Yesterday, I was listening to a brilliantly inspiring talk by the great Lisa Nichols, which was all about what people like you and me can do to help heal the great divides in our society today.
She was specifically addressing how each of us can step up to deal with social and racial injustice, and one of the suggestions she made was the importance of having ‘courageous cultural conversations.’
As soon as she mentioned it, I thought of the work of my dear friend James O’Dea.
As co-director of the Social Healing Project and former director of the Washington, D. C. office of Amnesty International, O’Dea has spent many years smoothing the way for warring sides to reconcile and forgive.
For 10 years 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 — 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 was 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.
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 truly 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 Belorussia as part of Hitler’s army during the Second World War. They decided to return to Belorussia 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 Chatyn. That evening, full of the memories brought up by the visit, the Germans wanted to share the experience with their Belorussian hosts.
After a round of very personal toasts, one of the Germans, still clearly overcome by his visit to Chatyn, 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 also 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 Belorussian 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, re-establishes the balance in the relationship — far more than does simply saying ‘sorry’ or attempting to made amends, even financial reparations.
As the story of the German soldier and the Belorussian woman demonstrates, forgiveness is a restoration that corrects the distortion in the relationship. Through forgiveness, both parties are equals again.
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 this kind of 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 and their connection in that history.
According to Judith Thompson, forgiveness in Greek literally means ‘untying a knot,’ so both perpetrator and victim are free from hurt or shame – the legacy of the past — to carry on with their lives.
Such is the power of deep disclosure or genuine confession that both sides are forever changed by the encounter. When the humanity of both parties shines through during forgiveness, a plan of restitution and new options for the future often simply present themselves.
The late British physicist David Bohm, who believed in the unseen unity of all matter, grew convinced that our thoughts were also part of a unified field and that the crises facing mankind had to do with the fact that our version of reality is simply a construct, colored by our own culture and histories.
Consequently, when attempting to talk together about subjects that matter most to us, we speak from our own version of the truth and invariably end up disagreeing with anyone whose version slightly differs from ours.
Bohm’s solution was the have warring parties also engage in dialog, the point of which was not to reach a decision or to have a debate, but to engage in deep truth telling about areas of greatest importance to themselves, no matter how controversial or contentious their positions.
It may be tough and even downright uncomfortable to talk to ‘the other’ like this, so committed are we to being right and demonizing anyone who disagrees with us. But as Lisa Nichols put it yesterday, it is vital for us to move out of our own comfort zone and avoid the easy ride up the elevator.
In these extraordinary times, every last one of us has got to take the stairs.