Conscious Movement Towards Collective Action: The Impact of a Political Forgiveness Process

The unprovoked and barbaric war brought within the borders of Ukraine, and Europe, by a Russian dictator has succeeded in uniting the world in an unprecedented way. We all look on in horror at Russia’s aggression as it has unleashed massive human suffering, death, and wholesale destruction on Ukraine and its people. The barbaric actions of Russia should trouble us all and deserves to be a focus of international attention, front and center in all our minds. It is important that the media, politicians, and all people rally together to help support the Ukrainian people. What we are seeing in reaction to the horrific aggression is international collective cohesion that hasn’t been seen in a very long time, the challenge is sustaining this cohesion and using it as a template for action moving forward. 

There is a danger of short memories, have we forgotten Putin’s attack in Syria which unleashed great pain and resulted in a surge of refugees fleeing for their lives? There are other conflicts and humanitarian disasters around the world which are no less legitimate and deserve attention as well. The war in Yemen, conflict across Africa, the barbaric actions of a military junta in Myanmar. A similar collective response and action is required to address these situations and relieve human suffering. Ukraine is at the forefront of minds right now, it is receiving the necessary coverage in media, parliaments and in general discourse across the world, other situations are not getting the necessary coverage. This partly reflects an unconscious bias at play which it is important to gain an understanding of. 

What are unconscious biases and why do we have them? Unconscious biases are social stereotypes and beliefs that we hold about situations and groups of people that are formed outside individuals own conscious awareness. Everyone has unconscious beliefs about various situations, social and identity groups which are triggered by our brain automatically making quick judgments and assessments. They are influenced by our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes, and cultural context. Ukraine is a country the western world can identify with and a country which wants to belong to the Western Bloc of nations and the European Union. It is an independent democratic state, based on a set of ideals and people may feel they can relate to the way of life and how society works as it is like their own. Other countries with different ideals and political systems, such as Yemen for example, and countries in Africa or Asia dealing with humanitarian crises may be seen as not as relatable. People may not see enough of themselves in these situations and this can affect how people react to these situations. 

It is a natural human reaction to pay more attention to people who seem more like us even if we are not aware of it. This is unconscious bias at play. The media coverage of the war in Ukraine has showcased the huge disparity in how certain conflicts or humanitarian disasters are reported, often showing conscious rather than unconscious bias. As a French news personality recently said, “We are not talking about Syrians fleeing bombs of the Syrian regime backed by Putin; we are talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives”. This is not unconscious bias; this is very conscious bias and it is shameful. If we examine this statement, he is saying that Syrians fleeing death and devastation don’t matter as much as people who look like Western populations fleeing death and devastation. Coverage framed by this sort of conscious bias has a role to play in creating unconscious bias in viewers. 

The BBC reported a former Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine commenting, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed every day”. Biases have not only been seen in the media, politicians’ comments too reflected unconscious biases. The Bulgarian Prime Minister said Ukrainian refugees are “intelligent, they are educated . . . not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, they could have been terrorists”. These sorts of comments show that some believe human suffering and devastation is a more serious issue when white Europeans suffer than when people from different backgrounds and locations suffer whether that be Syrians, Palestinians, Iraqis, or Yeminis.  This is something which is repugnant and should be called out as such. Human suffering is human suffering and all people are equal no matter where they originate. Look at all the conflicts that are not getting the responsiveness they warrant. The actions taken in Ukraine can be applied to many of these conflicts. What we can take from this situation is an unprecedented cohesive collective response from the international community. What we have learned is that a collective response is far more effective than isolated responses by individual nations. It shows how powerful that response can be. It is a template to bring forward and one which should be applied to all human suffering and disasters around the world whether it be the result of conflict or natural disaster. We are stronger united, we can do more good untied and we can create a better world united.

Russia is a case in point, especially when one considers the military might and significant resources of Russia being thwarted by the response of the international community in relation to sanctions, military and humanitarian aid, and the bravery and will of the Ukrainian people. This collective cohesive action has shown that just because a superpower decides to invade another country, they will not necessarily get their way. The result of this collective action has crippled Russia and its economy, led to some withdrawal from Ukraine and will ultimately lead to defeat in their objectives. 

Applying these lessons of collective, cohesive action in Ukraine and using what was learned in other conflicts can show the United Nations a way forward. It can show the United Nations what it can be doing and what it was designed to do – to be that collective solution. The response to Ukraine has highlighted that. Although there are elements in the United Nations which have no interest in a collective response, other countries have shown that if you consider collective action and apply it to other conflict-ridden countries progress can be achieved. This is what the world needs today. 

When we speak about a broad coalition coming together for Ukraine, we can begin to apply a political forgiveness framework. Political forgiveness is an inclusive process bringing all groups affected by a conflict together from the community to the political level.  It needs to have that broad approach whereby it is bringing in as wide a community and coalition as possible to support any action taking place and to enable a range of views to be heard, considered, and then responded to. That is its strength. The process does not marginalize or exclude people, for it to be effective it needs to take in the experiences of everyone in a considered way. This is a template for how we should approach things as we assess these conflicts, and how to make progress in achieving a sustainable solution to them, even if it means taking small steps forward. If we proceed in a way which does not include everyone, we will not achieve a sustainable solution or sustainable progress. 

As people begin to work with one another, especially those who never have had relationships before, and begin to learn about one another, they can begin to see each other differently, dispelling stereotypes and becoming more aware of the implicit or hidden biases. Working together provides an opportunity to build trust and a greater understanding which is key to moving forward whether it be in a political forgiveness process or in a collective, cohesive approach taken by the international community in trying to solve these intractable conflicts. Building trust and understanding provides the foundation for constructive partnerships to develop where both sides can agree on the best interests of all people and develop a bespoke solution and way forward. 

