‘The Big Lie’ and The Impact On Our Society

If you turn on the news it won’t be long before you will hear reference to ‘The Big Lie’.  ‘The Big Lie’, which has become so divisive in our nation, our communities, and even within our own families, alleges that the 2020 Presidential Election was ‘stolen’, an idea maintained by former President Donald Trump, his allies in the Republican Party, and his supporters. This inflamed rhetoric led to the insurrection of the Capitol on January 6th. It is a belief that denies reality, justifies violence, and sows the seeds of anger in society and hatred of the ‘other’, which is in this case, anyone who does not believe ‘The Big Lie.’ It is a conspiracy theory like no other and has furthered the divide in our society, pitting communities, neighbors, and even family members against each other who are on opposite sides of the argument. 

 

Statistics demonstrate this point. According to a CNN poll conducted in the summer of 2021, 36% of Americans did not believe that President Biden legitimately won the election, and among Republicans, that number jumped to 78%. Similar results were found in an NPR/PBS/Newshour/Marist Poll conducted in October 2021 where 75% of Republicans felt Trump was the legitimate winner. ‘The Big Lie’ has become so entrenched in our politics now that some state legislatures are attempting to ensure that mechanisms are put in place whereby they can overrule voters and substitute their own state of electors to choose the winner. This is a very serious threat to our democracy plain and simple. 

 

If we think about it, strip away the politics of the issue, and look at it through a different prism, how has one conspiracy theory become so prevalent in our politics and, more broadly, in our society?  How have we let it further deepen the divide and perpetuate an ‘us vs them’ environment? Fundamentally, and oversimplifying it for a moment, a difference in belief and opinions has been allowed to tear away at the very social fabric of our society to come between families, friends, communities, etc. On a very basic level, how can society and individuals deal with something like this, a belief or differing opinion which is given such importance in people’s lives? 

 

A loyal fanatic sports fan, whose team has a big local rival does not generally allow this to limit their friendships or interactions outside the arena of sports, so why is it so different in political ideology or political beliefs? Yes, many would attach more importance to political ideology or beliefs than sports or other areas of life, but do we define ourselves solely by political ideology? If I ask you ‘what defines you?’, what would you say? Would your answer simply be ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat’? In the vast majority of cases, it is unlikely, so we can say there is more to a person and what defines them than political ideology. They may be a partner, a parent, a friend, a teacher, a librarian, a religious or spiritual person, a conservationist, a lover of the outdoors, or have many other defining characteristics, traits, or hobbies. We are more than just a political ideology or political affiliation; we have to be. 

 

We need to choose a less divisive path forward where people can have strong beliefs and convictions, yes, but their whole being is not defined by this, whether Republican or Democrat or the often forgotten ‘other’. No free-thinking person agrees with anyone, let alone any party or politician, 100% of the time, so why should they be 100% defined by a party or politician? They shouldn’t and we should challenge the belief that they should when we hear and see it. If there is a difficult divisive topic or significant issue at play it is bound to heighten tensions, stir up debate, and pit one side against another, that is the society and politics we currently have. So, what can we do? Yes, we can air opinions, forcefully debate the issue, defend a position and explain it, but let us not seek to attack those with opposing views and dehumanize them, let us not seek to use this issue as a reason to hate, let us be more respectful. There may be a significant issue at play, but it doesn’t mean that we individually, or collectively as a country, should be defined by it. Any issue should not have a disproportionate impact on everyone’s lives. 

 

We do not have to be defined by political beliefs, not individually or as a country. What is happening now in the United States is not normal – it doesn’t happen as a matter of course in western civilization. What is happening is the divide that has long been present is deepening. This division and polarization are a real and urgent concern and something that we need to tackle now to stop it from getting worse and to stop it from going past the point of no return. The current environment in which we are living is a clear and present danger for all of us. To move forward, to have a society that can come together, the divided nature of society in this country needs to be repaired. The political polarization and the dehumanization that started within the political arena have long since spilled over into society, past political parties, and into other areas of people’s lives, and communities. It is so widespread across the nation that we need to take action to heal the country, to heal that division, and bring us back to the center point where things like cooperation with those seen as the ‘other’ now do not seem completely off the table. 

 

One way to address this division is through a political forgiveness process, a process which can help transform our thinking where we can begin to understand one another at a deeper level, have empathy for the ‘other’ and which can help all of us change our mindsets to be more accepting of the ‘other’. A political forgiveness process focuses on all levels of society bringing everyone together in a healing capacity that can ultimately bring peace and stability to all of us individually, to our communities, and to our nation. We can no longer wait to engage in a healing process. We must start now.

A Changing Landscape: Historic Change in Colombia

In Bogota, there has been a change in mood with unprecedented changes taking place in Colombia. The recent election of Gustavo Pedro, the first leftist candidate in decades, and a black female Vice President, Francia Marquez, has marked a once unthinkable shift away from the elitist politicians and parties who have held power for generations. Colombia has traveled a long road to reach this point, through conflict, hardship and suffering. Colombia today is to be commended for its impressive progress toward building a culture of political forgiveness, that is not to say it has managed to get everything right or that the journey is over. 

From 2012 to 2016, the Colombian government and the militant groups FARC-EP held peace talks which eventually culminated in a final agreement that sought to end the long-standing conflict and begin to build a platform for peace in the nation. There are elements of a political forgiveness process taking place in Colombia and these are reflected in the final agreement commencing with the cessation of violence, the inclusion of all members of society, a strong victim focus, the uncovering of a more complete story, and a search for the truth through a truth commission. There was also a commitment to create structural changes which would support Colombia’s healing. The agreement was first reached and signed on August 24th, 2016. This agreement was put to a referendum which failed by a very narrow margin, 50.2% to 49.8% which led to revisions of the agreement. Following these revisions the new agreement was signed on November 24th, 2016 and this was submitted to Congress for approval. On November 29th, 2016, the Senate approved the deal 75-0 and the House of Representatives approved it the next day by 130-0. The agreement focused on specific issues pertaining to the conflict, which were negotiated as separate agreements and then all agreed upon as a whole.

The aspect of the agreement that reflected a political forgiveness process in particular was in respect of the victims of the conflict. The agreement created the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparations and Non-recurrence. It is composed of the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Recurrence Commission, the National Center for Historical Memory, which also serves as the Special Unit for the Search for Persons Deemed as Missing in the context of and due to the armed conflict, and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the court of transitional justice that will function for fifteen years, this term can be extended for another five if required. The truth commission is the culmination of a painstaking process of searching for, and producing, truth on the national level. What makes this part of the agreement unique is its focus on the victims and the healing aspects which can set the stage for political forgiveness to take place. As a result of real determination and immense pressure from victims’ groups, the parties to the negotiation eventually agreed to address the victims’ claims as a central element of the terms of the agreement. 

The truth commission finalized its work in 2021 and the final report which was released recently, in July 2022, seeking to dignify the victims and shed light on the barbarity of the armed actors. As evidenced in the report, there has been a real concerted effort made, more so than in any other similar process in any country to date, which focused on the whole of society. This is reflected in the report which includes a gender chapter that focuses on violence against women and the LGBTQ+ population, an ethnic chapter that describes patterns of violence against indigenous and afro-descendant populations, and a chapter dedicated to those people in exile giving voice and addressing the invisible experience of Colombians who had to leave the country because of the war. This real effort by the truth commission to include all should be commended and it should be a feature of any similar processes from the outset moving forward.

 

And What About Political Forgiveness?

The core of the Final Agreement to End Armed Conflict is a healing component focusing on the victims of the conflict. It addresses the healing of pain and suffering, changing mindsets, implementing changes in a restorative way, and changing structures unique to Colombia, especially with regard to the victims of the conflict. When examining all these programs together, it is clear that a foundation is being constructed for a political forgiveness culture to be built upon. To date, Colombia is unique in its approach to building this foundation. When you review what has taken place in South Africa and other countries, Colombia has taken the next steps down this trajectory and its process can serve as a model for other countries. It is not perfect, there have been many setbacks along the way, and there will probably continue to be setbacks. Healing the divides of a country takes time and everyone has to be willing to do their part, it is not easy or quick work. As time goes on more learning will take place. Colombia has taken an important step in the process of political forgiveness and hopefully the work done in this country can serve as a model for others to build upon as the global community continues its journey, attempting to make this a more peaceful place.  

