Extraordinary Personal Forgiveness Leads to the Healing of a Community

While we still are working toward racial justice, there are inspiring stories that shine a light on bravery and perseverance, stories that show when people can begin to question their basic values, we can change and experience and learn new things. The following story about the Echo Theater is a reminder that we can acknowledge and admit wrongs, concede failures, hear people more clearly, and seek forgiveness. When we see injustice, we are obligated to act — and just as a person’s values can change so can a nation.

An Unlikely Friendship

It would seem quite unusual for a former white supremacist Ku Klux Klan member and a Black pastor to become close friends, but that is exactly what happened in Laurens, South Carolina. This was where Reverend David Kennedy, a Black pastor, met the Grand Dragon of the local KKK, Michael Burden in 1996.

What was once a historically segregated movie theater, The Echo, became a white supremacist store, the Redneck Shop, which sold white nationalist and neo-Nazi paraphernalia owned by Michael Burden and John Howard. When the Redneck Shop opened in 1996, Reverend Kennedy fought continuously to have it closed and protested relentlessly outside, risking his life to stand up against hatred. Throughout the time of the shop’s existence, the building became the self-proclaimed “World’s Only Klan Museum” and the meeting spot for several white nationalist groups, including the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country, according to the Anti-Defamation League (CNN, 2021). When Kennedy stood up and fought against the store, he became a target for the KKK, putting his life, and the lives of those close to him, in jeopardy.

Opening the store was Burden’s idea, but he soon fell out with John Howard, and he and his family were struggling to get by. When Burden met his wife, he began questioning his affiliation with the KKK and his beliefs; he joined because he felt isolated and alone, and felt he had found a collective to belong to. Burden and his family had lived in the basement of the store at one time, but following the falling out with Howard they had nowhere to go. It was then that Reverend Kennedy extended a helping hand to Burden and his family, fed them, and aided them in finding housing.

Despite all that had gone before, Reverend Kennedy saw someone who needed help and was not found wanting (Greenville News, 2020). Burden sold his share of ownership in the shop to Kennedy in 1997 and turned over the building deed. Following a protracted legal battle Reverend Kennedy and his church were deemed to own the building although there was a legal stipulation attached which meant Howard could continue running the store rent-free until his death (Washington Post, 2021). Reverend Kennedy’s battle to have the store closed continued and the Redneck Shop was finally forced to close sixteen years after it had opened, by court order, in 2012.

How could a Black pastor have even contemplated helping a member of the KKK? Reverend Kennedy realized the courage it took for Burden to ask for help, particularly from him. Reverend Kennedy’s feelings toward Burden changed and he saw a man who was trying to help his wife and family, rather than seeing him as a KKK member who felt he should not exist. The selfless gesture of goodwill to someone who had only wished him ill previously began to sow the seeds of an unlikely friendship, one which is now 25 years old. If Reverend Kennedy and Burden could come together and form this friendship, nothing is impossible.

In 2012, following the court order, Reverend Kennedy and his church took full possession of the building. Rather than destroy its contents, many of the artifacts were saved to be used to engage in meaningful conversations about racial history and to attempt to tackle the difficult questions which resulted. In 2018, Regan Freeman, a local historian started researching what took place at the Redneck Shop, uncovering records and digging into the archives of the past 20 years. Eventually, he discovered posters of Hitler and other paraphernalia such as a KKK’s business card designed to scare Black families with a warning not to make the next visit a business call. Freeman also discovered that the Redneck Shop was a recruitment center of the American Nazi Party promoting evil and hate.

In 2019, Reverend Kennedy partnered with Freeman to establish The Echo Project. Under this foundation, The Echo Theater is now being restored and plans are underway to transform The Echo Theater and Redneck Shop into a museum of remembrance and reconciliation. The museum will tell the story of what happened in Laurens, including its struggle for justice and its fight against the Ku Klux Klan. What was once a segregated movie theater, and a store glorifying the KKK, is now becoming a center for social justice, healing, and reconciliation. It will display what Freeman uncovered and be a place where people can gather and engage with one another. What was once a base of hate is being transformed into a center that supports diversity and a place for every race and religion to congregate.

As for Burden, who joined the KKK believing no one loved him and thinking that they would become his family, he realized that he did not want to be a hateful evil person like the rest of the KKK. Burden hopes people will learn from the mistakes that he made and not choose to hate to belong. He also realized that it will be us, the people, who are going to make changes in this world, not the politicians (Washington Post, 2021).

As Reverend Kennedy once said, “You have to stand up for what is right regardless of what the consequences are, how long it takes, or who stands in your way … we are warriors, full of love and full of forgiveness, but we will always fight, even if it means dying for our communities” (CNN, 2021).  Now, many years later, both Reverend Kennedy and Burden stand in the light of grace, Reverend Kennedy knowing that he helped turn Burden’s life around and Burden being ever so grateful for it. If this was possible, then anything is possible. We often feel that our country, and the world, are so polarized and divisive that nothing can be done to remedy that. We can, and we must learn to forgive. It is possible to change our course, and it is possible to shun hatred, but we must have the will and humility to do so. The message in this story is inspirational, remembering that the impossible is possible, that love conquers hate, and that the power of forgiveness can transform.