What we have learned from political forgiveness is that unified action, inclusion, and the collective is extremely powerful. Any action taken on the international stage to relieve human suffering or address conflicts should seek to include a broad spectrum of partners where different opinions and ideas can be put forward, debated, and considered. This would support a cohesive approach in moving forward in a way that can sustain peace and help countries progress in a direction to avoid falling back into a cycle of violence or repeating the mistakes of the past. This is the importance of taking collective action and of a political forgiveness process which can have great impact and be effective especially in the healing of nations. Let us use the response to Ukraine as a roadmap for the future. More can be achieved together than separately so to do the most good and the most for humanity let us move forward as a collective.

 

Novel Ways of Healing: The Role of Political Forgiveness

“There is no more powerful force then a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggles and ancestors by remembering.”

Lonnie G Bunch III Director of the Smithsonian Institution

February marks Black History Month, a tribute to the black men and women who have made significant contributions to this nation, and across the rest of the world. Black History Month is about celebrating those who have shaped our nation for the better. It is about the shared experiences of all black people and how those experiences have challenged, and ultimately strengthened America. Black History Month celebrates the rich cultural heritage, triumphs and adversities that are an indelible part of our country’s history.

As school boards across the country argue over what should be taught in schools, Black History Month serves as a reminder of what has taken place in our country; the good, the bad and the ugly, and why it is so important to have a greater understanding of history. James Baldwin once said “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it’s faced” and this is a reminder of the importance of facing history.

History is powerful and history can be uncomfortable, but it is in history we can learn from the lessons of the past and forge a better future. Our nation is so polarized because we have a conflicting understanding of the past with competing narratives about our histories. To heal we need to establish a shared truth and a collective memory which can then begin to unite us. There is a real danger in ignoring the past and doing so brings added mistrust and prolonged pain within our nation. Black History Month provides an opportunity to revisit our past, to understand our history more deeply and bring to light the harmful beliefs and attitudes which have developed in our nation revitalizing an awakening for the need for racial justice.

Political forgiveness creates new possibilities for to how all sides can live peacefully together in a renewed society. One key element to laying this foundation is the construction of historical memory to ensure the past is not forgotten, but rather dealt with head-on as a means of focusing those involved in the process and seeking to end the violence. To this end Bryan Stevenson, a public rights attorney, established the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson has devoted his life to exposing racial bias in the United States penal system and shining a light on the uncomfortable history of the United States. He understands that it is necessary to address past wrongs with truth and reconciliation efforts and yet his approach is not what we typically think of in terms of a traditional truth and reconciliation model.

Stevenson’s approach focuses on creating physical markers of the nation’s racial crimes across the state including documenting the history of the slave trade in the form of signposts acknowledging the grim history of our nation. Through the Equal Justice Initiative’s Community Remembrance Project, Stevenson began a campaign to recognize the victims of lynching’s by collecting soil from lynching sites and creating memorials that acknowledged the horrors of racial injustice. The Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 4000 racial terror lynching’s in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950. Several hundred of these victims were lynched in Alabama.

To create greater awareness and understanding about racial terror lynching’s, and to begin a necessary conversation that advances truth and reconciliation, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice was built dedicated to the memory of enslaved people and African Americans terrorized by lynching’s and humiliated by Jim Crow. It memorializes thousands of black people who were hanged, burned, shot or beaten to death after the Civil War. The Legacy Museum was created as a narrative type museum where people can get a first-hand experience of what it was like to be a slave. The building itself was the former site of a slave warehouse existed giving those who visit a stark reminder of the past. When people enter the museum, they are standing on the ground where enslaved people were put in pens and held until they were taken to the auction block down the street. The first thing visitors see are slave auction books that advertise people for sale and within are the ads trying to recover people who have run away. It is a stark sight to see such a site and the horror which once occurred there. The slave pens look empty but when someone walks up to them, it triggers a motion sensor and a hologram appears where you will see and hear an enslaved person give an account of how they were pulled away from their siblings, their parents, their children, and how they were sold. It is absolutely heartbreaking, and it is something every American should experience. It is our history, and we must deal with that fact.

The museum narrative goes from slavery to lynching, from lynching to segregation, and then from the segregation era to the contemporary era. In the last exhibit, visitors sit down, pick up a phone, and talk to someone who is incarcerated in prison today. They hear personal accounts of what it was like to be young, some as young as 13, and be sentenced to life without parole. They hear what it was like to be innocent on death row. The purpose of the museum and memorial is to create connections between the past and the present so people can understand how the injustices of the present are logical outcomes of the past. This narrative was created so people could understand what happened and recognize that now the narrative can be changed, and it must be changed.

In the museum there are hundreds of jars of soil which were taken from lynching sites. On these jars are the names of the victims and the date of their lynching’s. Visitors are given the opportunity to go to these sites where the lynching’s took place, to collect jars and it can be a powerful experience for many. In one instance a middle-aged black woman requested to go to one of these sites. Following a meeting ahead of the trip she was ready to go and was given a jar and a note of what to do. It turned out that the lynching site which she was assigned to was in a remote area. This made her extremely nervous, but she decided to go anyway.

She was about to start digging when a truck drove by driven by a white man and the truck slowed down and stared at her. The truck stopped, turned around and drove by again and she could feel his eyes on her. Then the truck stopped. A tall white man got out of the truck and started walking toward her making her even more nervous. She had instructions which detailed that she did not have to explain what she was doing. She could just say that she was getting dirt for her garden, and that is what she intended to do. But when this white man walked up to her and asked her what she was doing, she said something else “I’m digging soil because this is where a black man was lynched in 1931, and I’m going to honor his life”. She was so scared that she started digging faster. The man stood there and said, “does that paper talk about the lynching?” to which she told him it did and the follow up was not something she expected, “Can I read it?” The woman gave the man the paper, and he stood there reading while she was digging. He put the paper down and turned to the woman as she was digging to ask “would it be okay if I helped you?” Then this white man got on his knees. She offered him the little plow to dig the soil and he said, “no, no, no. you use that”. He started throwing his hands into the soil with such force that his hands were getting coated with soil. He kept throwing his hands and digging feverishly. That moved her. The next thing she knew tears were running down her face. He stopped and said, “oh, I’m so sorry I’m upsetting you” but she answered, “no, no, no, no, you are blessing me”, and they kept putting the soil in the jar.

