A Good Day To Die: Standing with Standing Rock (a Sermon for All Souls)


“Today is a good day to die.”

Legend tells us these are the words that the Native American leader Crazy Horse told his fellow warriors during the Battle of Little Big Horn, a battle many of us know as Custer’s Last Stand.

The words, “Today is a good day to die” mean that there are fates worse than death; that it is better to die bravely than to live apologetically or timidly. This statement “Today is a good day to die” has become a rallying cry for the contemporary American Indian Movement. It was a rallying cry at Wounded Knee in 1973 and it is a rallying cry in our time inspiring action to stop the construction of the Dakota pipeline that is being built just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Over 200 tribes have joined together to support the Standing Rock Sioux in their struggle against this pipeline, to protect sacred sites from desecration and to guarantee the tribe’s access to clean drinking water. Plans for the pipeline have been diverted before at the behest of white communities so this is difference of practice not principle. These native leaders reject the term “protesters,” instead they are “protectors”, protectors of the water and the earth.

As one tribal leader has said, “Water is life. Water is more important than oil. Water is more important than money. Water is life.”

A few weeks ago a clash between private security guards and protectors turned violent with 6 activists being bitten by dogs and 30 people pepper sprayed. Just this week there was a confrontation between activists and law enforcement where 141 people were arrested leading to accusations that the legal authorities are trying to repress freedom of speech and the right to protest.

In this context the statement “today is a good day to die” means it is better to die than to remain silent. It is better to die than be mistreated, disrespected, humiliated or ignored. “Today is a good day to die,” means a willingness to take the risks that are necessary to meet humiliation with pride, to confront disrespect with self-respect, to counter repression with freedom.

And yet, the phrase also means much more than that for there is a fundamental difference between the way Western religion and Native American traditions see death. When Muslims speak of the commonalities between Islam, Christianity and Judaism they often say, “We are people of the book,” and as we all know, every book has a beginning and an end. We who are shaped by Western culture tend to see life in a linear way with a beginning and an end and a straight line between the two.

The religion of the Indian does not come from a book. The religion of the Indian comes from Nature. Where Western Civilization tends to see things in a linear fashion, indigenous people tend to see life in a cyclical manner. Whereas a book may have a beginning and an end, nature moves in circles; Winter. Spring, Summer, Fall, sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight. Life moves in circles, constantly returning from whence it came and continuing to move with the cycles and seasons of death and life. Just as the leaves that fall from the branches nourish the roots of the tree, death and life are one.

Black Elk the Oglala Sioux shaman described it this way when he said, “Everything the ‘power of the world’ does is done in a circle. Birds build their nests in a circle and theirs is the same religion as ours…Our teepees are round like the nest of birds where the Great Spirit meant for us to hatch our children.” The circularity of the teepee and of tribal meetings is meant to reflect the circularity of life itself.

This difference between the Western and the Indian view is on display at Standing Rock today where many circular teepees have been set up in the path of the construction of a very linear pipeline.

The cycle of life and death is a theme in other cultures as well this time of year. In Mexico we have the Day of the Dead. In the Gaelic tradition we have Samhain. In Christian tradition we have All Souls and All Saints Days. Indeed, the pre-Christian origins of many of the traditions around this season have caused some discomfort among some who belong to the more conservative forms of the faith. Some churches have gone so far as to rename Halloween Holyween (and at least one church has a sign saying Hallowlujah for Holyween.) This is one way to show discomfort for the many pagan practices that have made their way into the church.

However, in my experience, most meaningful holidays and holy days are a conglomeration of influences from many different cultural sources. Indeed a strict puritanism always spoils a good holiday. The Puritans of New England did not celebrate Christmas or Easter or Halloween as they felt they were too rife with pagan imagery and tradition, eggs and bunnies, bows of holly and mistletoe, jack a lanterns. So this puritan tendency to avoid hybrid holidays is not new. But personally, given the choice between puritanism and a good party I will always choose the good party.