Forgiveness has the capacity to touch many souls. The forgiveness that Reverend Kennedy extended to Burden went far beyond individual forgiveness. It had an impact on the community and society at large. This is what a political forgiveness process can look like. It may start with one individual and with that circumstances can emerge which affect communities and societies alike. As more individuals recognize the power of forgiveness, this kind of work begins to build a foundation that can change mindsets and ultimately build a culture of political forgiveness within our communities and support the healing of this nation.

Unfortunately, we have a terrible stain on our history and what this country was built on. This can be healed, especially if we can engage in a political forgiveness process. It is up to us. Like the story of Reverend Kennedy, Black History Month gives us the opportunity to learn from, as well as celebrate, heroes and cultural icons, and to strive for a more perfect union.

Bringing Together Israeli and Palestinian Families

Parents Circle – Families Forum

The escalation of the war between Israel and Hamas has brought one parents’ group for peace to the forefront. The Parents Circle – Families Forum (PCFF) is an organization I have been following for years — on of over 600 families on both sides who have lost someone to the ongoing conflict, I’ve admired and respected them for their commitment to a structured program of joint understanding and compassion between Israelis and Palestinians. They believe an end to violence and a sustainable peace can only happen through a process of reconciliation between nations.

In an address to the UN general assembly a few years ago, I shared the story of Robi Damelin, a PCFF member. In one letter, Robi demonstrated the impact that a single individual or group of individuals can have on an international conflict.

Robi was born in South Africa but left her homeland because of Apartheid. She moved to Israel, only to encounter more issues of injustice. Her son David went into the Israeli army and was shot by a Palestinian. Robi wrote this letter to the mother of the Palestinian soldier who killed her son.

“For me, this is one of the most difficult letters I will ever have to write. I am the mother of an Israeli soldier who was killed by your son. If he had known David he could never have done such a thing. David was 28 years old and a student at Tel-Aviv University doing his masters in the Philosophy of Education. He had compassion for all people and understood the suffering of the Palestinians, who he treated with dignity. David was part of the peace movement and did not want to serve in the occupied territories.  Nevertheless, he went to serve when he was called to the reserves.

“Our children do what they do, and do not understand the pain they are causing. Your son is now in jail for many years and I will never be able to hold my son again, or see him married, or have a grandchild from him. I cannot describe to you the pain I feel since his death or the pain of his brother and girl-friend. And all of those who knew and loved him.

“I have worked my whole life for causes of co-existence, both in South Africa and here in Israel. After David was killed I looked for a way to prevent other families, both Israeli and Palestinian, from suffering the dreadful loss my family has endured. I was looking for a way to stop the cycle of violence. Nothing, for me, is more sacred than human life. No revenge or hatred can ever bring my child back.

“A year after David’s death, I joined the Parents Circle – Families Forum. We are a group of over 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have come together because we have lost an immediate family member in the conflict. We have shown that reconciliation between individuals and nations is possible and it is this insight that we are trying to pass on to both sides of the conflict.

“After your son was captured, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do. Should I ignore the whole thing, or will I be true to myself and the work that I am doing and try to find a way for closure and reconciliation. This is not easy for anyone and I am just an ordinary person. I came to the conclusion that I would like to reconcile. Maybe this is difficult for you to understand or believe, but I know, in my heart of hearts, this is the only path that I can chose.

“I understand that your son is considered a hero by many Palestinian people. He is considered a freedom fighter, fighting for justice and for an independent, viable Palestinian state. I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another will not get you what you want and that if he understood the consequences of his act, he could see that a non-violent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace.

“I have given this letter to people I love and trust to deliver to you. They will tell you of the work we are doing, and perhaps create in your heart some hope for the future. I do not know what your reaction will be. It is a risk for me, but I believe that you will understand, as it comes from the most honest part of me.

“I hope that you will show this letter to your son, and that maybe in the future we can meet.

“Let us put an end to the killing and look for a way, through mutual understanding and empathy, to live a normal life, free of violence.”  — Robi Damlin

Robi is active in the PCFF organization to this day, and was recently profiled in an article, Clinging Onto Hope, by Marina Cantacuzino of The Forgiveness Project.

“I beg you not to take sides,” Robi said, “because your opinions are importing our conflict into your country and creating hate between Jews and Muslims. It doesn’t help us.”

Some might think that not taking sides is turning a blind eye to inequality, but Marina, the author of the article, explained: “[Robi] wasn’t saying don’t protest, she was just saying do it with less righteous anger, and demand an end to violence and the occupation with an emphasis on peace and inclusion. … It doesn’t mean being neutral. It means recognising that there is pain and trauma in both communities and navigating around this agony. If you don’t acknowledge this, you create a vacuum of silence.”