When the jar was almost full, she noticed the man was slowing down and that his shoulders were shaking. She turned to look at him and saw the man had tears running down his face. She stopped and she put her hand on this man’s shoulder asking if he was all right. In a stunning reply he said no, “I’m just so worried that it might have been my grandparents that were involved in lynching this man”. They both sat there with tears running down their face. When all was done, the man stood up and said, “I want to take a picture of you holding the jar”. She too wanted to take a picture of the man holding the jar. The woman brought the man back to the museum where they put the jar on the exhibit together. This was a powerful moment for them both, a shared history being acknowledged and the pain allowed to air (‘NPR, Terry Gross, 2020).

Moving moments like that do not always happen when you tell the truth about history and when you have every reason to be afraid and angry. Until we commit to dealing with the past and encouraging moments like that, until we tell the truth, we deny ourselves the beauty of redemption, the beauty of restoration. This is the face of a political forgiveness process. It is about people coming together, deciding to live together in a different way, a way which has healing at its core. This can only be achieved if we take responsibility for our past and make different choices for the future. In many cases these experiences can be so profound as we learn the power that forgiveness can bring, even on a symbolic level.

The United States was founded on the principle that we are all created equally and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. We have never been able to live up to this guiding principal yet it is something we can aspire to and something we can achieve but it must start now. Unfortunately, systemic racism still exists in our nation today and diminishes who we can truly become. If we can face our past openly and honestly by working together as one people and uphold the principle we are founded on, we will become a stronger nation, a more perfect union, and a more perfect version of ourselves. We are all equal, you no better than I and I no better than you. We must acknowledge our history, no matter how difficult it is, and we must educate future generations about out history so they can actively choose a better path forward and to never allow the injustice of the past to be repeated. The future can be better, the future must be better and the work to achieve this is long overdue. It is time to get to work.

The Passing of a True Icon

“Do your little bit of good where you are, it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world”.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

On December 26th 2021, the world lost a truly remarkable man. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, lovingly known to many as the “Arch” passed away after a long and difficult battle with prostate cancer. For many of us who hold an interest in, and indeed those of us working in, the peacebuilding field, working towards restorative justice and reconciliation, his death was one which caused an outpouring of emotion. People across his native South Africa, and many across the world, feel a deep sadness at his loss.

Desmond Tutu was born on the 7th of October, 1931, in Klerksdorp, a small mining town in South Africa before his family moved to Johannesburg. His father was an elementary school teacher and his mother worked at a school for the blind which may have been what influenced Tutu in his early years to be a teacher. Tutu was born at a time when apartheid had an iron grip on society and where there was established racial segregation. This was reflected in the Bantu Education Act of 1952 which lowered the standard of education for black South Africans, limiting the possibility of receiving good quality higher education. While teaching Tutu tried to provide his students with a high level education but grew frustrated because of the Act which promoted inequality and a corrupt educational system. As a result of these frustrations and the political situation at the time, especially concerning the oppression of black South Africans, Tutu left teaching to join the clergy at the Anglican Church and quickly rose through the ranks.

There was a lengthy period of significant unrest in South Africa and this culminated in June of 1976 with an uprising in the black township of Soweto which boiled over into riots and sparked international outcry. The protests were led by black students and were triggered by policies of the apartheid government including the Bantu Education Act of 1953. While the government claimed that just 23 students were killed in the uprising, estimates on the numbers of people who died range anywhere from 176 to 700 people, and over 1,000 people were injured over the course of the protest. The uprising spread country-wide leading to a significant change in the socio-political landscape.

After hearing about the student protest, Tutu mobilized and spent time engaging with students and parents about the wide-scale rebellion against forced Afrikaans school language instruction and inferior education. It was out of this engagement with Tutu that the Soweto Parents Crises Committee was formed in the aftermath of the unrest and killings. In the years that followed, Tutu rose to the position of Archbishop of Cape Town and gained international recognition as one of the anti-apartheid movements strongest advocates. His fight for South Africa eventually earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

Tutu’s desire for forgiveness and reconciliation was born out of the Ubuntu philosophy which believes “I am human because you are human. My humanity is caught up in yours. And if you are dehumanized, I am dehumanized” (PBS News Hour 12/27/21). Tutu understood that anger and revenge were detrimental to the greater good. His commitment to reconciliation and his belief in Ubuntu is why Tutu was a strong proponent of restorative justice rather than retributive justice.

In 1996, Tutu stepped down from his duties becoming Archbishop emeritus but continue to reach out to those beyond the borders of South Africa. He also spoke out on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, liking some of the Israeli governments actions to apartheid and had a few words of criticism towards the post 9/11 U.S. led war in Iraq. For all that Tutu represented President Obama award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009. On Tutu’s 79th birthday, his gift to himself was to end his public life and to spend more time with his family and deepen his contemplative life. As Tutu once said: “I really want to engage in the contemplative life, because, you know often, when people are in love, they just want to sit and be together. And I want to try to be a bit more of that with God, but to also have some quality time with the mother of my children” (PBS Hour 12/27/21).

