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.

Inequality, Polarization, and the Importance of Casting Your Vote

Inequality and polarization are plaguing our society, ripping apart the fabric of this nation. It is not an isolated problem and all of us are part of this and need to take responsibility for where we are. What are we going to do about it? Vote. Simply vote. We all need to exercise our democratic right to cast our ballots on November 8th in the midterm elections and vote for what is important to each of us. Vote your conscience, vote for the change you want to see happen. Is it a change in politics, a different kind of society? You vote for what you want to see reflected in the country we live in. This is your democratic right, and indeed, your responsibility.

This is an important time in our country right now. It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you are on, you need to have your voice heard. To not exercise that right is to be complicit in a faltering democracy and to agree with the status quo. One thing hopefully we can agree on, regardless of politics, is the importance of bringing people back together, healing the division in our country and making sure that we are electing people representing community interests and that those elected to positions of power are working to make society better for all of us. Democracy just doesn’t happen. We consciously need to think about what we want and actively build democracy up and preserve it. Democracy cannot exist if people just accept the status quo and don’t participate in it. If we don’t take part, we are at risk of losing it. This is what makes our country different from authoritarian types of government where people are just told and/or coerced into doing what is preferable for those in charge.

What does it mean to be in a democracy and what are our responsibilities as citizens participating in a democratic government? Clearly, voting is a primary way of participating in a democracy but we can’t stop there. We can also have our voices heard when we contact our senators, congressmen and women and State officials to tell them how we feel and outline our concerns about issues important to us. The people we elect are elected to represent each of us, not just those that voted for them on the ballot paper but all those in the locality, State or country. This is a profound responsibility and it is up to each of us to ensure that these elected officials are representing us in the right way and are held to account where necessary.

The importance of voting and the environment in which this midterm is of significant importance. There is deep political polarization, division, and contempt for the ‘other’. We have choices to make. Do we want to keep things the way they are, do we want more of what is happening, or do we want to move back a bit from the brink of what is currently taking place in our country? For change to take place we need to choose people who are going to represent our communities with an open mind, want to work with others where progress can be achieved, and are willing to take us down a different and more inclusive path. That is the choice we will have to make on November 8th

Our country is unique because of the rights we have that democracy affords us. These rights are not universal. There are places where you can’t vote, or your vote is not counted or your vote doesn’t matter or your vote cannot have an impact on society. This is not the case in the United States. The action of voting is so important, something that we need to cherish and something we certainly do not want to lose. Every American citizen has a right to vote and should be encouraged and allowed to vote. No US citizen has more of a right to vote than another and we should all embrace that right. It does not matter if you are voting Republican or Democrat, from a red state or a blue state, your right to vote is equal to anyone else’s right to vote.

Attempting to prevent others from voting who are legally entitled to vote would be denying them their rights in a democratic society. What happens on November 8th will impact the course of our nation over the next few years and beyond. If you don’t use your vote for what you truly want to see in your society, there is a good chance that your vote isn’t going to matter next time, or your vote will become irrelevant. This comes back to the idea of what a democracy is all about, and in the words of Abraham Lincoln when giving the Gettysburg Address, can we support a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, (which) shall not perish from the earth”. This is what our government was intended to be and therefore we should use our right to vote and seek the change that we are looking for.

Democracy is fragile, never more so than today, and many people may not truly understand what a democracy is or will have taken it for granted which is reflected when you don’t exercise your right to vote. What is implicit in this is that you are assuming that someone else is going to speak on your behalf and vote for the democracy you hold dear. We also need to think about how the actions of the politicians that we are voting for will affect our lives and the lives of the generations to come. To make an informed decision you have to know the facts and in order to know the facts you have to understand the source of information you are getting your facts from. Is it directly from the politicians themselves, from reliable sources where you can do your own fact-checking? It is sometimes hard to understand the truth of what is happening with all the noise, but it is all of your responsibility to do so. We can’t just listen to one source but we need to find those unbiased resources to enable us to do our own critical thinking and not let others decide for us. This is what is meant to participate in a democracy and to be responsible citizens. 

It takes commitment and work on all our parts so we can make clear judgments as to what is taking place in our country so we can make the right choices for the greatest good for all citizens living in this country. This doesn’t come easy and for some, it may be easier to let someone else do this for us but we can’t afford to be complacent and allow others to think for ourselves. We need to gather facts and be willing to talk to others who may not hold our same views to get a broader understanding of what may be best for all of us. This is what it means to actively participate in a democracy. We should recognize this as a privilege and something none of us should take for granted. A young democracy like ours is delicate and needs to be nurtured in healthy ways for it to grow in the ways it is meant to, an inclusive one which hears everyone’s voice and takes in the needs and concerns of all citizens here in the United States. If we allow this to grow and flourish then we will have a healthy democracy, a strong country that allows everyone to have a good life. 

When we truly understand the power of equality, we will all want to make sure that this is given to every one of us. When we recognize that we are all in this together and that by understanding and respecting one another we grow together in transformative ways. This is what truly makes our country great. We want to be able to live our lives in the way we want to live them, and to have the right to make our own decisions that will impact our families and our way of life. To do this we need to think, make our voices heard and of course get out and vote!

‘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. 

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 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.