Father Leonel Narváez, the founder of Fundación Para La Reconciliación in Bogota has worked closely with Colombia’s truth commission and in the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC. When asked what he personally thought about the progress and changes in Colombia he said he felt that after 20 years of his work in political forgiveness there is now a resurgence of people thinking about forgiveness, and there is a more receptive appetite for forgiveness among the Colombian people. The future looks bright to Narváez who views the changes taking place as positive and hopeful. Narváez and others who contributed to this difficult work and process have a lot to be proud of. There is an air of optimism throughout the country and many are excited and supportive of the new leftist government. Gustavo Pedro, the incoming President, has received a great deal of support from other parties, including those on the extreme right. He is taking the recommendations of the truth commission report very seriously which should hopefully have a very beneficial impact on the Colombian people. For Narváez with all the positive changes taking place in Colombia anything is possible moving forward but the determination and hard work only begins in earnest now.

The Importance of Moral Leadership

What is moral leadership and how do we find moral leaders? I agree with David Gergen, writing in his book Hearts Touched with Fire: How Great Leaders are Made’, when he speaks of leadership as a journey that has to start from within. That thought struck a chord with me and it sheds some light on why leaders behave the way they do when they assume these leadership roles. The way people lead reflects who they are. They need to understand themselves, control their emotions, and master their inner self before they can exercise leadership and be of service to others. These are the elements that develop character, help us grow, and develop a sense of purpose. For a leader, knowing their own values and having the ability to follow their true north in a complicated world is important. This is essential for developing moral courage and moral leadership. The journey starts within.  

When you think of leaders, what or who comes to mind? Some will think of leaders of the past and some will think of the leaders of today, many as possibly not quite fitting the bill. If you think of what you would want a leader to be on the other hand, what comes to mind? Many would say a role model and pillar of the community who has courage and acts, not in one’s own self-interest, but in the interest of the community they serve. Moral leadership is important and it is about people making choices for the benefit of others while trying to bring others along with them on different issues. Unfortunately, in today’s world, many leaders are more concerned with their own status and solidifying their own power base than they are with morality, doing what is right for the highest good of all people. We need leaders of moral courage, compassion, and character now more than ever before. The world has no shortage of challenges it is facing and now is the time for strong moral leadership. How do these leaders we need emerge? How do we develop leaders who will stand up, and who will be courageous? There is no simple answer to these questions but there is hope.

A new younger generation of leaders has begun to emerge who have started to challenge the status quo and demonstrate courage. There have been several young leaders who have climbed the ranks to lead their countries at a younger age than those before them, capturing the mood of their nation and understanding what is required. In Finland, Prime Minister Sanna Marin was 34 when she took office in 2019 and she has focused on equality and climate change as key issues during her term, and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made moves for Finland to join NATO, making a decision that has been shirked by previous administrations because of fear of what the repercussions might be. Dritan Abazović was 32 when he was sworn in as Prime Minister of Montenegro in 2022 and his government priorities are to fight against corruption, for more sustainable development, environmental protection, and better care for young people while continuing the path toward EU membership. 

Another leader who came to power at a relatively young age was the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern who was sworn into office aged 37. Key issues of concern have been cutting child poverty, homelessness, climate change, and equality. Ardern has forged a different path based on courage, strength, empathy, and compassion stressing kindness and well-being as a governing virtue. She has sought to lead by example which was demonstrated in the aftermath of the horrific attack in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, which took the lives of 50 people while praying in a mosque. She sent a powerful message around the world about New Zealanders’ shared values, that those who seek to divide us will never succeed and that New Zealand will always protect the diversity and openness that is its strength. In solidarity with the Muslim community, Ardern wore a hijab while visiting the two mosques that were attacked and showed her empathy as she was embraced by mourners. The empathy which she delivered could be heard in her words “You are us, we feel grief, we feel injustice, we feel anger and we have that with you”. Her heartfelt compassion in the wake of tragedy shows her as an example that other world leaders should take note of. 

In the United States, people are showing similar leadership qualities such as Stacey Abrams who is running for Governor in Georgia and has fought against voter suppression. Liz Cheney is an example of someone in a leadership position standing up for what is right and what she believes in, one of the only Republicans making a bi-partisan effort on the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. Cheney has faced abuse, and threats and has been censured by her own party but she has carried on fighting for what she believes to be right in the face of it all.  People are showing leadership in their respective positions across politics, society and within the community but the question is how do we ensure they are not a minority but are front and center acting as a catalyst for change. This kind of moral leadership needs to become the standard-bearer and the benchmark that we should be comparing all leaders to. 

The next generation is rising. Young people across the United States and further afield are becoming energized and inspired. They are demanding more from leaders and those in positions of power and informed on the issues that will affect them in the years to come. Thrust into the world of activism by the largest school shooting in American history, Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg has become one of the most compelling voices of his generation on gun violence and control. The co-founder of March for Our Lives, his call to “get over politics and get something done” challenges Americans to stand up, speak out and work to elect morally just leaders, regardless of party affiliation. Passionate in his advocacy to end gun violence, Hogg’s mission of increasing voter participation, civic engagement, and activism embraces a range of issues. Following the recent spate of mass shootings including the school shooting in Uvalde which killed 19 children and 2 adults and the shooting in Buffalo, New York which killed 10 and injured 3, Hogg organized protests to put pressure on political leaders to take action and pressed the need for gun control legislation.

This generation is more engaged at a younger age than previous generations, particularly on issues that are going to impact them increasingly in years to come. One only needs to think about Greta Thunberg, the 19-year-old climate activist who started protesting for climate action aged 15 in her native Sweden. In 2018, Thunberg took the international stage beginning the school climate strikes and giving public speeches on the topic. Thunberg has stated that as she watched the Parkland students galvanize with the ‘March for Our Lives’ protests she was struck by how one defiant act like skipping school could be so powerful and how could she sit by knowing that the greatest crisis facing the world was unfolding. She was so inspired by the approach taken by young people protesting gun violence that she began to use these tactics to fight for climate action. It was slow at first but soon her social media presence expanded and she received national and international coverage. Her defiance paid off, drawing an estimated 4 million people to take the streets in September 2019 in support of Global Climate Strikes, the biggest single day of climate protests in history (Guardian, 2019). This leadership from someone so young on an issue of such importance is, and continues to be, inspiring.

Why is leadership important? Without good leadership, without a moral compass, there is no moral leadership. South Africa is a good example of what happens in a country when there is a lack of moral leadership. What took place in South Africa between 1948 and 1989 during the apartheid era was reprehensible and it happened in a vacuum of moral leadership. President F.W. de Klerk began to institute changes and reforms to dismantle apartheid when he came to power in 1989 and freed Nelson Mandela in 1990. They worked together to change South Africa and this culminated in a new constitution and Mandela becoming President in 1994. Mandela was able to precipitate change along with others who demonstrated courageous leadership alongside him. This shows what happens when moral leadership is introduced and courageous and righteous action is taken. Often people think that something like this could never happen in their own country but as we have seen across the world in recent years, things that would have seemed improbable can happen and all it requires is a lack of moral leadership. 

Why is moral leadership so important to a political forgiveness process? For a political forgiveness process to be successful and if we are to move forward each one of us needs to consider our own actions, our own place in society, and who we want to represent us. Are we looking for morality in leaders? Are we looking for leaders that we can trust? How can we make sure that this is the leadership that we are really getting? The fundamental change we need in society can only be enabled through each of our own actions. We can create the necessary conditions for that change yet it is up to each of us to play our part. We must all think long and hard about who we want representing us, and why. Do we want leaders who will agree with everyone and do nothing or do we want leaders who will do what is right no matter how difficult it is. We can affect change and we must seek to do so in an informed way.

Healing the Division: It’s Time to Listen

There is no denying that polarization is taking place within the United States. People are at each other’s throats daily. With misinformation, disinformation, alternate realities and all the divergent points of views we can’t seem to agree on anything. We have forgotten how to be civil with one another, how to talk to one another and, most importantly, how to listen to one another. Our perceptions are warped by the beliefs we have taken on and we chose to see the world only through that prism. What we need to do is to see what is happening through a different lens that can help unite us instead of dividing us.

The political discourse has become so toxic that it is not just seen on Capitol Hill or on television. It is seen in all our daily lives, within our communities, with family members who do not talk to each other anymore, with neighbors who stopped meeting up for dinner, or parents who no longer let their kids play with other kids. This is something that I am sure many of you have experienced to some degree, possibly within your family or neighborhood, or with a work colleague. It is something which is replicated right across the United States and it is difficult to see a way back. 