Tutu was the moral conscience of South Africa. He had a strong moral compass which guided his words and actions. He was outspoken not only concerning the injustices taking place in South Africa, but also concerned with international human rights issues such as those in Tibet, Palestine, and the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Tutu fostered true forgiveness and reconciliation. He strongly believed that forgiving our enemies, no matter the wrongs that had been committed, was the only way to true peace. His thinking was reflected in the changes which took place in South Africa. He believed in building a culture of forgiveness and to seek not only justice, but justice with love, what he called restorative justice. It was this approach which transformed the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission which Tutu lead as Chair of the Commission having been appointed to the role by then President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

Desmond Tutu was a truly transformative figure and is recognised as such Internationally, but what does his legacy mean for the United States and the world? Tutu’s legacy was to teach us about forgiveness and reconciliation, something which was, and is, in very short supply. The message of forgiveness and the idea that we can come back together may seem completely unattainable, particularly in today’s world of profound divisions and polarization taking place within the United States. The ending of apartheid in 1993 also seemed unattainable, but attained it was. If learning how to forgive wasn’t hard enough, Tutu also spoke of the importance of reconciliation, the revolutionary idea that you must not only forgive those who wronged you, but you also must have the courage to reconcile and to find the common ground so people and communities can live more peacefully together and break the destructive cycles of the past. It is that kind of change in mindset that we need to strive for, and it is that which is so challenging in the United States today.

What does forgiveness and reconciliation truly mean? Those whom we have the most resentment towards, those we fear the most and those we say we hate are precisely the people we need to understand more deeply and bring closer to us. We must try harder to understand why and how they choose to see the world so differently and find commonalities and ways to heal the divide which is so painfully experienced in our society today. It is Tutu’s thinking which provides an answer that can guide those of us in the United States, and around the world. In his own words Tutu leaves us this message.

Forgiveness is never cheap, never easy, but that it is possible, and that ultimately real reconciliation can happen only on the basis of truth. In reality, there can be no future without forgiveness, for revenge merely begs further violence, causing an inexorable spiral of reprisal, provoking counter reprisals ad infinitum”.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu will truly be missed. He was a bright beacon of light giving hope to this world. He was a true leader, transformative in his approach and strong in his convictions. This kind of leadership is sorely lacking today. As Tutu showed throughout his life and work, nothing is unattainable. Let us find his wisdom comforting and guide us in the days to come so that all of us can live in a better world and strive to achieve that progress which is deemed ‘unattainable’.

 

Ad Campaign’s, Guerrilla Fighters and Colombia: It Must Be Christmas?

It is that time of year again. The decorations are out of storage, the tree is going up and excitement is in the air for the children in our communities. The spirit of Christmas is upon us. It is a time we often associate with peace, love, and joy. It is a time for friends, family, neighbors and communities to get together with loved ones spreading good cheer, but we must also remember, this can also be a hard time of year for some. Some people can feel lonely during the holiday season, missing loved ones or not having people to celebrate it and it is those who most need the seasonal community goodwill, and for others to extend the hand of friendship at this time of year. It is a time of not just joy and happiness, but one of forgiveness and putting conflicts to one side and there have been many examples of this in the past. One such powerful example was the series of unofficial truces observed along the Western Front during World War I around Christmas in 1914. Soldiers from opposing sides entered ‘no man’s land’ and spoke, exchanging gifts, and even playing a game of soccer. The is a powerful example of the spirit of Christmas.

There is something about Christmas and the holiday season that is unexplainable and for one person, Jose Miguel Sokoloff, a creative advertising executive from Colombia, anything is possible at Christmas. Colombia has only recently emerged from a 52-year war between the rebel group FARC and the government. During the later years of the war options were considered on how to end the conflict and bring society back together. The Deputy Minister of Defense had an idea to essentially start an advertising campaign to end the conflict. He wanted to change mindsets and felt that if advertising can be used to buy products, why can’t there be a campaign to stop the guerrillas from fighting.  In 2006, Colombia’s Deputy Minister of Defense contacted Sokoloff hoping that Sokoloff’s talent could provide a unique way of ending the long-standing civil war.

They hired Sokoloff to convince thousands of fighters to give up their guns and come back home to their communities and to accept them back without firing a shot. How would Sokoloff do it? Well, simply, with soccer balls, lights, and Christmas trees, all of which are highly valued in Colombian culture. The series of campaigns took years of planning and coordination across the military and with communities.

In December 2010, the campaign launched “Operation Christmas”. At great risk, military helicopters carried two of Sokoloff’s colleagues into rebel territory (60 Minutes, 2016). They found nine, 75-foot trees near guerilla strongholds and decorated them with Christmas lights. Each tree was rigged with a motion detector that lit up the tree and a banner when the guerilla fighters walked by at night. It read: “If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home. Demobilize. At Christmas, everything is possible.” What was the purpose of this? Sokoloff wanted to make coming back home for Christmas something important, something everyone valued. He knew that if they put up these Christmas trees with that sign up there, it may touch the hearts of the guerrilla fighters – and for some, it did. Roughly five percent of the rebel force at the time demobilized: they came out of the jungle and gave up (60 Minutes, 2016).

Another campaign, “Operation Bethlehem”, aimed to show guerrilla fighters the way out of the jungle, guiding them home to their families and communities. The military dropped lights to show them the way through the jungle and people made banners which glowed in the dark that said follow the lights. For those who wanted to leave but did not know how, or where to go did leave.

How do you reach your target audience when they are hiding in 150,00 square miles of jungle? That is not an easy question to answer. What Sokoloff discovered was that the rivers are the highways of the jungle and that is an area where some attention should be placed. So, Sokoloff launched a new Christmas campaign called “Operation Rivers of Light.” They asked people in nearby villages to send messages and gifts to the guerilla fighters which were placed inside capsules that glowed in the dark, then floated down the river. This was symbolic in showing that communities cared and that they would welcome back their former neighbors, friends, and family if they walked away from the conflict. The river became a beautiful sight of about 7,000 lights floating down the river (60 Minutes, 2016).

Sokoloff and his military partners never let up. They created dozens of campaigns each uniquely designed to show the guerilla fighters the way out with beams of light, stickers on trees and voices of ex-guerilla fighter leaders booming across the jungle but no voice was more powerful than their mothers. In 2013, Sokoloff found 27 mothers of guerilla fighters. They gave his agency pictures of their sons and daughters as young children that only they could recognize. During Christmas, flyers with those photos were dropped all over the jungle. The message was before you were a guerrilla fighter, you were my child, so come home because I will always be waiting for you at Christmas time. Because of this campaign 218 guerrillas gave up their weapons and did return home.