Marina said that silence and erasure are just another form of oppression, and an acknowledgement of the stories and suffering of the victims is an essential step in a process of healing. She quotes Nelson Mandela, who said, “Leaving wounds unattended leads to them festering, and eventually causes greater injury to the body of society.”

In the article Marina describes facilitating a discussion between Robi and Mohamed Abu Jafar, who attended virtually from the West Bank. In the discussion between this Israeli mother who had lost her son to the ongoing conflict and a Palestinian man whose 14-year-old brother had been shot by an Israeli soldier, they talked about “grief and conflict in the context of holding onto our shared humanity.”

In Marina’s experience with The Forgiveness Project one critical ingredient to forgiveness came up over and over again — curiosity. In encouraging the audience to explore the stories of a single Palestinian under siege, or a single Israeli hostage, Robi is asking them to rehumanize the other by “by looking with new eyes and a sense of curiosity.”

Somewhere in the middle, Marina said, is a new consciousness that will be able to “embrace complexity and contradiction at the same time as holding a deep reverence for the sanctity of every human life.”

Political Forgiveness and the Healing of Nations

Keynote Address to Ethiopia Symposium on Higher Education for Post-Conflict Transformation

This is a condensed version of the keynote speech delivered by Eileen Borris in Addis Ababa on November 6, 2023.

It is such an honor and a pleasure to be invited to Ethiopia and to meet such wonderful people committed to building peace, and to be part of such an exceptional interdisciplinary team. I am grateful to be here.

Political forgiveness is an act that joins truth, tolerance, empathy, and a commitment to repair fractured human relationships in order to support a process of conflict transformation. Theologian Dr. Donald Shriver Jr defines political forgiveness as “a collective turning from the past that neither overlooks justice nor reduces justice to revenge, that insists on the humanity of enemies even in their commission of dehumanizing deeds and values the justice that restores political community above the justice that destroys it.”

In her book, The Human Condition, Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt commented: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.”

Both Arendt and Shiver understood the importance of political forgiveness—especially in the healing of nations—for without it, the same wars would be fought repeatedly. A political forgiveness process recognizes the importance of justice, healing, and reconciliation as part of post-conflict reconstruction in countries that have experienced forms of protracted violence and civil wars.

Columbia and the Logics of Truth

As we begin the political forgiveness process we are, in a sense, setting the table by creating the space for vulnerable and honest conversations to take place. This sets apart a political forgiveness process from other peacebuilding processes, precisely by focusing on healing the emotions that fuel conflicts to begin with.

The Colombian truth and reconciliation commission has been the only commission that has recognized the importance of healing emotional wounds before reconciliation could take place and included a dialogue process, the “logics of truth” as part of its process. This too is part of the political forgiveness model. People are first asked to only speak of the events that have happened. Once the events have been established the group begins to discuss the meaning or significance of those events. They are then asked, why did these events happen? Again, people come up with many different versions of “truth” since there is not one truth but many. The commission may spend days trying to clarify why these events happened.

When there is a clear understanding of why things happened the way they did, the commission focuses on the third logic of how to overcome what has happened. How can we overcome the problem of these heart-rending events, and how are we going to overcome the logics of violence? The work here is on finding solutions to these problems which have caused the violence. Sometimes this could mean meeting with other groups, writing a letter, asking forgiveness, or letting others know that we have forgiven them. The last logic of truth is healing, and healing has to do with forgiveness. This work has become the backbone of Colombia’s Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition.

The Future of Ethiopia

I want to thank all of you for listening to something very dear to my heart — healing nations through political forgiveness. Just as Columbia made the impossible become possible, this can happen, too, in Ethiopia.

The Joint Peace Network is a wonderful place to start. Universities supporting the network can become centers of reconciliation and educate people about forgiveness and political forgiveness, teaching the necessary skills to empower people in building the foundation for a culture of political forgiveness and peace. Universities can host a broad range of programs, workshops, and “healing circles” that tackle the issues at hand and the disparities that stem from them. These campus centers can develop a network of facilitators and programs designed to undo harmful stereotypes, rewrite damaging narratives and train people to dismantle false beliefs at the grassroots level.

Change in the world comes from individuals, from inner peace in individual hearts. Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.

— HH the Dalai Lama

It is possible to do the impossible. We can all take part in bringing this country back together. It begins with a willingness to heal, listen, and respect one another. We can start to lower the temperature by engaging in honest conversation, changing mindsets and writing a narrative that becomes a healing narrative. Forgiveness and political forgiveness will be the key to achieving this.

If we develop the skills and the mindset of forgiveness, we can then extend it to the people we feel close to, which from there can spread to the groups we associate with and the communities we are a part of. If we can begin to look out for each other and be kinder to one another, this can begin a profound healing process. Let us quiet all the noise that divides us, that pits us against one another, and let the voices of our better angels guide us.