And let’s be honest we need some holiday or holyday to gives us an opportunity to talk about death, because it is a conversation topic that is often avoided. It is the nature of our contemporary society that all too often we separate the living from the dead.

Here at our church we try to do things differently. Up on the hill we have a memorial garden that contains the ashes of the dear departed. But that garden is also a place where our children and our youth groups might have their meetings, or where people of all ages might dance around a Maypole or where a meditation class or contemplative prayer class might meet or a wedding or an animal blessing. The idea is to stop segregating life and death but to live life mindfully in the presence of death.

Archeologists and anthropologists tell us that some of the earliest evidence of human religion concerns the human attempt to live life mindful of the presence of death. Artifacts from ritual burials are some of the early signs that human beings turned to religion in order to live consciously with the knowledge of our own mortality.

This time of year we are told that the veil between the living and the dead is thin. And so this time of year we can hear the words of Chief Seattle in a new ways,

“Even the rocks, which seem to be dumb and dead …along the silent shore, thrill with memories of stirring events connected with the lives of my people, …And when the last Red Man shall have perished…these shores will swarm with the invisible dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone …they will not be alone.”

The words of Chief Seattle remind us that our ancestors are not just a part of our past but part of our living present.

The poet Williams Wordsworth was a writer who aspired to stay close to Nature, to allow Nature to be his teacher. And so even though he was English he captured some of the same spiritual themes that one finds in Native American traditions.

Wordsworth poem “We are Seven” is one that speaks to me in a very personal way. Like the little girl in the poem I am one of 5 children. In a photo album in our family there is a picture of us all, my mother, my father, my sisters Merriane and Shannon, my brothers Sam and Bill. My parents look very young in the photo, younger than I am now. My older sisters and brothers also look very young. Two of those seven people in the photo are no longer living. My brother Bill died in a car accident when he was a teenager. My mother died of a stroke at the age of 72. And yet in that photo we are seven. The words of the poet ring true, “We are seven.” In many ways that photograph of us seven speaks to a spiritual truth greater than the head count at the last family reunion.

Of course, there have been other people who have been part of our family circle who are not in that picture. When my stepfather James Hunter Mitchell died I remember his son Carter drawing on his father’s interest in Native American spirituality by evoking words on that occasion that can never be easy for a son to say of his father, “Today is a good day to die.”

Many years ago I heard a Taoist teacher about death and the Tao. This is not an easy thing to do as the Tao te Ching says of the Tao, “Those who know don’t say, those who say don’t know.” But she said to understand the Tao is to be able to say, “Now that I have found the Tao I can die in peace,” and this is fundamentally different from many other things for very few of us can say, “Now that I’ve won the lottery I can die in peace” or “Now that I have met the partner of my dreams I can die in peace” or “Now that I got the promotion I’ve been working for I can die in peace.” In other words, to understand the Tao is to understand how it is possible to die in peace.

The elder Takatoka of the Manataka American Indian Council spoke of a similar experience when he said of that famous phrase, “Today is a good day to die” means that we are ready in our mind, heart and spirit to become one with the Eternal Spirit of the Creator.  It means we are prepared to enter the never-ending and timeless River of Spirit to float forever. The Creator may later require our energy and spirit in the form of another creation so we may become the fodder and substance of something entirely new, return as fragment of another being or some other transformation as the will of the Creator may dictate.  Who can say otherwise?” Such is the circle of life.

Over the course of my ministry I have spent many hours with those who are dying, atheists and true believers, skeptics and theologians, agnostics and mystics. What I’ve observed is that what we believe about life after death is less important that how we feel about the transition. (Listen up Unitarians: What we think is less important than how we feel.) The Unitarian suffragist Susan B Anthony worked tirelessly to help women gain the right to vote during her lifetime but when she was asked about her ideas about life after death she said, “I believe that a life well lived on earth is the best preparation for whatever is to come. Whatever is next will be right.”

