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?

 

 

Closing the Divide

The continuing deep divisions within US society have been on the forefront of my mind recently. As I listen to, and observe, what is happening across this nation, I want to delve deeper. What is sustaining these entrenched divisions and how we can move forward? How do we heal as a nation?

The divisions in our society today have eroded our trust in one another and in our civic institutions. When we divide ourselves into different groups, we begin to see our world through different and polarized lenses. The way we view the world impacts the way we think about our world, and each other. If we always view things through a polarized lens then that is all the world will ever be to us. One side pitted against the other in a toxic political environment. And so, we end up where we are now, with a deeply divided nation. So how do we overcome this?

In order to heal, we need to understand the psychological factors which drive us apart. It begins with the creation of ‘in’ groups, groups which share common beliefs and values. Unfortunately, when a conflict takes hold these common values and beliefs become more entrenched leading to tunnel vision. In a report published by Beyond Conflict, “America’s Divided Mind: Understanding the Psychology that Drives Us Apart,” there is discussion of a core feature of polarized psychology, that it distorts the way our brains processes information about society.

When such political polarization occurs, as we have seen over the last number of years in US society, it can deeply divide our society. We see the opposite side as somewhat alien to us. We hold incredibly negative views and beliefs about the ‘other’ which colors our whole perception of them. This sets into motion other destructive beliefs such as the belief that the ‘other’ cannot be reasoned with and that all on that ‘side’ are the same. There is no room for nuance in this polarized world. Before we realize it, our dislike of the ‘other’ deepens to the point of dehumanization. We no longer see the ‘other’ as an equal. When we become so entrenched in our thinking the result is a toxic environment for all. 

Dehumanization is dangerous. It happens when we perceive others as less than us, less than human. Dehumanization is what fuels conflict, atrocities and genocides. What happened in Nazi Germany leading to WWII was the result of dehumanization, Jewish people were viewed as lesser, persecuted and murdered. In Rwanda, dehumanization led to a genocide which shocked the world with common descriptions of the persecuted people being ‘vermin’ or ‘cockroaches’.

This is where deeply divided nations can end up. I am not saying that this is where the United States will end up, but if we head too far in opposite directions, it becomes harder and harder to come back together. How do we halt this process and attempt to heal this divide? Can we even do that? The answer is a resounding yes! To reverse course and not further advance the dehumanization process, we need to begin to see each other for what we are, flawed and human. We need to stop the bluster and rhetoric which is demeaning to people. We need to think before we speak and consider the impact of our words on others. If we do this, we will realize that while we hold differing views, we are not dehumanized by the other group to the extent that we had believed. This realization can help us break the cycle of polarization.

How can we stop dehumanization and polarization? There are psychological processes that are involved which, interestingly, form part of the process of political forgiveness. It can simply start with people on both sides coming together, apprehensive and all, and speaking to one and other, person to person. The value of discussion cannot be overstated. One person in discussion with another about life, about family or even about their favorite sports team is the most human of activities. Finding that common ground and what unites us rather than what divides us is how we move forward. 

While we may hold different beliefs and political views, we all have things which we can relate to one another on. By discussing and sharing our experiences, we learn about one another. When sitting in a room speaking with our perceived ‘adversaries’, those whom we have labelled as the ‘other’, we begin to recognize that although the content or perspective may be different the themes in the discussions and stories are similar. We realize that we have more in common than that which divides us. This shared human experience helps us open our minds, and our hearts, to one another allowing us a greater understanding of one another. We cannot dehumanize someone if we feel empathy towards them.

Sometimes these stories describe painful realities and truths that may be uncomfortable to hear, yet these stories can sow the seeds of transformation and help create a shared vision for the future based on a shared understanding of the past. To hear these stories, these narratives of the ‘other’, does not mean that you endorse them but it does mean that you hear and understand them. Sometimes the willingness to listen, and a focus on commonalities rather than differences, can help close the divide and establish a less polarized environment.

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

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

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

To support this movement Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey recently announced the reintroduction of their legislation calling for the establishment of the first United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT). The commission will examine the effects of slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color, and how our history impacts laws and policies today. As Senator Booker said, “to realize our nation’s promise of being a place for liberty and justice for all, we must acknowledge and address the systemic racism and white supremacy that have been with us since our country’s founding and continue to persist in our laws, our policies and our lives to this day.” This legislation goes hand in hand with what the goals of the movement are and as Booker also commented, “this is the necessary first step in beginning to root our systemic racism in our institutions and for addressing and repairing past harm and building a more just nation for every American.”

The Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation movement is a wonderful example of a political forgiveness process which focuses on all levels of society. It begins with people coming together in a healing capacity and engaging in conversation within a given community. People share their stories and lay bare the awful truths of what has happened in their lives breaking the denial which has held a strong grip on our society. These stories help us get in touch with our humanity and help as get to know each other as truly human beings. When we can peel away the layers of fear, guilt and anger which is part of a forgiveness process we can get in touch with our humanity and begin to relate to each other differently and in a more compassionate way. We also need to learn how to walk in the shoes of the other. By dealing with what has happened, walking in someone else’s shoes, and by healing our own emotions which blocks us from feeling someone else’s pain we can change the narrative and how we behave. It is about our humanity, to see ourselves in one another, to genuinely care for one another to have empathy that goes beyond who we identify with. That is the work which needs to be done. And if we can help heal the suffering and hurt of ourselves as well as others, we are on the road to heal society and to build a stronger foundation for a more inclusive and just society.

For more information on political forgiveness please visit www.drborris.com.

 

The Beginning of a New Way Forward

As Charles Dickens once wrote in his novel A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worse of times.” Could this be true for us? We are coping with a pandemic and dealing with deep divisions and issues of racial injustice which are profound. Parallels have been drawn between what is happening now and during the Civil War. So where are “the best of times?”

Crisis brings opportunities. Out of our pain can come healing. We know healing begins with truth telling and accountability and fortunately we have models from around the world which we can learn from. The most notable comes from the work of Nelson Mandel and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although this commission had many flaws it is also a model which can teach us many things. Other models are emerging such as the work being done in Colombia with their truth commission. One of the most interesting aspects of this work is how it views different forms of the truth and works with the differing perceptions. Closer to home is the work done in Canada and their truth and reconciliation commission which provided those directly or indirectly affected by the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system with an opportunity to share their stories and experiences.

A new way forward is about transformation. It takes time and a critical mass to get there. Unfortunately, our culture has de-valued many of its citizens and so our work begins with remembering our humanity, our inner-connectedness and what it means to be a human being. It means zero tolerance for any kind of violence. In this country what we must grapple with is the ideology of racism and violence and the denial of humanity for different groups of people. The work must be comprehensive and work on all levels of society. People need to change mind sets, communities must come together and heal, and there needs to be resources and commitment on the governmental level to change structures in society so what we are now experiencing can never happen again.

Can the worse of times become the best of times? Can we embrace this moment of crisis in a healing capacity as a country so we can go forward with a new vision of who we must be as a nation and have the capacity to demonstrate empathy and care for one another, showing that we value one another? Can we transform our structures to be inclusive instead of exclusive? What I have just described is the work of political forgiveness. In practicing forgiveness politically, we can grow in compassion and empathy and out of that can develop a new culture based on our humanness. This IS our way forward and gives us an opportunity to make profound changes in our society.

For those interested in learning more about political forgiveness please go to my website www.drborris.com. Feel free to sign up for the monthly newsletter which shares information and stories on political forgiveness when you go to the website.

The Poisoning of America’s Soul

Today is MLK day, to honor not only a man who was a great civil rights leader, but also a very spiritual man who had a great soul. His speeches and writings demonstrated a depth of thinking reflecting his beautiful heart for humanity. He understood the destructiveness of violence which not only destroys the social progress in America but also destroys the nations soul as well.

Reverend King often warned about the importance of caring for the worlds oppressed rather than taking sides with the oppressor and so I want to leave you with the words of King himself who speaks of the importance of re-directing ourselves to creating a better world no matter what it demands of us along the way.

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. We still have a choice today, nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace and justice throughout the developing world a world that borders on our doors.

“If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality and strength without sight.”

For those of you who are interested in learning about forgiveness on a political level please go to my website www.drborris.com. You can also sign up for a monthly newsletter whose focus is on political forgiveness.

 

Political Forgiveness 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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