For a community to survive and thrive it cannot be in the stranglehold of this adversarial dynamic which leads to constant bickering and fighting and, in some cases, violence. A community needs to have the collective strength and a real willingness if it wants to change the tide and heal the rift that divides us. A political forgiveness process can be a powerful mechanism to do this by initiating a true dialogue which can foster a change in our thinking and if need be, lead us down a path of forgiveness. Unfortunately, what has been taking place within the United States, and in many countries around the world, is rhetoric being shouted out on either side of the divide with people not listening to each other nor respecting one another. 

In what seems like a lifetime ago, people may not have agreed with one another but they respected each other enough to listen, to still be friends outside of the issue or politics, be able to live side by side and to have constructive discussions and engagements. It is the case now in the environment in which we find ourselves that people have become so disrespectful, dismiss the opinions of others, and only see the issue and politics and not past it.  For a community to work together, as they have done in the past, there needs to be a coalescence around a common ground and an ability to see people for more than their political affiliation or their political background. For people to come together, they need to talk to one another with an open mind, discuss their viewpoints, forgive and move forward constructively. We do not always have to agree, or even like another’s opinion, but we have to respect the person and seek to rise above the hatred.

What do we do next? Where do we go from here? This is where engaging in a political forgiveness process becomes important. We need to decide to come together with a willingness to listen and to understand one another’s ‘truths’. This requires a commitment to engage in a conversation from the standpoint of respecting each other, remembering that you can disagree with someone who has different views from your own but you can still respect the person. When we can show respect to others it is easier for them to then show respect back. It is not about relegating people to being a democrat or a republican, or if they voted for Trump or didn’t vote for Trump. People are more than that and it is time we recognize that. If we only focus on different points of views, we are only focusing on a very small part of who a person is. Can you remember a time prior to the last six or so years where people would walk around town saying, “I’m a Republican” or “I voted for this guy” and seek to antagonize others? This is the kind of behavior which has led to the polarization we are now experiencing. We are all more than the party we vote for or some beliefs which we hold. We always have been and we need to start recognizing this again.

How can we have constructive dialogue? We need to begin by giving people the space to share their story as to why they believe what they believe, what’s behind this belief, and to especially discuss fears and anxieties around it. Empathy and listening is important here realizing that beneath all our points of view is an element of fear. There has been too much talking and not enough listening. If all you do is talk, talk, talk and not actually listen to the other side you are not getting an understanding of their opinions and why they believe what they believe. We need to understand not only what has happened in people’s lives that has informed their worldview but we need to understand the meaning people have given to the events which have left an impact. Dialogue is the way forward and the way through to people. As a result of focusing on talking and not on listening, you narrow the possibility of understanding the viewpoints that you are hearing. When you hear someone’s story and what is significant for them then it is also important to talk about how to overcome what has happened and how to stop the animosity people feel towards one another, including the violence that may also be taking place. We need to discuss in a healing capacity how we can overcome polarization and deal with our differences and why we see situations so differently. These are the kinds of questions a political forgiveness process focuses on when holding a dialogue.

It is important to recognize that we all have a role to play in this process and we all have a purpose whether it be in our own family, our neighborhood or in our community. Wherever it might be, all of us have a responsibility to move past this collective impasse that we are in now and move forward in a more constructive way. Changing mindsets becomes paramount. We need to look within first, question our own values, beliefs, and perceptions, and be committed to making our community a better place. If we don’t do this, what we are about to lose is what we hold dearest, our democracy. If we do not play our part and take responsibility for our actions there is only one direction of travel down the same path we are on, making it impossible to bridge the divide and harder to bring us back together. 

Political forgiveness is a powerful process. Engaging in the dialogue just described is a first step but learning how to forgive ourselves and one another is also part of the process which begins to build the foundation for a culture of peace. When we can heal ourselves and build understanding then we can develop healing mechanisms which not only can have a positive effect on our communities, but it can also support the healing of our nation as well. It is the hope that a political forgiveness process can bring which shines a light on a brighter future for all of us. Respect. Listen. Educate. Engage. 

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.