So the fundamental theological question does not really involve what we think about life after death. Instead the important question is about how we feel, Do we approach death with fear or trust? Do we trust whatever is next?

According to Native American tradition the dead are not powerless. The dead are not dead but are still present with us. According to Rudy Giuliani the dead may even vote in this next election. If so, Susan B Anthony might just exercise her right to do so. She died before women got the right to vote. Indeed, she was arrested for trying to cast a ballot when it was still illegal for women to vote. Many other suffragists went on hunger strikes or engaged in acts of civil disobedience where injury or death was a very real possibility. However, as the movement for nonviolent social change reminds us in the many different forms it has taken across time including this week at Standing Rock, “It is by finding a cause worth dying for that we become fit to live.”

In North Dakota, at this moment, there is by one observer’s estimation the largest gathering of Native American tribes since the battle of Little Big Horn. The hopes of the activists were raised even further this week when thousands of buffalo showed up thundering across the plains just as the law enforcement was taking action to stop the activists. One cannot help but feel that the Great Spirit is at work.

One young Indian activist told a reporter that the rally against the pipeline was bringing new dignity to her people, “Now everyone is taking us seriously,” she said, “We are not just in history books. We are not just Halloween costumes. We are people. We are still here. We are still fighting.”

The Native American leader Crazy Horse did not die in the Battle of Little Big Horn but he was prepared to do so and he has become a symbol for the unbroken spirit of a people. In many ways this movement at Standing Rock is an action not only of the living but of the dead, not only of the present generation but of the ancestors, a reminder of a thousand broken treaties and a thousand un-kept promises.

The statement, “Today is a good day to die” is much more than a battle cry. It is a statement not only about death. It is about life and how we want to live. It means today is a good day to stand up for what we believe. Today is a good day to speak out for those who have not been heard. Today is a good day to take action, to oppose all the powers and principalities that like to bulldoze all opposition. Today is a good day to protect the water. Today is a good day to protect future generations. Today is a good day to stand up for the living and the dead. Today is a good day to die.

(This sermon was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday October 30, 2016.)


Warning: Your Candidate Might Not Be The Messiah


Americans have a tendency to give our elections religious significance. During the presidential primaries I took a trip to the beach passing a truck stop with a big marquee that read, “In God and Trump We Trust.” Four days later it simply said, “In God We Trust,” leaving no explanation for why God might jettison his running mate.

This tendency to infuse our elections with sacred meaning can distort exactly what an election is. On November 8 we elect a president. We do not anoint a messiah. Even so messianic hopes often become attached to political candidates across the liberal to conservative spectrum.

This elections season I’ve seen Facebook posts by Republicans, Democrats, Green Party, Libertarians and Independents presenting a candidate as the Second Coming. Like the truck stop owner most of us eventually learn to dial back our enthusiasm either before or after Election Day.

If someone is going to be our savior then someone else has to be the Devil. For the record, I met Hillary Clinton in the 1990’s. Later media accounts notwithstanding I can say from direct personal experience that she does not have horns, tail or carry a pitchfork. Although I’ve never met Donald Trump from what I do know about him I gather he does not have a halo.

And I have deep sympathy for Jill Stein, candidate of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, because as the youngest of 5 children I know just how hard it can be to get any attention in a crowded field of candidates. Ditto for everyone else on the ballot.

But as much as I love the song, “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” I predict that none of us are going to be singing it when the new Congress convenes and a new president is inaugurated. By January I think it will be very clear, if it is not so already, we are electing candidates and not consecrating saints.

When we attach messianic hope to a political leader we end in disappointment. Indeed, one of the reasons that Jesus was crucified is because he did not live up to the expectations of those who thought he would make their nation great again. So from an orthodox perspective, not even the Messiah can live up to everyone’s messianic expectations.