Peace Is Not Just the Absence of War

If I were to ask you what do we mean by peace, most people would speak of it as the absence of war. Peace is more than that. It is a state of mind, a way of being that can only happen when we are centered within ourselves. It happens when we are in touch with the essence of who we are, our spiritual essence. When people have a committed spiritual practice such as meditation or prayer, we see a calmness about them, a peacefulness of sorts. And when people come from a place of inner peace, that exudes outwardly in this world.

We can also ask ourselves what do we mean by justice. I am not talking about criminal justice we hear about in the courts but a higher justice. It is the kind of justice that recognizes all people are accorded basic human rights and transcends divisions of class, race, nationality and the many “isms” that can separate us. The virtue of justice requires not only that we judge others fairly but also that we judge ourselves fairly. Our sense of justice is formed by our beliefs. Just people are wise in the ways of fairness, equality and mercy. People who believe in justice question themselves, are aware of their own mistakes and so they are forgiving of others.

Working for justice is a spiritual practice. It increases our awareness of the interrelatedness of all people and the interdependence of life. Only a quest for justice can awaken our spiritual perception. A commitment to justice may foster a renewed perception of this spiritual reality — as we feel the suffering of others who we regard as strangers with our own selves. It is this kind of empathy which helps us be able to forgive.

This brings me to the work of forgiveness. Social transformation is brought about when individuals and groups are willing to be changed, even as they strive to change the world. Forgiveness, our inner healer is about change. To forgive on a transformational level we have to look within ourselves and shine a light on our darkness to be healed at a deep level. When we truly can forgive, we are given the gift of the experience of inexplicable love which changes us so as though there has been an interior renovation which has taken place and has no need for outer instruction. We have experienced the power of unconditional love and of the knowing or our spiritual connectiveness. The way we cultivate peace in our own hearts that is so powerful that we can weather any storm is through our connection with our spiritual self. The path that gets us there is through forgiveness. This is how forgiveness changes us and transforms us. The way this happens is as we shine a light on ourselves, we also recognize the light in others. It is through this lens that we view justice and know peace. This is where our greatest transformation lies.

‘Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. without them humanity cannot survive.’ — the Dalai Lama

I was talking to a dear friend of mine, Father Leonel Narváez who has been very involved with the issues of political forgiveness especially in Colombia, his home. I asked him what was his inspiration for his tireless work in forgiveness. What he said was no surprise.

“The importance of forgiveness came to me when riding my bike through a cemetery. I was thinking about death and our finite life. If you are able to understand that your life will end you would understand why you should not hold on to hate and realize that anger and hate are such a burden.”

As he shared these words it reminded me of something else. I remembered reading a book written by a hospice doctor, Dr. John Lerma. In his book Dr. Lerma shared stories from people nearing death. Their messages where all very similar: They talked in depth about the importance of self-love, self-forgiveness and having loving relationships while here on earth. They too reminded us that everyone here has a purpose — which is to learn how to love unconditionally and to forgive — and that unconditional love and random acts of kindness raise the vibrational level of humanity and spiritual growth for all of us here on earth. These stories were not only mystifying, but very healing and uplifting. Dr. Lerma’s conversation with his hospice patients, at the border between life and death, gives us all something to contemplate.

Gregg Braden, in his book “Walking Between the Worlds: Science of Compassion,” describes the opportunity forgiveness brings to all of us:

“We are the ones who determine how much anger and hatred we will experience in our lives, as well as how much compassion and forgiveness we will extend to others. We have been given opportunities to hate and the wisdom to transcend our hate. Think of the personal power we must have to move beyond old choices and to respond to life from a place of spiritual wisdom. Our pain and suffering provide us with the chance to learn how to forgive and to know our truest, most beautiful nature. Forgiveness is the gift given to us to transcend our darkness and like alchemy, turn darkness into gold.”

In a world filled with pain and suffering where blood drips from the hands of many people ,we need to find ways to stop the violence in this world. We have learned that the military or putting people away in prisons does not stop violence from repeating itself. What is truly called for is forgiveness, not only the personal kind but in politics as well. In the end, forgiveness has everything to do with mercy and compassion as very important practices for any person in any situation. Forgiveness becomes a powerful answer to the most important questions of life. And at the end of our lives, for those of us who have been able to practice forgiveness and live our lives from a place of love, our days will be rich and our lives will end peacefully.

Deep Healing and Emotional Expression: Political Forgiveness as a Unique Peacebuilding Process

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying both the presidents of Burundi and Rwanda was shot down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, leaving no survivors. Although it was thought that Hutu extremist were responsible for the downing of the plane, there were allegations placed on RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) leaders for what happened. This ignited a bloodbath, lasting 100 days killing between 800,000 and a million people. Across the airwaves there was talk fueling the massacre by inciting Hutu’s to eliminate those “Tutsi cockroaches.” Less than 30 minutes after the plane crash the atrocities began creating unimaginable fear, suffering and death. The killing shocked the international community and were clearly acts of genocide.

