Reclaiming Worth

Today I begin an occasional yearlong series on our Seven UU Principles. The principles, voted on by successive General Assemblies of our denomination in the 1980s, will be reviewed over the next several years. These were never meant to be a creed or a testament of faith, but were, in fact, agreements about what our congregations agree on. Still, over time, they have become touchstones to our faith. Dozens of books and courses have been produced, and our own Julie Hernandez and our Addiction and Recovery Ministry have designed and taught a course linking these seven principles and the twelve steps of the recovery movement. These seven principles, broad and barely religious though they are, are at the heart of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. The first of these, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” is foundational to our own vision of building an inclusive community. It is also the principle most at odds with the existence of evil in the world. After all, how can you believe in the inherent worth of a mass murderer or a child abuser? It’s a legitimate challenge. Let me start with a story.

“You stupid good for nothing idiot. Why, a flea has more brains than you. What do you think you are, smart? You won’t be nothing.” I winced, as this 300-pound man yelled his teenaged son. “I can’t see why you were even born. What a waste of time.”

The old man waddled off. The boy stood there blank faced. I was witnessing a terrible family fight. But the saddest part was that it wasn’t out of the ordinary. In fact, the old man yelled at his son daily this way, taking a little bit of his humanity away each time he did it. The boy who had learned to shut out most of the abuse wasn’t able to shut it all out.

When someone tells you that you are good for nothing for 20 years you begin to believe it, and lo’ and behold, most abused children become much less than they could be, or even worse, they pass on that abuse.

And lest you think that this is just some underclass phenomenon, let me assure you, this sort of deprivation occurs in many guises. Children of high achievers who think they are less than worthy if they don’t come home with straight A’s. The man that amassed three fortunes to gain the love of his father who had been dead 20 years, but to whom he was sacrificing his marriage. Athletes who die from strokes, not because their bodies weren’t in shape, but because their sense of self-worthlessness put such a strain on them they snapped. Beauty queens who suddenly end up in the hospital with an eating disorder because their own mothers never felt beautiful enough for their father, who ran off with a younger woman anyway.

I could go on and on. I am talking about some of you, aren’t I? And it hurts doesn’t it. It hurts a lot. Today I want to talk about guilt and forgiveness. I want to talk about the journey from worthlessness and worthiness. I want to talk about reclaiming worthiness.

The belief in inherent worth is actually deeply ingrained in the bible. Jesus proclaims that the “kingdom of God is within” in the Gospel of Thomas, and Isaiah proclaims, “my whole being shall exalt in God.” In fact, up until the Middle Ages, the early Church defined its saving message not in Jesus dying for our sins, but fulfilling the promise of an earthly heaven, “…the creating wisdom and power of life dwelling in human beings” (Parker and Brock, Saving Paradise, 2008). In fact, it could be argued that the inherent worthiness of all people is deeply imbedded in the coming of age story in Genesis.

It’s an old story. In the Hebrew myth of Adam and Eve, Adam (which literally means earthling in Hebrew) is given a mate, his other side, literally taken from his other side. And the two of them are given a life of luxury in the Garden of Eden. God has placed two trees in this garden that are important. The first one is the tree of life, from which they may eat and retain everlasting life. The other tree is the tree of good and evil. “From this you may not eat” says God “for when you do you shall surely die”. Now, of course, this is a set-up, like putting a plate of cookies in front of three year old and saying “Don’t touch those.” Eve (which literally means “New Life”) is tempted or drawn to the tree by the snake. A word about the snake: We associate snakes with evil, but in the ancient Near Eastern myth, a snake is actually a sacred sign of divine power. It often represents infinity. The snake offers the apple to Eve; she takes a bite and offers the apple to Adam.

Now the traditional interpretation of this scene is that of original sin. We are just too weak to obey God. But hold that thought for just a minute. Because what happens next is very important. They eat the apple and see that they are apart from their creator, that they are indeed separate beings. As separate, they “hide themselves,” both from each other and God. When God comes strolling through the garden he calls out for them. When they finally come out God asks, “Why are you hiding?” They tell him about the apple. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake and the snake doesn’t have a leg to stand on. No, seriously. But blaming now becomes the second act of independence, deciding to eat the apple was the first. For this, God sends them out of the garden and condemns them to toil, work and bear children.

There are two ways to read this story. The first and the more traditional is the crime and punishment model. One little mistake and wham! You unworthy, disobedient and depraved human beings. God throws him out. What does this sound like? Who here has made one mistake in their life for which they are forever regretful? Who here after making that mistake felt like they could never make it up? Who here remembers the hurt and the shame? This, my dear friends, is the basis for much of what we perpetuate in our families and our society. We are flawed beings, that is true, but it seems we cannot forgive our flaws. Like Adam and Eve, we are forever cursed because we couldn’t live up to the expectations of the One God.