Over an eight-year period, 18,000 guerillas put down their weapons and came home, in large part because of Sokoloff’s campaigns. The advertising campaigns helped bring the FARC to the negotiating table in 2012. Sokoloff was publicly recognized by Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, with its highest honor, that’s rarely awarded to civilians, for his creative advertising campaigns to help end the war. The work he did in reaching out to those FARC guerilla fighters, who many believed to be too far gone, brought families and communities back together. He got people home for Christmas.

Christmas and the holiday season is a time of peace and, as you can see illustrated in this story in Colombia, it is also a time of hope. It is a time to think of others, a time of forgiveness and of becoming better versions of ourselves. With all these wonderful qualities that this season brings out in us, let us recognize how powerful these qualities can be and what good it can bring to others. If guerrilla fighters can lay down their weapons and come home because of the love shown to them, we truly can do anything in our lives throughout the year with love, joy, and forgiveness.

The Truth About Thanksgiving

“For the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie  — deliberate, contrived, and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

John F. Kennedy

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday in the United States, where loved ones gather for a festive meal in gratitude for their bounty. Thought to have begun in 1621, it is tradition now and is passed down from generation to generation. We all learnt about the Thanksgiving story as children. We were told how the Pilgrims and Indians sat down together to enjoy an epic feast as friends and a community. This story is more fairytale than fact however and it is something we must be cognizant of. Native Americans weren’t honored guests at this meal and were probably not even invited. A myth developed which downplayed the bloody conflicts and the injustices that occurred between the settlers and Native Americans which continued over the centuries which followed.

The myth took hold that a group of friendly Indians welcomed the Pilgrims to America. This unidentified group of Indians (who were actually Wampanoag Indians) taught the Pilgrims how to survive in this new land. Then the Indians gave America to the Pilgrim settlers so they could create a nation based on liberty, freedom, and Christianity. In other words, it was about the Native people conceding to colonialism. What this myth allowed for was essentially a whitewashing of history and allowed people to believe was that colonialism was bloodless and victimless, that it had nothing to do with the Indian Wars or slavery. Americans could feel good about their colonial past without confronting its deep darkness.

Why is it so important for us to understand what really happened? Can we not just leave the past in the past and not tarnish a holiday? What we don’t realize is this fairytale story which we have been told perpetuates a myth that still harms Native Americans today. It marginalized the truth of what really happened in North America. In the words of Raymond Foxworth, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, “we need to understand and acknowledge and share our true history”. He went on to say that “only by doing so can we start to move toward healing and reconciliation between Native people and European colonizers.” Are you and I to blame for what happened? No. However, as is every leader’s duty to apologize on behalf of a nation for the wrongs of the past, it is our duty to listen, take stock and seek to atone for what was done to these communities (Andersen, 2021).

Most of the Thanksgiving myths we have grown up with are not true, as David Silverman shares in his book “This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving”.  The first Thanksgiving which took place in 1621 was not a ‘Thanksgiving’ which was filled with gratitude and contemplation. It was a party including drinking, militia drills and target practice (The New Yorker, Philip Deloria, 2019). Nor did the Wampanoag Indians receive a warm welcome at this ‘Thanksgiving’ from the Pilgrim settlers. They came, not to partake in festive activities, but to help the Pilgrims hearing gun fire and assuming the Pilgrims were under attack.

Years went by with sporadic occasions celebrating Thanksgiving on and off and most were more solemn with a focus on fasting and prayer. Some Thanksgivings followed bloody victories over Native American people. The Thanksgiving which we know and celebrate today only came about two centuries later when, on October 3rd, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November to be a national holiday. It was then that the myth of the Native American – Pilgrim feast took hold, and the Pilgrims of New England were seen to be the perfect image of what this nation would be founded on with the character of Americans centered on family, hard work, individualism, freedom, and faith (The New Yorker, Deloria, 2019).

So how does one confront a myth such as that of Thanksgiving? According to Silverman it begins by deconstructing the process through which it was made. In the case of Thanksgiving, this can focus on exposing the self-serving aspects of the story. In deconstructing myths Silverman cautions about the temptation to offer a counter-myth to suit current times but to tell a more honest story of what took place, albeit not a pretty picture. Many places around the world have held onto myths. The content may be different, but the form is the same. These myths when not questioned can lead to violence, mass murder, genocide, and even civil war. We have seen that myths have led to the Nazi holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Some countries have been able to move beyond their myths by recognizing them, and to varying degrees, have been able to engage in emotional healing or reconciliation processes to move past them and deal with the reality of what had gone before. Holding onto myths or beliefs to the detriment of any progress is something that keeps us stuck in the past. Those too wedded to beliefs, myths, and the philosophies of the past or allegiances to political parties are blinded and unable to see the reality of what is going on in front of their very eyes. This is the real danger of holding on to myths. People remain in denial of reality and, as a result, we in the United States for example are in denial of the richness of our past and our diversity in this country.

Myth breaking is hard to do. It requires the questioning of our ‘stories’ that uphold the traditional social order, making the heroes less than heroes and acknowledging the complexities of what it means to be human. This challenge is difficult to face. People will feel uncomfortable but if deep healing is to take place this is the path we must take. Myths should not be held sacred, our values should be however. This Thanksgiving, let us celebrate with family, friends, and loved ones but let us do so by acknowledging the hurt of the past and where it all began. It is our choice now and our responsibility to atone for what was done to our native people. It will be hard but let us at least try.

A Message of Hope: An Unlikely Friendship

During these trying times for us all, hope can often seem to be in short supply. In these moments of polarization and division, it can almost seem like all is lost and like we do not have a pathway back. The US, and the wider world, are so adversarial now and it does not seem to be easily fixed. In this current environment we can learn from a story from the not too distant past which made headlines again earlier this year. 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 Kennedy, a black Pastor, met the Grand Dragon of the local KKK, Michael Burden in 1996.

