At 9:05 pm on Wednesday, June 17, 2016, the unthinkable happened. Nine people were murdered while worshiping at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. An unlikely place for a murder you may think, but an occurrence that has, unfortunately, become more commonplace, especially in light of the recent George Floyd incident.
That night in Charleston triggered protests and rioting from Missouri to Maryland. The “Black Lives Matter” movement was born, and hints emerged of a white supremacist race war in the heart of the old confederacy. Luckily, that never happened — grace and forgiveness emerged instead, led by survivors of the massacre.
Some of us may find it hard to understand how those affected could forgive anything, considering the trauma and loss they endured, but they realized how critical the engagement of this process was in healing their community. Importantly, they understood the pain went beyond them as individuals; it represented bigger, symbolic issues on a national (even global) scale.
Forgiveness helps us let go of emotional burdens, pain, and suffering. For some groups, it can even mean survival, especially for African Americans, who have survived slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement, and racism. For them, forgiveness can sometimes become another survival technique. However, the act of forgiveness does not rest on African Americans alone — all Americans need to brave this process. It will be uncomfortable for everyone, but until we look at ourselves honestly, deal with our past appropriately, and change the pervasive structures of violence within our country, we will only go deeper into a dark hole.
It’s a painful process that begins with emerging from the denial of wrongdoing and correcting it no matter what the price. Many countries have already demonstrated the will to do this, through truth and reconciliation initiatives in places such as Argentina, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Rwanda, South Africa, and approximately 30 other nations.
In a country as vast as the United States, where does one begin? As a global power, with the potential to become a moral compass for the world, we have a unique opportunity to work on all levels of society — being the globally diverse country that we are.
Political forgiveness begins with renouncing the act of revenge. This should be coupled with the building of historical memory, transitional and restorative justice, and a move to exclude violence from the structures of society.
Political forgiveness does not mean impunity or forgetfulness. It creates the possibility of a future in which intolerance, violence, and repression give way to peaceful, sustainable co-existence. For us to recover from decades of pain and suffering, there is a need to help people transform their thinking so that every citizen affected can move forward and lead a more productive, peaceful, and happier life.
After political forgiveness, individual forgiveness should follow. The massacre in Charleston and the murder of George Floyd has a profound effect on communities. In the Charleston case, many found an ability to forgive the killer. Those who struggled with this idea still recognized the importance of healing the anger. This type of reaction is a step in the right direction, but deeper issues that cause these events should be examined as part of a solution.
How do we come together to address the root issues that appeared at the birth of this nation? At a community level, we need to create public spaces where everyone can be heard, considered, and understood. We need soul searching that recognizes our collective complicity and shared history. This is not about beating ourselves up, but realizing we have alternate choices that can support the healing of a nation.
If we seriously want to heal America, we need to root out harmful policies. The work of political forgiveness on a structural level is to work together to right the wrongs passed down between generations until there is true equality. The Charleston and Floyd incident demonstrates the worst of human behavior in an individual and the best of human behavior in countless strangers. This country was built on an incredible legacy, underpinned with the moral and spiritual foundations of immigrants, settlers, and indigenous peoples. We already know from history that we have this inner strength and spiritual wisdom. Let these principles guide us.
NATIONS WORKING TO RIGHT THE WRONGS
Many countries have established truth and reconciliation commissions to help reveal past wrongdoings by a government — in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past. Usually set up by states emerging from periods of internal unrest, civil war, or dictatorship, these national initiatives are important in identifying what actually happened, understanding how opposing ideologies and worldviews can cause problems, and finding closure and healing for survivors of traumatic experiences. Here are some examples.
The Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a commission that investigated the human rights abuses in the Canadian Indian residential school system. It ran from June 2008 through June 2015.
The National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation aims to help victims recover from more than 50 years of armed conflict.
Germany created a Commission of Inquiry for the Assessment of History and Consequences, which looks into crimes of the Socialist Unity Party in East Germany after unification in 1992.
The Truth and Justice Commission of Mauritius was an independent truth commission established in 2009, which explored the impact of slavery and indentured servitude in Mauritius.
At the end of the Sierra Leone civil war in 1999, the country created a Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission which reported that both sides had targeted civilians, including children, and called for improvements in democratic institutions and accountability.
After the transition from apartheid, President Nelson Mandela authorized a truth commission under the leadership of former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu to study the effects of apartheid in that country.
The Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a non-governmental body that ran from 2004-2006 to investigate deadly events in the city that took place around November 3, 1979 and came to be known as the Greensboro Massacre.