Now that justice has been done in the George Floyd case, and Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder on multiple counts, how do we go forward with this game-changing legal precedent?
Specifically, how does America expunge racism from the heart of the police force? Or establish trust between the African American community and the forces? And, most of all, how do we finally end what still is, essentially, apartheid in some quarters of America?
Perhaps a good place to start is to have each side begin opening up and talking to the other.
For this process I look to the work of my friend James O’Dea, former director of the Washington, D. C. office of Amnesty International.
As co-director of the Social Healing Project, James spent 10 years smoothing the way for warring sides to reconcile and forgive. He and Dr. Judith Thompson co-hosted “compassion and social healing” dialogues, in which members of highly divided social and political groups — Republican and loyalist Northern Irish, Turkish and Greek Cypriots, Israelis and Palestinians, people who had been victims and their assailants — met in an attempt to heal shared wounds.
In the dialogues, O’Dea and Thompson moved the emphasis away from who is right and who is wrong, and toward who is wounded and how to heal. The aim is to help each party to recognize the other’s pain or shame and, in so doing, to liberate each other from hurt and guilt.
Their method draws upon the work of theologian Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz and his book The Art of Forgiveness. Born in 1940, Müller-Fahrenholz was too young to have any memory of the Third Reich or Hitler, but like so many post-war Germans, he grew up haunted by Germany’s terrible legacy and so began to consider forgiveness from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator.
Müller-Fahrenholz considers wrong-doing a mutual bondage. Any such act — including the most minor of transgressions — establishes a distorted relationship between two people.
The perpetrator has stolen power, and the victim has had impotence thrust upon him. For the victim, hurt is an “impairment of the core of our personhood,” he writes.
Forgiveness can never replace justice, but it can move us beyond it. In our present culture, which largely deals with transgression by punishment and imprisonment, both victim and perpetrator remain in bondage. The victim’s dignity and personhood (or goods) are not restored, and the perpetrator never fully comes to grips with what he has done.
An act of forgiveness, on the other hand, as philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote, is a “constant mutual release.” Both victim and perpetrator learn to recognize each other’s pain or shame, and mutually liberate each other from hurt and guilt.
Müller-Fahrenholz tells the story of a group of old Germans, who had fought in Belarus as part of Hitler’s invading army during the Second World War.
They decided to return in 1994 – 50 years later — in an attempt to make amends for what they’d done as young men. Their visit occurred just after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, so they offered to build a home for children affected by the disaster.
Toward the end of their stay, they visited a war memorial at Khatyn. That evening, full of the memories brought up by the visit, the Germans wanted to share the experience with their Belarussian hosts.
After a round of very personal toasts, one of the Germans, still clearly overcome by his visit to Khatyn, stood up in an attempt to talk about his own history as a young soldier.
He began describing his own suffering while he had been in a Russian prison-of-war camp, but abruptly stopped. He excused himself for a moment and then suddenly broke down. He said how deeply sorry he was for what he personally had done to the Russians and apologized on behalf of his country.
He tried to say that it must never happen again, but his voice again broke, and he had to sit down because he was sobbing so hard. Everyone in the room — even the young people who had no experience of war — were weeping.
After a few moments, an old Belarussian woman of similar age, got up, crossed the room and kissed him.
At the moment of the German’s genuine act of confession, the full hurt was acknowledged and dignity of everyone in the room was restored. For the old woman, forgiveness was sparked by the sudden realization that the pain of others — even the pain of the perpetrator — was also her pain and that of every one of the victims.
This moment of connecting to the other’s pain is the transcendent aspect of any relationship, writes Müller-Fahrenholz, offering “a spark of courage to open up, that moment of daring and trusting which causes the heart to jump over the fence.”
Ultimately it is this sudden merging that lays down “the dividing walls” between us.
Deep truth and candid disclosure interrupt the cascade of denial, and, most importantly, reconnects what I call the Bond of our common humanity by re-establishing the balance in the relationship — far more than does simply saying “sorry” or attempting to made amends.
For the perpetrator, full disclosure is, as Müller-Fahrenholz writes, an act of disarmament — a willingness to finally confront the truth about oneself.
It shines light on the unspeakable aspects of a wrongdoing, which paves the way for atonement. The humanity of the other laid bare seems to spark responsibility in the listener and creates a catharsis and a way of moving forward.
James O’Dea believes that deep dialog is the most powerful of healers because it dismantles both perpetrator and victim, allowing each to acknowledge the deep truth of an experience.
I sat in on a talk once a few years ago given by a young policeman. He was sobbing as he described the terror he and his fellow policemen feel when entering a dark building where an armed perpetrator is hiding and having to make the split-second decision about whether to fire first or risk getting shot.
He was crying for the fear he feels every single time he has to walk into that situation and for the shame of the ever-present possibility of the unconscious prejudice he or his fellows might bring to that judgment call.
In my view, the best way to heal the racism within the force is to start having dialogues between people of color and the police, where each side has to confront the deep back stories of the other – the deepest truth of where they came from and who they are as a consequence.
Indulge me, for a moment, and imagine the following: a deep dialogue between George Floyd and Derek Chauvin.
Floyd might have talked about how, after a criminal past that included armed robbery, he had been turning things around, had a new girlfriend and two jobs on the go – but then how those jobs had evaporated, thanks to the pandemic – leaving him struggling for money and an addict to opiates, like millions of other Americans, thanks to those pills his doctor had given him to end his back pain.
Chauvin, on the other hand, would have had to share about whatever in his past had produced the deep racism in his heart – that automatic and instinctive assumption that any black man was a danger that needed to be extinguished by any means.
Maybe, just maybe, had they had a moment to confront the deep truths about the other, that dialogue might have ignited a flicker of recognition in each other’s hearts so that the rest would not have been history.
It is far too late for that conversation.
But it is not too late for these conversations to begin. Only then can we move beyond ‘us’ and ‘them.’
Lynne is holding the next major Intention Experiment to heal racism in America on May 21 at 10 am PDT. Sign up to take part here.
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