What was once an 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 shops 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 had met his wife, he began questioning his affiliation to 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 a 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 Foundation. Under the 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 place of evil is being transformed into a center which 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 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 25 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. It is possible to change our course, it is possible to shun hatred, but we must have the will and humility to do so.

 

 

Are Americans Ready for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help the country heal from the wounds of apartheid. Rwanda had a National Unity and Reconciliation Commission to help reconstruct Rwandan society and identity following a brutal chapter in its history. If we look even closer to home, Canada established a truth and reconciliation commission to address what occurred involving the Indian Residential School system. This was established to guide a process of truth and healing, leading toward reconciliation within Aboriginal families, and between Aboriginal peoples and non-Aboriginal communities, churches, governments, and Canadians more generally. Today, in the United States there have been calls for some form of a reconciliation process over issues such as slavery, racial justice and more recently the attack on the capitol which took place on January 6th, 2021. Are Americans ready to face the truth of the past? Are people ready to embrace such a process?

Truth commissions are not new and all that have formed are unique to the situation they have been established to address. Initially, there needs to be a consensus that a truth commission is required and then a consensus on what the issues are that need to be addressed. This initial requirement is often where the best laid plans fall apart. The problem in the United States is that there is no consensus, even for the need of a truth commission, let alone what the issues are that need to be addressed. We do not know what reconciliation would look like in a country facing so many challenges, especially since the country is so polarized.

Healing is necessary in this country. It couldn’t be more apparent after what we witnessed on January 6th, 2021. Recent years have seen growing polarization across the United States, people seeing those with different viewpoints as “the other” and lesser than those with whom they agree. Even if people have a desire to come back together, how do we begin the conversation about what really divides us? It is complicated. There has been so much fear and distrust on both sides of the divide. Each party is afraid that the other will gain more power and sees the other side as an existential threat coming. This is not a healthy democracy. We need to lessen this fear and get to the truth, everyone’s truth, and understand what really happened on January 6th, 2021, and why it happened.

Danielle Allen wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post on January 21st, 2021, and spoke about “The four kinds of truth America needs to pursue for reconciliation”. Allen, who is a candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, outlined the different stages of a reconciliation process in the US. It begins with forensic truth, getting the facts and holding people accountable for their actions. This is what takes place in the courts and involves eyewitness accounts of what has happened while developing an historical record of what took place. To move forward we must first determine the full facts of what happened and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.

Next comes the personal ‘truths’ where people share their stories, their personal truth. The United States began this process when the Capitol Police officers were testifying in front of Congress, explaining what they encountered and were subjected to. The officers outlined the cruelty and brutality of the day, the violence they experienced and the abuse they endured.  It is important we all carefully listen to these stories without judgment or prejudice if we want to ever make sense of what happened that day. We must bring these personal truths to the table to truly understand. The personal truths that were on display on January 6th demonstrated how far apart people’s beliefs really were. People on the left saw Confederate flags and a white supremacist insurrection. People on the right saw participants as embodying the spirit of 1776 in a morally legitimate uprising. (Danielle Allen, The Washington Post, January 21, 2021.) These chants of 1776 go back to the tea party movement in 2009.

There clearly has been discontent within the United States, within communities, and even within families. Yes, there have been extremists in charge and conspiracy theorists have been given license to perpetuate their mistruths in the mainstream but there has also been some ‘truth’ which has affected conservative ways of life. We must understand the different societal world views, why they developed the way they did, the validity of these world views and the needs that are represented by these world views. Why else do so many people feel that they have lost control over their lives? The point is that understanding where people are coming from gives us an opening to pursue a shared social truth. We need to listen and understand to begin to discuss and move forward. We need to understand what caused people to align with certain worldviews. We need to hear different perspectives which are seeded by these ‘truths’. It helps us begin to sort through all the noise so a social truth can be constructed which can empower people and embrace our diversity.

Allen, in her opinion piece, also spoke of restorative truth. What kind of policies and institutions do we want to have in place that support who we want to be as a people? Some in our communities have felt disenfranchised. We need to have economic policies which reflect the needs of every American, to empower them, and this includes having the ability to access good jobs and work flexibility which can restore dignity to one’s life.

What Allen touches on, and what my work focuses on is a political forgiveness process. This is a process which involves people coming together in safe places, telling their stories knowing that people are really listening. It is about reweaving the fabric of our society in such a way that brings a community back together, where everyone is empowered and embraced. The process restores dignity by seeking structural changes to take place in policies and institutions that can allow society to move forward, as one people and one community.

This is not an easy process. It is time consuming, requires real commitment and leadership and an honest desire to move forward. If we want to do the deep healing which is necessary to set the stage for a reconciliation process to take hold then this is the task at hand. We must approach it with an open mind and a genuine will to make things better. The bottom line is that it is important all Americans need to feel empowered and included in our multicultural society. Yes, this is difficult but we can do it. We need to have a strong desire and will but if we truly want to have a great country this is the path we need to take. This is the path towards healing and reconciliation. This is the path to repair the divide, to bring communities and families back together. We must act now as we have no time to waste.

Changing Mindsets: The Internal Struggle

In a country which has become more polarized, where legislators vote along party lines and rarely cross the aisle, and where political polarization is becoming personal too, how can ordinary citizens find anything in common, let alone create a shared vision for the future? Every day that passes, our communities are becoming more divided. Is there anything that can be done to help people think beyond their own needs and begin to focus on the needs of the country? How can we build a society with competing narratives and come together to feel connected to one another through the bond of citizenship? What role do leaders play in helping to change mindsets currently based on fear to move past that with empathy and understanding? What does it take to think differently, to move away from our narrow mindsets and for leaders to value focusing on national interests instead of their own so that our nation can once again move forward in a more peaceful and productive way?