The Rwandan genocide was the culmination of decades of oppression and hatred towards the Tutsi by the Hutu majority group members. Beginning with Belgian rule, colonial policies fostered divisions between the Hutu and the Tutsi, according to Jeremy Maron writing for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The Belgians viewed the Tutsi minority as superior and favored them for leadership positions which created ongoing and deepening tensions between Hutu and Tutsi. The civil war was in part due to the long-standing emotional undertow which was never resolved between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples that boiled over into a conflict between the Tutsi-led RPF and the Hutu-controlled government. Unfortunately, even with the cries of “never again,” genocide keeps rearing its ugly head in other parts of the world.

Genocide doesn’t just happen. It takes years in the making and is fueled by intense emotions, which never get resolved but are left alone to fester like a ticking time bomb ready to detonate. Not dealing with the undertow of strong emotions is inviting violence to take place. Rwanda and other countries where there has been genocide, repeated violence, and unresolved conflicts serve as examples. As a result, peace treaties often fail and negotiations end in an impasse. Emotions can be very difficult to deal with, but if ignored violence will rear its ugly head.

Peacebuilding measures address the issues which appear to be the immediate cause of the conflict, but for the most part ignore the emotions that fuel the conflict. A political forgiveness process is uniquely different than other peacebuilding measures — it provides a healing mechanism to deal with the emotional undertow that keeps a conflict alive. Political forgiveness builds a structure to contain the deep undercurrent of emotions that inevitably arise, and provides a way for these forceful emotions to be resolved, making this process distinct from other processes such as mediation, peacemaking, or reconciliation. Indeed, high emotions and deep division, are often a direct result of oppression, dehumanization, and polarization, often stoking grievances, hatred, and the need for revenge. Political forgiveness is the only peacebuilding process that consciously supports participants in expressing their strong emotions, which ultimately can lead to a transformation of the conflict.

Why is a process such as political forgiveness so hard to achieve? When thinking about something as horrifying as the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, our feelings about what took place are so abhorrent that we feel the people who committed these crimes are so stained with evil that there is nothing they could do which would warrant forgiveness. Even if we recognize that perhaps they are not inherently evil, morally they are not deserving of forgiveness. Our belief is that they are incapable of change and what they have done permanently defines who they are. Believing someone is unforgivable is very different than not being ready to forgive someone. It involves how someone feels about the innate worth of the wrongdoer.

While holding on to the belief that someone is unforgivable, what one is also saying is that this person is inherently morally inferior and not capable of change. As Christopher Bennett said in the European Journal of Philosophy: “Not to recognize a person as a member of the moral community would mean that it was no longer possible … to involve them in any dialogue on questions of value or policies or responsibilities and no longer possible to engage with them in a trusting relationship.” This has very important implications for any political forgiveness process.

The most important reason to consider forgiveness is that people may not recognize an unforgiving attitude is not much different than the moral outlook of dehumanizing evil. We are maintaining the belief in the perpetrator’s inferior nature, just as the perpetrator holds on to the belief of inferiority towards their targets. Perpetrators of dehumanizing evil see their victims only as objects of hate and morally inferior. The unforgiving stance views the perpetrator as morally inferior, never to be taken into moral consideration. Perpetrators of dehumanizing evil define the victim by only one aspect of who they are. If the victim for example is a Tutsi during the Rwandan genocide, that alone would determine their intrinsic worth which can never be changed. Holding an unforgiving attitude does the same by objectifying the wrongdoer. What we are now saying is, “I am not inferior, you are.” We are doing the same thing that we are accusing the perpetrator of doing.

Are there implications for what is taking place within the United States today where racism is on the rise, culture wars are being played out and shootings the daily fare? Are we holding whoever we deem as “the other” unforgivable because we see them as inferior, less than us and therefore not deserving of being forgiven? Are we too afraid to come together and address the pain and suffering that all of us feel because of the anger and hate we feel inside?

We need to have forgiveness in politics precisely because there are wrongs suffered that can never be put right. By demonstrating forgiveness on a political level, it opens space for people to unburden themselves, at least partially, from the hold the past has on them, to relate to others in a more productive way and to have a more peaceful future. This is where its power lies and what it means for forgiveness to be political. Forgiveness is not easy. Political forgiveness is not easy either. It is a complex undertaking and the process must be crafted to the specific situation it is intended to address. If a political forgiveness process is to be successful it must work for, and with, the local community it intends to help. There are no one-size fits all processes. As we have seen so often, around the world, processes that include elements of political forgiveness instituted by outside forces, and not led by local society, often fail, and end up right back where they started. This kind of approach does not create a lasting sustainable peace. Consultation, inclusion, and understanding are key elements in any political forgiveness process. When done with these elements in mind a profound healing can take place and conflict can be transformed.

The Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Movement: A Political Forgiveness Process in Action

There is a movement afoot. It is called the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation movement where like-minded people have come together from all walks of life to address the historical and contemporary effects of racism. Not only is this movement concerned with the effects of racism found in social, economic and government policies, it is also concerned with the deeply held and often unconscious beliefs created by racism and in particular the belief of a “hierarchy of human value.” It is this belief which has fueled racism and conscious and unconscious bias throughout American culture. Therefore the purpose of this movement is to engage people, and to encourage discourse in this country that will bring people together as opposed to allowing the continuation of segregation and racism that tears us apart.

The TRHT framework was first developed in 2016 under the guidance of Dr. Gail Christopher at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 176 community and civic leaders, scholars and practitioners informed a year-long design process. An important part of the framework was to challenge the belief in a hierarchy of human value based on race by developing transformative approaches to community-based healing. It has been implemented in a wide variety of communities, including on university campuses.

To support this movement, in May of 2023 Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California announced the reintroduction of her legislation calling for the establishment of the first United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation. The commission will examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color, and how our history impacts laws and policies today. 

Congresswoman Lee said in a press release: “As truth commissions continue to be established in cities across the country and countries around the world, the need for our own here in the United States grows more and more apparent. We know that more work must be done to achieve true racial equity for our communities. These legislative efforts will educate and inform the public about the historical context for the current racial inequalities we witness each day, usher in a moment of truth, and take necessary steps toward rooting out systemic racism in our institutions. Only then will we repair past harm and build a more just nation for every individual.”

This legislation is supported by a broad coalition of members of Congress and community partners. Over 240 organizations and individuals have endorsed the resolution, including the NAACP and Leadership Conferences on Civil Rights and Human Rights.

The Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation movement is a wonderful example of a political forgiveness process which focuses on all levels of society. It begins with people coming together in a healing capacity and engaging in conversation within a given community. People share their stories and lay bare the awful truths of what has happened in their lives, breaking the denial which has held a strong grip on our society. These stories help us get in touch with our humanity and help us get to know each other as human beings. When we peel away the layers of fear, guilt, and anger — which is part of a political forgiveness process — we get in touch with our humanity and begin to relate to each other differently and in a more compassionate way. We also need to learn how to walk in the shoes of the “other.” 

By dealing with what has happened, walking in someone else’s shoes, and by healing our own emotions that block us from feeling someone else’s pain, we can shift the narrative and our behavior. It is about our humanity, seeing ourselves in one another, to genuinely caring for one another, and having empathy that goes beyond who we identify with. That is the work which needs to be done. And if we can help heal the suffering and hurt of ourselves as well as others, we are on the road to heal society and to build a stronger foundation for a more inclusive and just society.

Political Forgiveness 101

There is so much good work happening in the field of peacebuilding and conflict resolution that goes unnoticed and which is very inspiring. Especially heartwarming are the women peace makers who bring to the mix compassion, understanding and nurturance. With all the division and “us versus them” mentality, to heal these divisions and transform conflict we need to change our mindsets. This is where political forgiveness can come into play.

Political forgiveness not only includes individual forgiveness, but broadens the concept of forgiveness to the political arena. In a sense it can be seen as a secular version of what can be viewed as more religious or spiritual on an individual level and is about healing, not only individually, but on a community and national level as well.

The question becomes “are we ready for this?” Are we at a place where we are willing to let go of our need to be right, for the sake of others, and to really listen and hear one another, especially behind what is being said? There is so much fear that we are feeling. Fear of not having a place in society or fear of losing our place, or that we feel we do not matter. There is fear of losing control or not having control and the list goes on.

When we allow ourselves to engage in a political forgiveness process, we begin with the understanding that we want to come together and finally listen to one another. We are willing to acknowledge our part in whatever situation has been causing conflict, take responsibility for it, and work together in a healing capacity. There are many steps to a political forgiveness process, and in order to engage it begins with changing mindsets — a difficult process for some and a process which can be quite profound for others.

In transforming conflict, a political forgiveness process is necessary. Forgiveness on any level requires an inner shift within our beings. In an address to a joint session of the United States Congress in 1990, the former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, said that “without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, a more humane society will not emerge.” Stopping the cycles of anger, hatred, and fear which fuel so much suffering, requires a radical change in our thinking. Without this change we will stay stuck in the quagmire of violence and aggression, passing down to each generation the legacy of violence and guilt which will only perpetuate these cycles. If, on the other hand, we are honestly committed to transforming consciousness, then we will recognize that the true heroes are those individuals who are not afraid to look within, to change the way they think, and heal the pain of their heart. This kind of healing transformation is what forgiveness is about.

Healing ourselves, our communities and our nations is not easy work, but it is necessary if we want to live more peacefully with one another. The gift is that when we have the courage to do things differently and make changes within ourselves, our lives become richer, fuller and more meaningful. When we can listen to one another and help alleviate someone else’s fear by our compassion and understanding, we are creating more peaceful societies and a more peaceful world.

Forgiveness: Breaking the Cycle of Hate

In Aftermath of 2015 Terror Attacks on France, Voices of Forgiveness Began to Heal the Divide.