For those of us who have lived through Bush fatigue and Obama disillusionment this will come as no surprise. We have yet to see a candidate who is truly All-Wise and All-Knowing. High hopes come crashing down. Too often we are shocked when human beings prove to have human limits. Then, more often than not, the date for the arrival of a new messiah gets postponed to the next presidential election. Thus the cycle continues.

This is why I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who once said, “If you are planting a tree and someone tells you the Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go greet the Messiah.” So I encourage you to vote. However, if you are engaged in meaningful work when the networks call the election, continue your work until it is done, then go hear the outcome.

The Woman Card, the Man Card and the Bathroom ID Card

When my daughter was young I became an adult scout leader and so I was literally a card-carrying member of the Girl Scouts. So although I am male I like to think that there have been times in my life when I could play the Woman Card.

This election season we have been hearing a lot about this elusive woman card. Two candidates locked in a fierce presidential election contest. One is accused of playing the woman card, the other accused of playing the man card.

To make matters worse, in the middle of this conflict some state legislatures have been passing laws suggesting that every one of us needs a bathroom ID card. Birthers hounded the president for years to produce his birth certificate – now all of us may have to produce a birth certificate just to go to the bathroom.

So this morning I want to speak about the woman card, the man card and the bathroom ID card, in that order.

First the woman card: I was a college exchange student in Manchester, England, in the years 1986-87. This means I was there while Margaret Thatcher was running for re-election as Prime Minister of Great Britain in her role as the leader of the Conservative Party or the Tories.

So I lived through Margaret Thatcher’s campaign for Prime Minister and now I am experiencing Hillary Clinton’s campaign for President and this morning I want to share some of the ways I think gender plays a role in elections regardless of whether the candidate is liberal or conservative, left or right.

I’ll admit that it has been something of a struggle for me to come up with the perfect words to describe the challenges faced by both, Clinton and Thatcher, the conservative and the progressive. So I posted a question n the Unitarian Universalist Minister Association Facebook Group, “Does anyone know a more diplomatic way to say the following sentence, ‘I’ve seen both women endure an unrelenting testosterone driven sh#%t storm’.” Not a single Unitarian Universalist minister could think of a better sentence so there it is – without ministerial refinements.

Margaret Thatcher was Tory, a true conservative. In the late 80’s I was a young man who agreed with the liberation theologian Oscar Romero who said “the heart is a little bit to the left.” Some of my friends might have said my heart was so far to the left that it was having an out of body experience.

Even so, I came to have a lot of admiration for the Iron Lady of the right. I even bought and read her collected speeches as a sort of souvenir for that time in my life. Let me share with you one statement that I underlined in her book.

“There is a temptation, not easily resisted, to identify our opponents with the Devil, to suggest that politics presents us with a series of clear and simple choices between good and evil, and to attribute base motives to all who disagree with us. These are dangerous …tendencies; they embitter politics and trivialize religion and morality.

 So with this thought in mind let me say that my goal this morning is to try to reflect on gender issues without adding any more bitterness to our politics, as our politics already seem bitter enough, or trivializing spirituality or morality to which you may be thinking, “Good luck with that.”

This morning I want to speak particularly about misogyny, which the dictionary defines as “dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.” Here is what I’ve learned by observing both Thatcher and Clinton. While disagreements are common in politics, and in an age with greater opportunity, public disagreements between male and female leaders are to be expected there are still some clear signs when debate disintegrates into misogyny.

If you compare a female opponent to a barnyard animal you might be a misogynist. If in the process of disagreeing with someone you call her a dog, a fat pig, a disgusting animal you might be a misogynist. In the 80’s the most common insult hurled at Thatcher was that she was “a bloody stupid cow.” I heard this so often that I assumed the term must not be as insulting as it sounds, at least in the English context (after all everything sounds more civilized in an English accent.) Later I would learn that yes, the term is exactly as insulting and pejorative as it sounds.

You might be a misogynist if in the midst of civil discourse about a political topic you find yourself referring to an opponent as a witch or by another word that rhymes with that word, another animal term. Once again, the goal is to move away from policy differences and into name-calling in order to delegitimize and dehumanize your opponent, to objectify her, to place her among the category of things not people, things that are not equal and things that do not deserve respect. I’ve heard many of these terms hurled at both Clinton and Thatcher.

Here is an example of something that is slightly different. Last week a male state representative filed a complaint against Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell. Both he and she are Republicans. In his complaint he stated, “Her leadership has become unpredictable and vindictive, while her ability to make rational decisions has become severely unstable and are influenced by her temperamental state of mind.”

Now let me ask you a question, “Is that statement sexist or does it just sound sexist?” Is it a pure coincidence that it contains every known condescending thing men have ever said about women throughout the history of the Western World that women are irrational, vindictive, unpredictable, temperamental. And that’s before you even know the substance of the complaint, which includes the leadership role Beth Harwell played in ousting another representative with a well-known history of sexual harassment of women.

So when any woman is accused of playing the woman card, conservative or liberal, republican or democrat, we already know that the deck is stacked against her. It is true of the contest between Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, or in other contests that are lesser known or less widely publicized.

So let’s talk about the man card. And let me make this as simple as possible, when man accuses a woman of playing the woman card you can be pretty sure he is playing the man card.

When you say that a woman doesn’t look like a President or a Head of State in this country then you are playing the man card because America has never had a woman president. However, if you go to Argentina or Iceland or Israel or Pakistan or the Philippines or Germany or Ireland or Sri Lanka or Finland or Indonesia or Liberia or Chili or Argentina or Lithuania or Costa Rica or Brazil or Croatia or Nepal or Taiwan or Malawi or Kosovo or South Korea or Great Britain or any number of other countries you will discover there are people on earth who have demonstrated that they can look at a woman and see a President.

This past week I was listening to a podcast of NPR’s The Hidden Brain with the title “Our Politics, Our Parenting,” which was forwarded to me by Andreas Bastias. The blurb for the episode reads, “In the midst of a rancorous election, we present a new theory to explain why the two sides of the aisle seem irreconcilable.”

This podcast drew from the research of George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind and other books. Lakoff suggests that we get our ideas about the government of the nation from how we see our families governed. He identifies two common patterns of family management and governance. There is the strict parent model of family government and there is the nurturant parent model.

This difference in many but not all families is the difference between mom and dad. So while it would be more accurate to speak of the strict parent and the nurturing parent, for the purposes of this sermon (during this particular election season) I am going to be speaking about the strict father and the nurturing mother.

In the strict father family the world is seen as scary, dangerous and unfriendly place and for that reason the strict father is the dispenser of tough love. This model of parenting can be summed up in the name of 50’s TV show Father Knows Best, the father knows right from wrong, good from evil. Obedience and loyalty are a virtue. The role of the father is be a protector who offers security from danger, safety in the storm of life. In this world competition is good because competition makes us stronger and better prepared for the rigors of a perilous world. The strict father teaches his children to be tough, self-reliant and strong because it would be wrong to send them out into the world without the skills they need to survive and thrive.

In the nurturing mother family the parent brings empathy, understanding and listening to the role of family governance. To love and nurture is what it takes to help children grow up and become the best possible person they can be. In the nurturing mother family there are more dialogues and fewer monologues. The goal is to create a family where people care for each other, nurture each other and support each other. In this family cooperation is good because it is through cooperation that we survive and thrive. The dominant theme is the ethic of care. The caring thing is the right thing.

Which brings me back to our current election; if you watched either of the two presidential debates it was not hard to see the clash between the strict father and the nurturant mother so much so that here in the United States we have good reason to feel like we are in a custody dispute between mom and dad. Our strict father and our nurturing mother are yelling at each other in the kitchen while we the children cower in the living room.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that this metaphor is perfect, or that these generalizations are without exceptions in this election or in others. In the contest between Margaret Thatcher and the Labor Party’s Neil Kinnock in the 1980’s it was Thatcher who was the strict parent and Kinnock who was the nurturing one; Thatcher who wanted to cut social spending and increase military spending and Kinnock who wanted to move toward disarmament and support the Welfare State. However, Thatcher was very careful to project political strength in ways that also reinforced her own genteel understanding of womanhood. Remember her last title was Lady Thatcher and as Lady Thatcher once said, “Being powerful is like being a lady, if you have to go around telling other people that you are one then you aren’t.”

The 19th century Unitarian Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller was often accused of being unladylike. She was called mannish because she loved to read and discuss the important issues of the day, challenging the gender norms of the time. She was told she was too masculine to be a lady but as she wrote, “Male and female, represent two sides of the great radical dualism. But, in fact, they are perpetually passing into each other…There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.”

In other words, Fuller is suggesting that on some level we are all transgender. Here is where we can learn something from the Taoist tradition that tells us to work for the balance of Yin/Yang, complimentary opposites, like male and female. Lao Tzu taught that strength with out gentleness becomes oppression whereas gentleness without strength becomes chaos and anarchy, so the goal in life is find a strong gentleness and a gentle strength.

I think our binary on gender is breaking down simultaneous with our binary in politics. This year I predict there will be many split tickets revealing that there are no wholly republican Republicans or purely democratic Democrats, no entirely green Green Party members or libertarian Libertarians. The idea of politics as a great dualism is breaking down making. Just as some identify as transgender many are starting to identify as trans-party politics.

So far we’ve talked about the man card and the woman card so it’s time for us to talk about the bathroom ID card. This election season has been marked by the effort of many different state legislatures passing or attempting to pass bathroom bills saying that people must use the restroom for the gender that is indicated on their birth certificate. Ostensibly, the argument goes that these bills are meant to protect women from predatory men who might otherwise lurk in the women’s room. However, now I am beginning to wonder if these laws are being pushed because there are some legislators worried about someone one new walking in the door and overhearing some of their locker room talk.

So why are our elected leaders targeting transgender people this election season and engaging in fear mongering. I think it is because, to paraphrase the philosopher Eric Hoffer, “you can win an election without a belief in God but you can never win an election without a belief in a devil.” This is something Margaret Thatcher also understood and cautioned us against. This year’s candidate for Devil is transgender people. But this tendency to identify anyone as the devil simply embitters our politics and trivializes our religion.

So having raised the issue let me assure you that when you leave this sanctuary at the end of the service you will not need your birth certificate to go to the restroom. We do not have anyone standing at the doors to check your bathroom ID card. So rest easy my friends.

Also I want to assure you that we as a church want to move beyond the politics of demonizing our neighbors. We will not fill our minds with ill will, bias, bigotry, objectification or hatred. Instead we will…

“Watch our thoughts, for they will become words. Watch our words for they will become actions. Watch our actions, for they’ll become habits. Watch our habits for they will forge our character. Watch our character, for it will become our destiny.”

If you’ve ever read her collected speeches then you know that Margaret Thatcher just got the last word. Yes, I just played the Woman Card.

(This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, October 16, 2016)

Sorry: The Lost Art of Apology

Chris Buice profile

Al Herter, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Paris, emailed me the following story.

Once there was a skeptic who went to an interfaith conference but if you had asked him about his beliefs he would have thrown his hands in the air and said, “I do not believe in any of the world’s religions.” While he was sitting in a chair he was approached by a Christian priest who laid hands on him and said, “Today by the power of Jesus Christ you will walk.”

 The skeptic smiled and thought to himself, “I am not paralyzed. This guy has no idea what he is talking about.”

 Next a rabbi approached him who looked him in the eye and said, “Today it is the will of Yahweh that you will walk.”

 The skeptic thought to himself, “But I am perfectly healthy, what is this rabbi talking about.”

 Next a Mullah approached him who said, “Today by the power of Allah you will walk.”The skeptic was once again puzzled.

 Next a Buddhist monk came up and said, “Through the power of Buddha you will walk today.” “But there isn’t anything wrong with me,” thought the skeptic.

 Next a Hindu priest approached him and said, “It is Krishna’s will that you will walk today.”

“But I am perfectly fine,” thought the skeptic.

 Finally the conference ended and as he was leaving he went out to the parking lot and noticed that his car had been stolen. And so he said.

 “Now I believe in all the world’s religions.”

 In the Unitarian Universalist Church we have room for a lot of skepticism but we also pay attention when we hear the same message over and over again in many different holy traditions. This morning I want to talk about forgiveness. And while the religions of the world do not always have the exact same teachings about forgiveness, all of them agree that forgiveness is important and essential to leading spiritual life.

Of course, forgiveness is not only a religious thing. It is a human thing and sometimes it is even a political thing. A few years ago a friend sent me a picture from Australia where a skywriting airplane had spelled out the word “SORRY” in big bold letters across the sky.

The reason for this skywriting is that in Australia they observe a date called Sorry Day. It is a day when the people of European descent apologize to the aborigines for their mistreatment over many years. The history of Australia is similar to our own. European colonizers came and displaced the indigenous people, taking the best land and leaving the worst for the natives. There were also efforts to “civilize” the aborigines including forcibly separating children from parents and making them go to boarding schools where they could be assimilated into Western “Civilization” creating what has been called a Stolen Generation.

National Sorry Day was established in 1998 but it was not until 2008 that an Australian Prime Minister formally apologized to the aborigines on behalf of the nation. The text for his apology reads in part,

Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment….
We apologise for the laws and policies…that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss…
We apologise especially for the removal of children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering, and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry…
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a … future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

The actual apology is much longer but I think this is enough to capture the spirit if not every letter of the apology. The whole statement can be summarized in the one word that was written across the sky, “Sorry.”

When I learned about Australia’s National Sorry Day I began to wonder if we needed to institute something similar in our own country. Tomorrow is Columbus Day. So this might be a good time to contemplate the question, do we who are of European descent owe an apology to the Native Americans? Last week Denver, Colorado, became the 9th city in the United States to give Columbus Day a new name Indigenous People’s Day. The goal of this movement is to move past the traditional narrative that Columbus “discovered” America and celebrate the cultures and traditions of the many indigenous peoples who inhabited this land for thousands of years before Columbus arrived including 532 recognized tribes here in the United States.

A few years back the Knox County Commission in patriotic fervor debated on whether to pass a resolution declaring that God is the foundation for the United States of America and at the time I remember asking the question – whose God? the god of the Cherokee or the Chickasaw, the god of the Catawba or the Muscogee, the god of the Shawnee or the Yuchi? The god of the Apache or the Navajo, the Hopi or the Sioux? Whose God is the foundation for the United State of America? And has anyone considered the possibility that God does not want credit for the foundation of this country? Indeed God might want us to apologize for the ways we as a country have treated many of God’s children.

Last Sunday at sunset marked the beginning of the High Holy Days of the Jewish Calendar. This is a season when it is a tradition to apologize, to give and receive forgiveness, to say sorry. Rabbi Telushkin reminds us that during this season it is especially important for the strong to apologize to the weak, so parents should be sure to apologize to their children, to show that forgiveness is not a quality of the weak but an attribute of the strong. To apologize is to lead. To apologize is to accept responsibility. To apologize is to begin a journey into a better future grounded in mutual respect and positive regard.

The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict has been the backdrop for the High Holy Days for more than half a century reminding us that the journey to peace and reconciliation is not an easy one. However, I have an early memory of the peace treaty negotiated by Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin which has held firm for decades. As a child I remember seeing a picture of those three men standing together, a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew with a banner of words, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” That memory reminds me that people of all faiths can work together for peace.

That treaty was meant to be the first step, followed closely by a second step, the resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but that next step, despite the efforts of many, has yet to be taken and this failure to follow up on a hopeful start is something for which we all should feel profoundly sorry.

So perhaps we need to institute a Sorry Day. Here in America we can use the occasion to say sorry to the Native Americans and the African Americans who came to this country in chains to serve as slaves, the slaves that literally built the White House and Nation’s Capitol Building. This year a candidate for president has suggested we need to ban Muslims from entering the United States because some may be terrorists. How quickly we forget that many Muslims came to this country against their will, stolen by slave catchers, forced to endure the agony of the Middle Passage, to bear the shame of the slave block, the whip, the lynching tree and the worst forms of terrorism that human beings have ever devised. I am willing to bet that some prayed to Allah as they laid the foundation of the White House and the cornerstone of the capitol building. So maybe it is Allah who is the foundation of the United States of America.

Perhaps, we need a National Sorry Day so that we can remember our own history accurately and thus lead the world more honestly. When we confront genocide in the world we can say honestly, we have been down that road and we do not recommend it. There has to be a better way. When we confront human trafficking we can say we’ve been down that road, and by most estimations are still going down that road, and we must choose a better direction and a better future.

According to Jewish tradition it is wrong to ask God to forgive us for something we’ve done to someone else. We must apologize directly to the person or persons who have been hurt by our decisions. God does not want to be your middleman. Instead we should take responsibility for our actions, talk directly to those affected and offer personal apologies whenever it will not cause additional harm.

An apology should never be a disguised form of egotism, where we apologize and feel better and the other person feels worse. The goal is to help heal the hurt, to build up the broken, to repair the damage. For this reason it is not enough to say “Sorry” one must seek to make amends for the wrong done and take steps that it will never happen again. Interestingly enough each one of these elements of forgiveness plays a role in Australia’s National Sorry Day. The day is not about regret about the past but about taking tangible steps to right a wrong and co-create a better tomorrow.

Of course, making amends is no easy task. How does this generation make amends for the actions of past generations? How does one make amends for genocide, for the forcible separation of families, for treating others as less than human beings? How does one make amends for centuries of wrongdoing? There is no quick fix here, no simplistic formula. Part of the reality of forgiveness is that it requires us to face damage that can’t be undone, words that cannot be unsaid, hurt that cannot be healed.

The Stoic philosophers use a natural image to describe this reality about how damage cannot always be undone. The Stoics tell us that humanity is organically one. We are one. All human beings are like branches from one tree. A branch that becomes disconnected from an adjacent branch will be disconnected from the whole tree. Once we allow ourselves to become detached from the tree it can be difficult if not impossible to restore this original unity. There is always a scar when the branch is grafted back on to the tree and for every re-grafting addition damage is done.

Sometimes when we apologize we are working for restoration and reconciliation and other times we are simply trying to graft the pieces of the tree back together with a certain knowledge that things will never be exactly the same again. Nevertheless, even when we can’t undo all the damage an apology can still be a good thing. It can be very important to say or spell out that one word, “Sorry.” And it can be a very big step to accept an apology. There is definitely hard work on both ends of that equation, giving and recieving.

So what we may need is a National Sorry Day here in the US for the Native Americans and for those who were slaves but also for every other kind of wrong including the more pedestrian wrongs of every day life. We need to set aside a day to apologize to our loved ones, our family and friends, our co-workers and fellow congregants. We need a time to apologize for our mistakes, our poor judgment and our acts of anger and hostility.

But don’t just take my word for it. Draw wisdom from the practices of Judaism during the High Holy Days. Draw inspiration from the example of a Christian president, a Muslim president and a Jewish prime minister negotiating peace. Draw insight from the actions of the Australian people and their government. Remember that all the world’s religion teach the value of forgiveness. All the religions of the world remind us that we need to give peace and forgiveness not only lip service but life service. We need to pay attention when all the world’s religions are saying the same thing so that we can move beyond “talking the talk” and start “walking the walk.” For when we forgive we show that we truly believe in all the world’s religions.

This sermon was given at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, October 9, 2016