In an address to a joint session of the United States Congress in 1990, 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.” In order to stop the cycles of anger, hatred, and fear which fuel so much suffering, requires a radical change in our thinking. Without this change we are destined to remain 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 have an honest commitment to transform consciousness, then we will recognize that true leaders are those individuals who are not afraid to look within, to change the way they think, and heal the pain of those around them. An evolution in consciousness is necessary to step out of the psychological dynamics which keep us stuck in a cycle of dehumanizing one another and creating divisions amongst ourselves. Changing our consciousness will enable us to change our mindsets and see this world differently. With a change in mindset, we can create a more peaceful and accepting world. Developing empathy can be the first step leading to change.

Empathy is the ability to place yourself in the shoes of someone else and to understand the psychological landscape from which they came. When we are empathetic, we can connect with the emotion that others are experiencing. It allows us to show compassion for another human beings, even though we do not have the same experiences. Neuroscience is teaching us that empathy can be learned by perspective taking. This is the ability to understand how a situation appears to another person and how that person is reacting cognitively and emotionally so you can understand what others might want or need. It is the ability to take a perspective in order to gain information by adopting another person’s point of view. When people can take the perspective of someone from an opposing group, one’s ability to empathize can become greater. This is because when we make conscious attempts to understand another’s point of view, we can reshape interactions with other people.

This approach can also support the forgiveness processes. To be able to forgive entails being able to understand someone’s psychological landscape and emotionally feel what they have been feeling. If we can reshape interactions in a more empathetic way perhaps this can also help us to be more forgiving.

Everything around us shapes our beliefs and the way we think. If we recognize the importance of shifting our thinking pragmatically, this can lead to a greater fundamental change, something much deeper and more personal. Taking responsibility for one’s thinking is critical to creating a paradigm shift and to successful processes of political forgiveness. It is a shift which requires an inner conviction. Most importantly you must feel it, and not merely intellectualize about it. If you are not committed to doing that then a lasting change will be elusive. This mindset shift does not happen overnight and is a fundamental process involving emotion more than the intellect.

Changing mindsets is a spiritual pursuit involving politics. Any real change must come from within ourselves and we must embody the change if we want to see it reflected in the world. As Confucius once said, “Virtue begins in the heart, and it ripples outward to transform the family, community, nation and the world.” Great leaders such as Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela are examples of this. They demonstrated a high degree of empathy, a connection to others, a quest for truth and action to foster justice. Instead of letting fear dictate their behavior they recognized that there is more to being human and what gives our lives meaning is the ability to care for one another, not hating or judging one another. Caring for one another, having compassion for one another, this helps us to connect with one another.

Spirituality and politics may seem like strange bedfellows, but they are a very necessary partnership for the healing of humanity. We are living in a world with much division, dehumanization and polarization which cuts us off from each other. We have forgotten our humanity, how to love, how to care for one another. Yet we do live in this world together, we are human beings wanting to live good lives which are joyful and meaningful, and it is together that we will decide how much pain we will put each other through or how much joy we will experience in our lives. To create division is to create pain. To be motivated by fear is to create pain to those we are fearful of. To be motivated by power over someone is to create even more pain. Is this the kind of world we want to create, being motivated by a certain kind of power and fear which hurts others so we can protect ourselves?

We can do better than that. We must do better than that. We have lost our moral compass which takes us to our true north. And our true north is what gives us our greatest happiness. It is what guides us to joining with others, caring about others, and being compassionate towards one another. It is about being human and letting that humanity shine through.

 

The Importance of Leadership in Ending the Cycle of Violence

The Middle East is no stranger to conflict and the flare up in recent weeks was another reminder that just because the conflict does not fill our TV screens every evening, it has far from gone away. Tensions have been mounting recently following difficulty accessing various religious sites, especially during Ramadan, while a number of Palestinian families were facing potential evictions from their homes as a result of some Israeli settlers making claims to their property.

It was against this backdrop that the Hamas terrorist organization proceeded to fire thousands of rockets at Israel who responded with air strikes on Gaza. The back and forth of rockets and missiles during 11 days of conflict resulted in the deaths of more than 256 Palestinians (including 66 children) and 13 Israelis (including 2 children) with many more injured and displaced. The cycle of violence which has taken place from generation to generation continues and nothing has been resolved or accomplished with no real end in sight. How do we deescalate this situation and finally have meaningful dialogue which works towards a solution? What is needed to achieve this?

Leadership. The cycle of violence, the continuous death and destruction must end and for that to happen real leadership is required. Strong and courageous leadership which seeks to actually resolve the conflict and not just calm it for now only to have it flare up months later. There have been some breakthroughs in the past, but these breakthroughs were initiated by the kinds of leaders we are missing today. These were leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat. Shimon Peres and even Yasser Arafat were committed to coming together to build peace. Unfortunately, today the current Israeli Prime Minister is driven by his political survival while Hamas has exploited the very people they claim to fight for. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has no real control over Palestinians in and is seen as an illegitimate leader by the Palestinian people.

On the global stage there has been a complete lack of real leadership and an inability to bring both sides of the conflict together to discuss all the issues and to offer a viable long-term solution. This should not be seen as something that can be a short term fix and a ‘political win’ that only lasts six months followed by more violence and more missiles being fired. There needs to be a real concerted international effort to bring about an enduring peace to the region.

What is needed from the leaders of today is a genuine political will, and a change of mindset. Most people are in support of a two-state solution as the way forward, it is the only viable solution. There needs to be a change in mindset as to how this will be approached, how it is achieved and what that process looks like.