Horrific events are shocking, leaving in their aftermath pain and suffering. This was certainly true on November 13, 2015, when multiple sites in Paris were attacked by a 10-man unit of Islamic State terrorists in the deadliest peacetime attack on French soil. One of the sites hit was the Bataclan concert hall, as reported in an article by The Guardian’s Angelique Chrisafis. Three young gunmen entered the hall, killing 90 people who were attending a concert by the Eagles of Death Metal. The terrorists took some hostages, but a little after midnight when security forces stormed the hall, the terrorists detonated their own suicide belts.

On that horrific night, Georges Salines lost his 28-year-old daughter, Lola. Later he testified about his loss at what was widely considered the greatest criminal trial ever held in France, where hundreds of people who survived also shared gripping details of their ordeal. In the article, “Paris Attacks Trial to Conclude After 10 Months of Harrowing Testimony,” Salines was quoted as saying “What I felt from the start was the absurdity of these terrorist attacks where young people killed other young people.” And yet, he did not feel hate. During the trial, he listened to the testimony of Sister Danielle who was taken hostage and witnessed a horrific attack on an 86-year-old priest, Father Hamel, who was forced to his knees while his attackers slit his throat in Saint-Etienne du Rouvray. When a relative of Father Hamel said: ‘We were so sad, there wasn’t any room left for hate,’ Salinas felt something inside himself that found her words very true. Father Philippe Maheut, vicar general of the Rouen diocese, spoke to The Guardian afterward sharing a very important message: “We have to continue to meet, to know each other, understand each other, support each other. Perhaps the death of this poor man will produce an electroshock and will be such a strong symbol that people will say we have to do something, but we have said that before.” 

In the Guardian article, “Fathers of Forgiveness: The Extraordinary Friendship Formed in the Shadow of the Bataclan,’ Steve Rose reported how the events of that night took on a strange turn, bringing two unlikely men together who, by all accounts, should never have met: Salines who lost his daughter, and the father of one of the attackers who murdered his daughter. Azdyne Amimour, the father of the attacker, only learned of his son’s involvement two days after the attack when interrogating officers went to his home to inform Amimour that his son, Samy, was one of the perpetrators and had been shot dead by French police. Amimour didn’t even know that his son was in the country, no less would do such a thing. When he heard the news, he was shocked, angered, and very distressed, concerned for his son and for what he had done, feeling these emotions all at once. That night became the worst night of both men’s lives filling them with overwhelming pain. Earlier that day Salines had been enjoying a swim with his daughter. Later that night he was desperately hoping that she was still alive. Amimour had no idea that his son was gone forever, or for what reason, ending his life doing something so horrific and difficult for Amimour to comprehend.

It wasn’t until February 27, 2017, at a café in central Paris that Georges Salines and Azdyne Amimour first met, according to Rose. No questions were asked during the first meeting and instead, Amimour gave a long account of his own story and that of his son, who after starting law school slowly became radicalized, disappeared overnight, and resurfaced in Syria, and of Amimour’s own journey to Syria to find his son, only to be met by rejection. Over the course of their relationship, the men weren’t afraid of discussing extraordinarily painful subjects, which at times were very emotionally charged. Yet, despite their disagreements, they listened to one another in a deeply respectful way. Their goal was to have a better understanding of what had happened and why, to better prevent it from happening again. They wanted to heal hate, especially the hate the Islamic State wanted to initiate between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. Salines recognized this vicious circle and felt that reaching out to Amimour was a small attempt to break that cycle and possibly help heal a divide. Amimour felt the same too.

‘I think [forgiveness] can simply mean that you no longer seek revenge.’ — Georges Salines

After the Paris attacks, many rushed to blame the parents of the attackers. However, Salines dared to see things differently. He viewed the parents as fellow victims — especially Amimour. Salines took the time to understand the jihadist history and the psychological landscape that creates a situation that pushes people toward their movement. Salines understood that Amimour could not have prevented his son from going down the path of extremism. Through his willingness to understand, Salines was able to grow in empathy for all those who were suffering because of that tragic evening. He felt that talking with Amimour, a tolerant Muslim, yet father of a jihadist, showed others that it is possible to talk to one another and to take down the walls of mistrust, anger, and hatred which was dividing society. Amimour, too, knowing that people could possibly hate him, understood the pain Salines was feeling and as a gesture of compassion reached out to him.

Over time, Salines realized that forgiveness was the only way to heal the pain and suffering on all sides of the divide, no matter how difficult learning to forgive may be. He understood that it is only possible to forgive when the harm has been done to you directly. You can’t forgive for others — yet, no matter what, you can decide not to seek revenge, which is a great step forward in restoring peace. Since getting to know one another the two men have worked on strategies to prevent something like what happened at Bataclan from happening again by giving talks and workshops, especially with governments, schools, and prisons. Their message is always that of hope, friendship, and forgiveness in the shadow of the darkest night of their lives, the attack on Bataclan.

SOURCES

The Gifts of Forgiveness: A Personal Story

By Karen Long

NOTE FROM EILEEN: Recently my editor, Karen Long, shared with me a story of forgiveness from her own life, and I asked her to tell it here. With the permission of her son and his father, Karen tells the story of how the three of them created a comfortable and easygoing co-parenting relationship after divorce, through the liberation of forgiveness.