But that is only one way to read the story. There is another. What if Adam and Eve were exercising their free will, which God gave them in the first place? How could they have known, ask some, what bad was until they had eaten the apple? In fact, isn’t this the point? Aren’t Adam and Eve compelled to eat the apple because of that very power which God gives all of us in her image: the freedom to choose? Adam and Eve were framed. If they hadn’t eaten the apple they would have never been imago dei, in God’s image. When they ate the apple they became truly human. In exercising their freedom, they were reclaiming their worthiness.

While they disobeyed this direct order from God, they obeyed their humanity by showing some independence. This then is the mythical beginning not so much of right and wrong, but of guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling wrong about something we did. We don’t do a lot of guilt around here, but some is not all bad. I’ve done some pretty terrible things in my life and I still feel guilty about doing them. I’ve had to work at changing myself so that I wouldn’t do them again. I’ve had to earn the love and respect of those I have hurt. But shame is something else entirely. Shame is the feeling that we ARE bad human beings. Adam and Eve aren’t shameful, they’re human. Perhaps what they did was wrong, but it doesn’t make them any less as people. This is why we as Unitarian Universalists do not believe in original sin; original sin says we are evil by our very nature. We say no. We say we are flawed by our very nature, capable of doing incredible evil, but we are also born with a natural light which while flawed and flickering still burns brightly. Doing something wrong is not the same as being wrong by our very nature. This is another way of proclaiming this first principle of ours, we may do terrible things, but we are, by nature of being, free thinking actors worthy of consideration.

It is not always easy to defend this inherent worth. To be fair, there are some real challenges to this belief. William Schultz, past president of the UUA and past Executive Director of Amnesty International, calls inherent worth into question. In his 2006 Berry Street Lecture “What Torture Has Taught Me,” Schultz can no longer accept that every one has inherent worth; having seen the pleasure torturers, even seemingly normal good people such as those at Abu Gahrib prison, took in hurting others. Evil incarnated in human actions makes it very difficult to accept inherent worth. Schultz asks, “So is the worth and dignity of every person inherent? No, inherency is a political construct—perhaps a very useful myth but a myth nonetheless–designed to cover up the fact that we all are sinners and that we are not always certain which sins (and hence, which sinners) are worse than others. Each of us has to be assigned worth — it does not come automatically — and taught to behave with dignity because, as Sartre once said, “If it were not for the petty rules of bourgeois society, we humans would destroy each other in an instant.”

I accept his challenge that inherent worth is hard to accept as innate, but I still consider it innate because the alternative is much worse. If human beings are not inherently worthy and worth is “assigned” by virtuous deeds in a society, who then is to decide what virtue is? The clergy, politicians? We saw this relative assignment of worth in the torture by Americans in Guantanamo, were the designation “enemy combatant” (a designation of relative worth based on actions) led to a stripping of basic human rights, not the least of which is the right to legal defense. No, I cannot accept that inherency is relative. I have to separate the action from the worth of the doer, or we have nothing to rely on in assigning basic human rights.

Which is not to say it isn’t hard to do. Torture is one instance, but so is abuse, especially of children. How do we uphold inherent worth for abusers?

One of the most difficult topics in this debate are the very painful cases of sexual child abuse committed by several Catholic priests many years ago. Father Rob Jascot is a Roman Catholic priest I knew many years ago. We served together on a local cable talk show I hosted on Faith issues in our community. We talked openly about this problem on the show. I have to say here, I admire Father Jascot a great deal. It takes courage to face this question squarely and talk about it. In our discussion, we brought out the very basic fact that pedophilia, in fact any form of abuse, is an evil and heinous act. It feels all the more evil when it is done by a clergy person because of the sacred trust that is violated, and even more so by a Catholic priest because of the hypocrisy associated with vows of celibacy. Father Jascot responded bravely: Yes, sexual abuse, like alcoholism before it, was the church’s secret for years. But as we break any cycle of abuse we had to bring it into the light. Priests are now required to undergo psychological testing, sexuality awareness training and criminal background checks (all of which Unitarians were doing 20 years ago). The Catholic Church, like our own Congregation, has a zero tolerance policy for abuse.

“It is a tragedy,” said Father Jascot, “for the children, for their parents, for the priest, for the Church and for America, which sees this as one more reason why they shouldn’t trust religion.”

We did, of course, talk about how far we have come and how the vast majority of churches are safe and healthy places to learn and grow and how the vast majority of clergy are kind, safe and helpful people. But the hurt is real. I commented on the fact that most abusers are themselves abused, and abuse others as a way of validating their own lack of worth. Pedophilia is the worst form of shame. Preying on innocent children is the end point of what can happen when we feel we are truly worthless.

In my last church we had a pedophile amongst us. While we are certain that no harm came to any of our children, in large part because of the safety policies we had in place, our course of action was clear and unequivocal. We asked him to leave. For some, that was not enough. For others it reminded them of their own exclusion and fears of being not worthy enough even for a church. We did this not because he was evil as a person, but because his actions (which he has since repeated) were evil and we are not a therapy center here. Any church is a community. And even as respectful as we are, we are forced to protect our community from hurt first and foremost.