What would this leadership look like? In an article How Biden Can Be a Leader in an Israeli-Palestinian Conflict That Has None written by Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller for Politico steps are outlined which can begin a process to end violence between the Palestinians and Israelis. The argument is made that there is a role for American diplomacy that could make meaningful changes on the ground in the Middle East. It does not involve a major initiative to resolve issues such as Jerusalem, borders or refugees, but it does increase the odds of stopping the current and future violence. They outline practical steps which can be seen as a beginning of a political forgiveness process – to stop violence and engage leaders in dialogue including:

  • Nominating a U.S. ambassador to Israel and appointing a senior representative to work the issue full time and to coordinate with the International Quartet (representatives from the U.N., EU and Russia, and the Arab Quartet (Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).
  • Start an honest dialogue with Israel on the steps Israel must take even as the current Gaza escalation winds down including stopping the demolition of houses and stop expanding settlements in Jerusalem to preserve the idea of two capitals for two future states.
  • Reopen a consulate general in Jerusalem and appoint a consul general to intensify direct dialogue with the Palestinian Authority.
  • Pressure the Palestinian Authority to stop its authoritarian practices and human rights violations. Urge them to hold elections recently canceled by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and to stop incentivizing and inciting violence.

There are important steps which need to be taken to set the stage for the necessary dialogues to begin. These steps begin with the importance of building trust. Leaders need to be able to step back and acknowledge their roles and their responsibility in the continuation of the conflict. They need to admit that there has been a wrong committed, that the current situation is not tenable causing more hurt on each side as the situation continues. Leaders need to talk to one another honestly and openly. They need to gain a better understanding of one another, listen to each other and together develop a framework to help resolve this conflict. There also needs to be an acknowledgment from both sides that things need to change to move to an agreed solution.  Leaders who are strong and courageous enough to do this are the real leaders.

We need visionary leadership that recognizes if occupation continues and voices of violent extremist are not marginalized, the violence will not stop. What has happened in the past must be dealt with head-on as a means of focusing all parties on the process and to put violence behind them. Leaders must honor the agreement of stopping violence at all costs and commit themselves to finding new ways of relating to one another. The reason there has never been success with this conflict is that both sides have shirked responsibility, have not admitted to the failings of the past processes, and did not approach this in good faith with an open mind. Instead, they have been approaching the conflict from their own points of interest and from a very narrow perspective, not appreciating that there is another side to this conflict and that a solution needs to work for both sides.

The human element of this conflict must also be addressed including the emotional undertow underlying the political situation which fuels the cycles of revenge. Leaders need to provide a mechanism to work through these emotions in a more productive way as it relates to the historical content of the situation. This requires leaders to respond to situations in a compassionate inclusive way that unites people instead of divides people. This needs to become a political mindset, a guidepost from which leaders act.

The human element is what will bring either success or failure to this process. You can put forth the best peace agreement which is all inclusive but this does not necessarily mean there will be any progress unless there is a change in mentality which transforms thinking so that compassion, inclusiveness, and respect outweigh the need for political gain, revenge, and divisiveness. There needs to be a change in an approach from all sides who are party to this conflict to start de-escalating the conflict and start moving towards a peaceful solution.

This will require international leadership, led by the US, Egypt and the International Quartert, and a transparent and accountable process. Leaders have the capacity to make choices based on greater wisdom and values which can help people rise to their best potential and to achieve shared ideals for a better existence. This is what we can strive for and what it will take if we want to end this conflict and finally break the cycles of violence. This is the work of political forgiveness.

 

 

We Are All Equal

“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”

Rodney King

 

“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” These were the last words of 46-year-old George Floyd. This heinous act occurred in front of witnesses and cameras. George Floyd’s death, and the death of so many other black Americans has sparked a powerful civil rights movement against racism, police brutality and unacceptable discrimination with the powerful message that Black Lives Matter.

The death of George Floyd has brought to the surface, yet again, hundreds of years of systemic racism in the United States. All the accompanying pain, suffering, injustice, and anger that is part and parcel of the experiences of black Americans growing up in the US has come to a head. In addressing the nation following the verdict, President Joe Biden said, “nothing can ever bring their brother or their father back. But this can be a giant step forward in the march towards justice in America. But this is not enough. We cannot stop here. To deliver real change and reform we can and we must do more to reduce the likelihood that tragedies like this won’t ever happen or occur again.” Biden called systemic racism “a stain on our nation’s soul” and that there has been a collective realization about the reality of systemic racism that has occurred since George Floyd’s death.

So, what can we do to help this country heal? Following George Floyd’s death, structural changes across society have been proposed and these begin with police reform. Vice President Kamala Harris voiced her views that lawmakers must now take up legislation that will fundamentally reform policing in America. There is a collective recognition, broadly across the aisle, that much more needs to be done in this regard. Rep. Karen Bass (D-California), a longtime policing reform advocate, introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which passed the House by a 236-181 vote. Included in the bill is a ban on chokeholds, the ending of “qualified immunity” for law enforcement officers and the creation of national standards for police training. Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), the sole black Republican Senator, put forward a counter proposal which included provisions for making falsified police reports a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. While these bills are a start in holding people, both the police and wider public, accountable for their actions, there is a need for far greater urgency, not just in tackling police reform but tackling the wider systemic racism which exists in the United States today.

Tackling the problem of systemic racism through structural reform is one element of the process but ensuring a real change in society will require a focus on education. In order to end this stain on our democracy we must teach that it is wrong, teach that we are all equal and teach the dangers of dehumanization. When I speak about education, yes I am speaking about our children starting from preschool but I am also speaking about all of us. Education is key. For this to work, to actually root out systemic racism, we all have a role to play and we all need to be educated on how we can play that role. We need to start now. We need to teach forgiveness, we need to teach healing and we need to teach reconciliation. There needs to be broad understanding of values such as respect for human rights and principles of equality, responsibility, and unity. When we can build a platform of knowledge for all citizens, we are building a more peaceful society.

How does this fit into a political forgiveness process? When we think of political forgiveness as an interactive process that involves the healing of individuals, the reconstruction of communal relationships, and the pursuit of a just political order it becomes obvious how important education and structural reform is in the healing of individuals and society. Police reform and child education are an important part of this process but it is not the only aspect that needs to be included in a political forgiveness process. All structures that support systemic racism need to be reformed, including unjust laws. Much work needs to be done. It will take all of us coming together and committing to one another if we want to create a better, stronger and more equal society where we can live in peace with one another. It can be done. The question is do we want a brighter future for everyone?