As I was editing chapter two of Eileen’s forthcoming book, Healing Hate in America, I read this passage, “To be free of that anger would be liberating, and that freedom is what we call forgiveness.” I was swept up in gratitude because I’d personally experienced the liberation and healing power of forgiveness.

In 2021 when my son went away to college, both his father and I were there to help him move in. Darryl and I had separated in 2007 when Kellen was five, and yet, here we all were together, carrying boxes, bags, backpacks and Kellen’s monstera plant up to his new dorm room, laughing and joking the whole time without a trace of awkwardness. Afterwards we all went out for lunch, and Kellen posted a picture of the three of us to his Instagram story with the caption, “Moving in featuring my makers.”

It wasn’t always like this. When Darryl and I started the discussions that led to our divorce, I was blindsided — although I shouldn’t have been. While I knew things weren’t good between us, I vaguely figured that things would get better, or eventually we’d work on our issues. But I didn’t have the communication skills to initiate the conversations that needed to happen. The previous year we had moved to Amsterdam for Darryl’s job and, of all the outcomes I envisioned, becoming a single mother was not one of them. Still, we made a commitment to each other to put Kellen’s interests first, as well as our own agreement to practice openness and honesty — both within ourselves and towards each other — something we hadn’t been able to do while married.

When Darryl moved back to Los Angeles, I remained in Amsterdam with Kellen, with the agreement that we’d all talk on Skype once a week on Saturdays. Sitting a five-year-old in front of the webcam every week and facilitating a conversation between him and my estranged husband was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. Many times I was holding back tears while holding it together for Kellen. But all three of showed up every single week, 52 times a year, and bit by bit it became easier. Eventually Kellen and I moved back to my home town of Wichita, Kansas. By that point, at the end of our web chats instead of weeping I’d say to Kellen: “That was a pretty good talk wasn’t it?”

While I’d taken responsibility for my own role in the end of my marriage to Darryl, I knew I also needed to forgive him. But how? The hurt was an inflamed ball in my core eating away at me. With the support of friends, spiritual mentors and various modes of body work over the years I went on to have several major breakthroughs in forgiveness, peeling away the layers like an onion, as so often happens with emotional healing. One of my most important realizations was that forgiveness is a process, with its own ups and down — what’s important is your commitment to it, even when you’re feeling your most resentful and unforgiving.

Over the years, Kellen, Darryl, and I continued our weekly Saturday chats through Kellen’s Boy Scout years, karate belt ceremonies, piano recitals, middle school science fairs, birthdays and holidays. While Darryl and I still had occasional tense moments between ourselves, our Saturday chats became easier and easier, until the vast majority of them were “good conversations.” 

When Kellen was 13, he and I ran up against a stark difference of opinion on which high school he should attend; we called an emergency family meeting and Darryl supported my decision. Kellen went on to have a great high school experience and was accepted into every college he applied to, and I was immensely grateful his dad and I had the kind of relationship where we could work through these life issues together.

I’m not gonna lie: The forgiveness process was painful, especially in the beginning, full of ups and downs and seeming reversals. But I’m proud of all three of us for meeting our individual emotional journeys head on, and for showing up week after week for the Saturday webcam chats — which was the most important thing. At some point the Saturday chats became Sunday chats, and when Kellen was packing to go away to college, he was the one who said, “We’re going to continue our talks when I’m at college right.” It was also his idea for us to watch the entire Star Wars saga together, in chronological order, so we’ve added an hour of Disney Plus GroupWatch to our weekly schedule, and engage in rollicking discussions about the episodes afterwards. Whenever Darryl comes to visit Kellen and his side of the family in Wichita, he also makes a point to get together with me and my side of the family. 

The three of us appreciate the free and supportive family dynamic we’ve cultivated to support Kellen through 15 years of life’s celebrations and crises. Reading Eileen’s chapter, I became overwhelmingly grateful for the liberation of knowing that trend would continue into Kellen’s future: As Kellen goes through grad school applications, career milestones, relationships and possibly starting his own family, Darryl and I will both be there for him in full joy and power. Without tension, without awkwardness, without our own drama distracting from Kellen.

And the forgiveness arc still brings surprises. Last Christmas Darryl sent Kellen and me a mystery box in Wichita, not to be opened until we got together on Christmas Eve to open our gifts to each other. On the webcam that evening I was startled to find that Darryl had bought all of us matching red-and-black buffalo-print pajamas. And candles. 

“We can all wear our pajamas and light our candles while we open our gifts!” Darryl said. 

This was not a family tradition we’d ever celebrated when we all lived under one roof, nor was it anything I’d ever dreamed of in my wildest forgiveness fantasies. When I committed to the forgiveness journey years ago, I had no idea of the liberation, healing, and empowerment it could bring, bordering on the miraculous.

I’m excited to see where it takes us next.