Sermon by Rev. Frank Clarkson, November 5, 2017.
Three weeks ago, I preached a sermon about the culture of white supremacy that haunts our nation; and how important it is that we not be silent about things that matter. After church a couple of men asked, “What about Harvey Weinstein?” They were struck by the courage of the women who have come forward to tell the truth that they had been sexually harassed or abused by Weinstein, or by other men. And I was heartened that men here are thinking about this.
We’re in a new month now, and our worship theme for November is “forgiveness.” And I believe in forgiveness. As hard as it can be, I know you need to travel the way of forgiveness if you want to be free. But sometimes the desire for forgiveness can push people to move on too fast, which can do more harm than good, when it’s a desire to whitewash the past, to forgive and forget, to let the perpetrators off the hook.
The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, a contributor to liberal causes and candidates, are that he, for years, forced his own sexual hungers onto women who were seeking parts in his movies or jobs in his company. And it seems that others around him enabled his behavior, or looked the other way.
There is a pattern and a history of men in power using that power to get what they want, including what they want from women. In our time, so many prominent men have have been accused of sexual misconduct: Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump—and you could name others.
I want to acknowledge that this is not an easy subject, especially here. The church has not had a good history of celebrating our bodies or acknowledging the fact that we are sexual beings. No wonder, with all this repression, that it comes out in unhealthy ways. One of the best things our UU tradition does is offer comprehensive sexuality education for our young people. Just this weekend, we had 18 high schoolers here, from three congregations, doing this good work. It makes me more hopeful for the future.
Sexual assault is more about power and control than it is about sex. And in most cultures of the world, men have held power for a long time, and it hasn’t gone that well. When my wife met Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and she told him that the women’s chorus she’s part of sings some South African freedom songs. And Desmond Tutu replied, “More and more I think it’s time we let women lead for a change. We men have had our chance. The world would be a peaceful place if it was led by women.”
Do you remember the story about David and Bathsheba? King David was the greatest Hebrew king of all time. He was the one who, as a young boy, killed the enemy Goliath with a slingshot. When the gospel writers wanted to establish Jesus’ credibility as king, they mentioned that his father Joseph “was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4). Many of the Psalms are attributed to David. He was a powerful and beloved ruler.
But one day David was on the roof of his palace, and he saw a women named Bathsheba bathing in the town below. She was very beautiful, and David was attracted to her, and so he sent for her. He committed adultery with her. And when she told David she was pregnant, to solve this problem he sent Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to the front lines of the war they were fighting, and instructed other soldiers to fall back, so that Uriah was killed. After a time of mourning for her husband, David brought Bathsheba into his palace, and she became his wife. But the story says, “the thing David had done displeased the Lord” (2 Samuel 11:27). And God promised to punish David.
I tell you this as a reminder that Harvey Weinstein is not a new story; men have been taking advantage of women for a long time. Our history with power, whether political, financial, physical, or relational, is not very good. It’s striking that the Hebrew scriptures contain this unflattering story about one of their heroes. And they tell us that eventually David does pay a price for his sins.
But nowadays, if king or leader was caught in this kind of situation, what would he do? He would hire a public relations consultant, and would issue a half-apology, saying he was sorry if anyone was hurt, but that was never his intent; he might say it was consensual, might even try to blame the victims, might say they were lying. You’ve heard these kinds of apologies, which are no real apology at all. You know: “I apologize if anyone was offended or hurt by my actions, but if so, they misunderstood… they are being too sensitive… I was just being a guy!”
It’s time someone says to these men, trying to race to forgiveness: “Not so fast!” Maybe this is something we need to hear too. Not so fast.
Before you can get to any kind for forgiveness, first you need to admit that you did something wrong, that you hurt someone else. This can be hard to do, because we like to think of ourselves as good. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that you have done someone harm. This is one of the key steps in 12-step recovery programs; making a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself; a full and honest accounting of what you have done. It can take some courage to say, “I did something wrong. I am so sorry. Can I fix this? Can you forgive me?”
Some people seem unable to do this. Particularly those who are blinded by their own privilege or narcissism, who are used to getting their own way. As one children’t story puts it, “People who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”
These days I find myself daydreaming about the moment that finally brought down Joe McCarthy, leader of the Communist inquisition in the 1950s. A man named Joseph Welch stood up to McCarthy, and said: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” These days I want to ask a similar question of our leaders, the powerful men on both sides who seem unable to tell the truth, and admit it when they do something wrong. I want to ask them, “Have you no sense of shame?”
I understand that shame can be harmful, and some people carry shame for far too long. But there are people who ought to be ashamed for the hurtful and harmful things they have done! And I’m not just talking about our leaders. The divisiveness in our country and the prevalence of social media have fostered an avalanche of mean-spirited words and actions. On the rare occasion when someone gets called out for their shameful behavior, they usually respond by doubling down on the attack or, at best, offering a lame half-apology. Perhaps we need a renewed appreciation for the healthy aspects of shame. Because it’s shame and regret that, once acknowledged, force us to admit our wrongdoings, and seek to make amends, and finally, ask for forgiveness.
Isn’t it painfully clear, these days, that we need reminding that we belong to one another? That we are each others’s keepers; as Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, “We are each other’s business: we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” We need to have hearts that hurt when we wrong someone else; and if we don’t, then what hope is there for us?
I believe that we are all redeemable. That there is always the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation; coming to our senses, and coming home. But this takes work. It takes time and attention. And it takes a willingness to be uncomfortable.
Isn’t this precisely what these times are asking of us? It’s what Courtney Martin is asking of men these days, to acknowledge that we owe this to women: to listen to their stories, especially to what is troubling and uncomfortable. In her words:
“Feel the sadness of living in a world like this.
“If you are capable, and even if you aren’t sure you are, feel the sadness of being a part of the group of people that has most violently and repeatedly created and maintained a world like this. Feel the excruciating pain of complicity.
“Don’t soothe it with thoughts of your own exceptionalism. Don’t jump to perform your love of women. Don’t talk about your mother or your sister or daughter. Just sit. Feel the feelings.
“You honor the pain that has been expressed so courageously by giving yourself over to the discomfort of actually feeling what it is to live in this world — a world filled with sexual harassment and assault — as a man. Sitting with that discomfort will change you. And the changed you can then take action with a different kind of wisdom.”
(Her entire article is well worth the read, you can find it here: https://onbeing.org/blog/courtney-martin-for-guys-reading-metoo-testimonies/).
This is holy work she’s calling us to. It requires a certain depth and heart to hold such pain and discomfort. And I hope that being part of this church is helping you develop this kind of spiritual strength and resilience. It’s Universalism at its best—trusting that we are part of a great Love that will never let us go, so we can admit our faults, we can ask forgiveness, we can find our way back to that great Love, and we can share that Love with a world in such need of it.
And this work is not just for men. Courtney Martin says she is trying to do this herself; as a white women, she’s sitting with the discomfort and pain of being white in our racist culture, she’s “trying to actually feel the grief and unpack the privileges” of being white in this time of ascendent white supremacy.
With the heightened awareness these days of violence against women, the growing number of women saying “me too,” I hope that we might be at a turning point. That we might be ready to change. But that will be up to us, we who have the power. Are we men ready to admit that we have a problem, that we have participated in and benefitted from this male-dominated system, that we have not been as courageous or as committed as we need to be, that we have not been good and trustworthy friends to women?
For thousands of years prophets have called people to turn away from their selfishness and their sinfulness, to choose life and love and liberation. We need to hear their call these days, their call to help bind up the broken and and set the captives free. May this be our prayer and our commitment: to do our own hard work, so that one day, justice shall roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.