When the verdict came in for the George Zimmerman trial last summer (was it just last summer?) I became painfully aware of the way violence perpetrated against unarmed black teenagers taps into deep fear and centuries of pain. Trayvon’s death woke up memories of whip-scarred backs and people hung from trees by white men in white robes. My eyes opened and my heart broke.

Actually, I could write a very long list of other books, articles, trainings, and stories that opened my eyes and broke my heart. (Like this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/28/racist-preschool-suspensions_n_5627160.html and The New Jim Crow.)

Racism is a sickness that runs deep in our society, and I don’t believe any of us can truly be whole until and unless we admit that and find a way to heal it.

After Mike Browne was shot in Ferguson, the reports began streaming in about the police response. I watched video of tanks and tear gas and wounds from rubber bullets, horrified. I chose to pay attention, to keep my eyes open, and let my heart be broken again. It seemed the least I could do.

In the midst of the chaos, there have been moments of hope and optimism. I’m convinced this might be a turning point for us as a nation. There are ways forward that don’t involve killing more black teenagers. The Wall Street Journal (believe it or not) published this article on body cameras: http://online.wsj.com/articles/what-happens-when-police-officers-wear-body-cameras-1408320244. I’ve signed petitions asking for a demilitarization of the police force, as well as outside investigation for police homicides.

But when the police in Ferguson are claiming this is a “Race War” and when they are raiding churches (CHURCHES!) to confiscate Maalox, petitions aren’t enough. The call went out asking clergy to go to Ferguson over Labor Day weekend, and I am moved to answer that call.

Now, normally, when bodies are needed, I don’t consider my body a good candidate. My Lupus limits my energy, and I have a lot of people counting on me. But it shouldn’t just be black bodies on the line. I am hoping that my presence, my middle-aged, white body can somehow make a difference. I know a lot of people who would go if they could; I’ll carry their prayers and well-wishes with me. And I believe it will be powerful and transformative to bring stories of what’s happening in Ferguson back to my congregation.

My understanding of what it means to be human and on a spiritual path involves keeping mind and heart open, and then responding mindfully and with authenticity. I try to walk my path one step at a time, and I try to trust the ‘still small voice,’ even when I am afraid or unsure. The voice is telling me I need to go to Ferguson to stand with the people there who are insisting that black lives matter. Because I believe that black lives matter, too.

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Truth and Reconciliation

December 13, 2013

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, I am reflecting again on the miracle of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa.

On May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa and the new South Africa united under what is widely agreed to be one of the most human-rights oriented constitutions in the world. But the question of how to address the horrors of the past reared its head early on in his presidency.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote,

the debate was not on whether but on how we might deal with this…past. There were those who wanted to follow the Nuremberg trial paradigm, by bringing to trial all perpetrators of gross violations of human rights and letting them run the gauntlet of the normal judicial process. This…was really not a viable option at all…in World War II the Allies defeated the Nazis…comprehensively and were thus able to impose what has been described as “victor’s justice.” {In South Africa} Neither side could impose victor’s justice because neither side won the decisive victory that would have enabled it to do so, since we had a military stalemate. (No Future Without Forgiveness, p. 20.)

Nor was automatic, blanket amnesty an option. Too many people were still hurting, still wondering what had happened to their vanished loved ones, still wanting to hear their tormentors confess and accept responsibility.

The South Africans found a third path, embodied in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Chaired by Archbishop Tutu, the commission consisted of three committees. The Human Rights Violations committee investigated crimes committed between 1960 and 1994,bearing witness to the atrocities committed on all sides. The Reparation and Rehabilitation committee allocated small grants to survivors of violence to restore dignity and effect healing. For example, a widow could apply for funds to send her children to school, or a mother could apply for funds to place a gravestone for her son. Lastly, the Amnesty committee heard applications from perpetrators and, in some but not all cases, granted amnesty from criminal or civil prosecution.

The conditions for amnesty were fairly stringent, and included a full and honest confession of all the facts. Victims could argue that the conditions were not met,but they could not block the giving of amnesty. Interestingly, there was no requirement that the perpetrator express remorse. Most of them did, and many even specifically asked for forgiveness from their victims or the relatives of their victims. Because it was not a requirement, however, there would be no question that the remorse was genuine rather than a self-serving gesture.

I can think of no greater evidence of the limitless creativity and resilience of the human spirit than the Truth and Reconciliation process. It lights a path toward both interpersonal and global peace. Truth comes first, then forgiveness, and then a fresh start.

We can’t change the past. We can face the truth in the present. We can choose a better, more interdependent future.