Of course, very few of us have done something as wrong as that, and yet we feel that sense of shame. Whether it is abuse of others or ourselves, through substance or behavior, that sense of not being ever quite good enough. We long for acceptance, but feel trapped in our own being. “The prison of the soul is far more darker than any dungeon,” wrote John Donne. This is one reason why I feel so strongly that our first principle is so foundational to who we are as free church. If we can’t separate harmful actions from human worth then who will.

This week we began a course on the 19th century Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickenson. What they all shared was this sense of an inner light, a divine worthiness in spite of what we do. We may spend the rest of our life in prison, but we are still of worth, connected, as Emerson would write, in an Over soul.

We do matter. We can and should reclaim our worth. But how? How can we move beyond a sense of shame to self-acceptance; how do we even move beyond guilt towards forgiveness.

The greatest irony of the story of Adam and Eve is that they were condemned by a Creator who supposedly made them in love. Or were they condemned? Let us look again: And God said “…in work shall you till the ground, thorns and thistles it shall bring forth and you shall eat the plants of the field and woman shall in pain bring forth children…” Our free will made us human and mortal and then left us with a challenge: to bring forth life. Isn’t this the very nature of human creation? If it was all given to you, well then so what? But if we can overcome adversity and create something from “thorns and thistles” and “in pain bring forth” new life, isn’t that what living is all about? Perhaps, as Rabbi Harold Kushner observes, we didn’t so much get thrown out of paradise but outgrew paradise. Didn’t we move beyond having it given to us and feeling ourselves dependent on God, to finding what we valued ourselves and depending on each other? We can claim our worthiness, my friends, precisely because we suffer. We matter because we must find a way to make more out of less; we matter because we have the power to create. Our ability to create is our salvation. Free will, sexual passion, hard work, love and mortality. These are the gifts we take from the Garden of Eden and these are the gifts that make us human. These are the gifts to moving beyond feeling bad about being human, to feeling bad about what we did, and then onto forgiveness. (Harold Kushner How Good Do We Have to Be? Little, Brown and Co., 1996)

Think back to that one act that still lurks in the dark corner of your soul. Or if you are clueless about that, think of some obsession you have, because chances are your obsessions are clues to some old shame. I used to be obsessed about having my day all in order. Five kids and ministry cured me of that, but anyway, that was my obsession. I thought I could never have it together enough. Who knows where this came from? That really isn’t as important as what I was going to do about it. Over time, I realized that this was my prison. I would blow up if plans changed, people didn’t follow through, or even if it rained!

The way out of this shameful cycle was to be creative. Creative is doing something new. A couple struggling with age-old pains takes piano lessons together. A parent and child read to one another every night (with all the voices). Another couple listens to each other’s dreams each morning over coffee. Creativity, wherever you can find it, cracks the door on helping any of us towards feeling worthy. But creativity alone is not enough, because shame and guilt require forgiveness. And forgiveness is often hard to find. Not forgiving another, as Rabbi Kushner observes, “gives us a kind of power over another”. (ibid, Kushner) But it also eats away at your soul. It keeps you from being human. It makes any of us feel like we don’t matter. There is no magic pill for forgiveness. Adam and Eve probably didn’t forgive God. I know those who have been abused who haven’t forgiven their abusers. But consider this: How much power do you still ascribe to your abusers by not forgiving the? When I ask someone to forgive another I am not saying we should forget what they did, or even accept what they did, but I am saying that forgiveness frees us to get on with our lives.

Twenty-five years ago, Sally was abused by her father. She managed to survive all of that, even get married, but when her own daughter was born she started to criticize her constantly. By the age of ten, her daughter was buying beauty magazines, by the 13 she was in the hospital for an eating disorder. The sins of the mother had been visited upon the daughter, generation to generation. It was at the hospital bed where I had the privilege to watch a miracle. Sally looked down at her daughter and whispered “Why?” And that little girl, thin as a rail, managed to say, bless her soul, “Because I was never good enough, Mom.” Never good enough. Sally got it. She started to cry, her daughter cried, I cried. Sally went home that night and wrote a letter of anger and forgiveness to her father. But she never sent it. Her father had died two years before. Her daughter came home and so did Sally.

Churches like this should never be places that tell you that you are not good enough. We should strive to be places of acceptance for who you are. Sanctuaries where God’s light heals and doesn’t condemn. Places which, while we cannot accept behavior that is harmful, can accept those of us who have harmed and been harmed. We are not perfect; we weren’t made to be. I don’t believe in the God that condemned Adam and Eve. My God knows our suffering and wants us to help one another become whole again.

Churches like this one are full of losers. People who have lost loved ones, lost love, lost acceptance, lost their way. But they are also full of people who have also lost their fear to join together with others, many of whom are not at all alike, in the common hope that we shall break out of our soulful prisons. People like you and I know why we matter. We matter because we are not alone. Amen.


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