Extraordinary Personal Forgiveness Leads to the Healing of a Community

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

An Unlikely Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Forgiveness and the Healing of Nations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbia and the Logics of Truth

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

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

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

The Future of Ethiopia

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

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

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

— HH the Dalai Lama

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

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

Peace Is Not Just the Absence of War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political Forgiveness 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness: Breaking the Cycle of Hate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOURCES

The Reverend and the Grand Dragon

February is Black History Month. It is a time of remembrance and celebration, a remembrance of part of our national history that we all may need to learn more about, and a celebration of the wonderful contributions African Americans have given our country. This month gives us an opportunity to reconcile with our past and celebrate the amazing Black Americans who have added so much richness to our country.

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

An Unlikely Friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

In 2019, Reverend Kennedy partnered with Freeman to establish The Echo 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 base of hate is being transformed into a center that supports diversity and a place for every race and religion to congregate.

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

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

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

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

‘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.

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.