hold firmly to my commitment not to turn to hatred. I am not interested in seeing you suffer. I would like you to be permanently contained, but in a setting that – if you were accepting of treatment – would support and encourage you to redeem what you can of your life.
Margaret wonders in her statement what constitutes forgiveness. In the course we study several thinkers who define forgiveness: theologians, philosophers, psychologists, restorative justice practitioners—and all agree that forgiveness does not condone, excuse, or forget. It requires the person granting it to speak the truth, to name the pain, and release the toxicity of resentment, hatred, and vengefulness. In class we learn about unilateral or unconditional forgiveness that requires nothing from the perpetrator who may be unknown, absent, unremorseful or dead—and we study bilateral forgiveness, in particular a model articulated by Charles Griswold, a philosopher who argues that the purpose of forgiveness is not to free the forgiver from the bondage of perpetual resentment but to restore a moral relationship; thus it takes both parties to engage in forgiveness. In his model, the perpetrator must acknowledge wrongdoing, make amends, and commit to becoming a person who will not repeat the act and the victim must be willing to see the perpetrator as a whole person, more than the sum of the offending act.
In her statement to the man who murdered her daughter, Margaret continues,
You will have time to reflect, to think about who you have been and what you have done in your first twenty-four years. You can also think about who you want to be for the rest of your life. You have done enormous harm to many people, but you have an opportunity to turn yourself around, starting today. Avail yourself of [resources]. … Sign up for every program available that will help you turn your life around.
In Margaret’s statement to him in court, she acknowledged the “sad truth that the country you came from has endured centuries of neglect and abuse from the rest of the world.” She said to my class when she first discovered he was Haitian, she examined her relationship to him vis-a-vis the long exploitative history that binds our nation with his. “I already had a relationship with him in that regard,” she explained.
Even when we don’t know each other, before our lives collide, we are connected—in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, we “inter-are.” While Margaret’s daughter Molly had met the man who killed her a few days before her death, when she took him fishing, Margaret writes in her statement,
My direct relationship with you began the day after you killed Molly, the day I heard your name for the first time, as the sole suspect in this case. I have no face-to-face relationship with you. I don’t really know who you are, what makes you tick. What I do know of you is appalling. Yet you and I will be in relationship for the rest of our lives, whether or not we ever see one another again. You will never stop being the man who killed my daughter. I will never stop being the mother of a young woman you murdered.
Recently it occurred to me that I probably forgave the day it happened before I knew [you] existed, or the day after, when I said I would not yield to hatred. I understand hatred as a consuming desire for revenge …But do not confuse hatred with anger. I am unspeakably angry at what you have done; I just do not hate you.…
I will think and wonder about you, and will pray that you may receive peace in your heart. You would have much painful work for that to happen, but I hope you get there. The world can only benefit from another peaceful heart in its midst.
Consider the woman in Rwanda who allows the man who murdered her husband to rebuild her house. To offer what amends he can. Imagine Congressman John Lewis and every other Civil Rights activist who practiced nonviolent resistance, believing “the world can only benefit from another peaceful heart,” as police batons cracked open their skulls.
The philosopher, Charles Griswold writes that anger in the face of injustice is warranted and the lack of it suggests moral turpitude. The only reason to relinquish such anger is when it is no longer warranted, when change occurs and remains. As a new generation marches under the banner of “Black and Native Lives Matter,” will we understand their warranted anger and not confuse it for hatred or revenge?
We live in a society rife with injustice and full of longing. We witness if not experience extraordinary courage and unspeakable heartbreak. Though Yahweh does not visit plagues upon us, we tear the fabric of Creation ourselves. Intentionally and inadvertently, we trample upon the tenderness of being. We arrive at the Day of Atonement, invited to engage in the seemingly endless, often excruciating work of restoring right relationship in the context of a society where some of us feel as forlorn and undeserving as the sheep in ancient Egypt licking their lifeless firstborn, or the mother in East Cleveland whose “baby is left gurgling in the street.”
Margaret ends her statement to the defendant by quoting Mark Twain: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” She occasionally writes to the young man in prison, who killed her daughter as deliberately as Yahweh destroyed Egypt’s firstborn. She encourages him to “stay limber so that every now and then over the decades [he] can bend down and smell [his] heel.”
Ours is a world where a young man in prison writes of his own profound childhood abuse to a mother whose child he killed. “All life is inter-related. [We] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
In Judaism, tikkun olam means mending the torn fabric of Creation, that single garment of destiny that enrobes us all. And so it is the God of Exodus is the God of Yom Kippur summoning us to be at one with the heft of the heel and the fragrance that lingers upon it. Amen.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail