The Thousandth Generation
When the news of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapon attack on the people of Syria came into focus a few weeks ago, many of us in this country, not knowing what to do with the rage and pain, called for a punitive counterattack. For a brief while it seemed inevitable and everyone was bracing for the deployment. The idea proposed by President Obama was that our response be brief, forceful, and very narrowly, cleanly, neatly targeted. We would respond to Assad’s spray of violence with a laser of violence. The matter would remain within the bounds that we set and that would be that. But many of us feared that it wouldn’t exactly work out that way. Our great spiritual teachers, from Jesus to Mahatma Gandhi to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., teach that it rarely does work out that way. In the great coloring book of life, violence doesn’t like to sit neatly coloring inside the lines. The color bleeds and gets everywhere.
Now that the U.S. is exploring diplomatic alternatives there’s a lot of talk of convincing Assad to destroy his chemical weapons stockpile. But it turns out that even if he wanted to, this is not so easy either. Look at our own history: as part of an international treaty, our country pledged back in 1997 to destroy all our chemical weapons in ten years. (That’s amazing in and of itself.) But it’s sixteen years later now and we’ve still got them. And it’s actually not for lack of trying; it’s really hard to get rid of chemical weapons once they exist. There are health and environmental factors. You can’t transport them, so separate destruction facilities have to be built for each arsenal. We’ve built nine separate destruction facilities so far and spent $35 billion dollars and we’re still not done. For every $1 it costs to make a chemical weapon, it costs $10 to destroy it.
Like the genie in the bottle, violence and the implements of violence can take on a life of their own. They proliferate. They bloom. They become, in some ways, larger than their creator.
The story of Fritz Haber is a chilling example of this: Haber was a 20th century German Jewish scientist who first figured out how to separate Nitrogen out of the air. As a German patriot who hadn’t experienced much anti-Semitism, Haber was happy to help Germany’s military aims in World War II and help them he did. With Haber’s technique, Germany was able to make nitrogen bombs literally out of thin air, while the allied forces had to import their nitrogen from abroad. Without Haber, Germany would have failed years earlier. Haber also figured out how to weaponize chlorine and personally supervised its use as a chemical attack on the front. Then he turned his attention to creating pesticides (which are also chemical weapons) – one in particular named Zyclon-B.
The tragic irony of the story is that, as brilliant a scientist as Haber was, he misunderstood one of the fundamental principles of life. He believed that a vector or agent of death can be confined to its intended purpose and its intended target. He believed that none of what he had created would get on him. But his wife committed suicide when she learned of the horrors he had wrought with his chlorine gas. Their young son found her body and later killed himself as well. And Zyclon-B, the pesticide, ended up being used by the Nazi regime in the gas chambers that killed some of Haber’s own extended family and co-workers.
Pesticides are meant to kill specific insects and yet they kill Jews at Auschwitz, they kill children in India when they accidentally wind up in a school lunch, they kill bees– bees that we need to pollinate our food crops. Guns are meant to kill bad guys and animals and yet they kill thirteen civilians in a DC Navy yard. Had Fritz Haber imagined the use to which Zyclon-B would be put, he probably never would have created it. And yet we can never imagine the effects of own actions. We can never fathom our own power.
Violence and ill will, dishonesty and disregard for the earth proliferate like a virus, uncontrollably and unpredictably. We can’t anticipate their scope except to know that it will be beyond what we could possibly foresee. There is a poignant moment in the Hebrew Bible that speaks to this same principle. After the Israelites have escaped from Egypt through the Red Sea and wandered in the desert and arrived at Mt. Sinai to receive the commandments, God warns them, “I, the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject me.”
Liberals tend to dislike that quote because it sounds like God is punishing kids for things their parents did. But when you look at the world, it’s true that that’s how things work. Whether or not you think of God as the agent of it, kids suffer because of the things their parents do. There is a transfer of pain across the generations. The rejection of God, or call it the inability or refusal to access goodness and love, is never contained to one action or one person: it always affects the world to the third or fourth degree of separation. When a parent is violent or abusive or absent or simply doesn’t know how to love, that pain often transfers to the children, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren. So many of us in this room are third and fourth generation inheritors of pain like that. Even in a single lifetime, if we are told as children that we are ugly or stupid, or bullied for being gay or handicapped – it can resonate across the decades. African-American descendants of slaves are still suffering from the violence of that enslavement generations ago. Violence and evil don’t stay put in history or geography – they breed and multiply.
But what saves the day here, literally the saving good news of faith, is that goodness and love also breed and multiply. Our religious traditions teach us that yes, hate proliferates, but that love proliferates exponentially more. The Hebrew Bible quote I read to you doesn’t end where I ended it. Here’s the full quote: “I, the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject me, but showing loving-kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love me and those who keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5)
Loving-kindness to the thousandth generation. This too rings true in our world. When you act out of love, justice, truthfulness, and respect, that goodness reverberates outward into the galaxy touching everyone and everything. And the corollary to this is that we are the beneficiaries of goodness from long, long ago. I’m sure you all know people who are very sane, loving people, good partners or good parents who, themselves, came from an abusive family or just a family that didn’t know how to love them or see them. And you ask yourself, “How did he turn out to be such a good partner?” “How did she turn out to be such a good mother?” “Where did he get such self confidence?” “Where did she get such strength?” And you don’t find the answer when you look at their parents or their grandparents or the community they were raised in. The thousandth generation principle teaches that it could have been a powerful love a hundred years ago that formed a substrate of compassion, kindness, strength, and pride that transmitted silently through the generations to that person. Love can never really be contained.
You may have heard the story last month of Antoinette Tuff, the school administrator who encountered a gunman armed with an AK-47 entering the school. Antoinette hadn’t had an easy life. She’d had tragedies and even attempted suicide. But she was somehow the inheritor of a loving soul and she was able to tell the gunman that she loved him and that he was going to be all right, to reassure him, saying, “We all go through something in life.” She talked with him gently and encouraged him until he put down his weapons and everyone was safe. The whole conversation was recorded on the 911 call and you can listen to it online. It’s absolutely breathtaking. She saved his life and her own and the lives of countless children in the school, their families were saved from devastation, and the communities around those families, and the love rippled outward a thousand times out into the world in every direction. Those children will now grow up, many of them, to have children of their own, and grandchildren, a thousand generations, all because of the power of Antoinette’s love. I hope they pass the story down as Scripture. Helen Keller says, “When we do the best that we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.”
And that’s what it is. We can’t possibly know the effects of our actions or exactly how they will reverberate through time and space. That information is hidden from us. But what we can do is ask ourselves: what kind of seed do we have in our hand? What is the nature of the thing we are planting and putting out into the world? If we’re making pesticides or chemical weapons, it’s easy to know that we’re putting poison out into the world. If we’re comforting an armed intruder, it’s pretty clear that we’re putting out love. But for most of us it’s not that dramatic. It’s subtle. What about the words we’re about to speak? What about the words we’re about to withhold? What about the quality of the attention we pay to someone who needs to express themselves? What about the food and clothing we buy? What about the way we touch someone? How do we behave with those who have no power – children or animals? How do we behave with those who can’t hold us accountable – strangers on the subway, strangers online, homeless strangers?
We can’t possibly know the consequences of our actions, but we can form the intention that each individual step we take, each word we speak, puts goodness into the world, not pain; peace not violence.
The striking thing about the “thousandth generation” teaching is that from the viewpoint of the Hebrew Bible, there haven’t even been a thousand generations yet – not even now, much less when those words were written. So it’s not only about receiving love from our ancestors long ago, but that love is our natural inheritance from before the world was formed. The genealogy of evil stems back only three or four human generations, but love was born in the dawn of time. This is our true inheritance. And we can have faith that when we transmit that love, when we express and manifest that love, it will live and breathe and ripple outward for a thousand generations into a future world that we can not even begin to fathom.
Final hymn: Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield #162