By Rev. Steven Bonsey
The barber shop in my Cambridge neighborhood plays NPR news for its customers. As I sat for a haircut recently, I listened to a very thoughtful guest on a radio talk show, comment on a controversial public act of mercy.
I had seen it. Amber Guyger, a white Dallas police officer, had been found guilty of murder for taking the life of Botham Jean in his own home. In the video clip Jean Brandt, brother to the victim, speaks from the witness stand in at the sentencing hearing. Saying that he forgives Amber Guyger, Jean Brandt asks permission of the judge to give his brother’s killer a hug. The judge allows it. Jean Brandt steps from the witness stand into Amber Guygre’s arms. For a long minute they hold one another. The picture the way her long hair moves as she sobs and the way he spoke close to her ear.
The gesture of forgiveness from the witness stand added complexity to public’s reactions to the verdict and sentence. While many applauded the gesture, some also felt uncomfortable. The guest on the radio said that no one questioned Jean Brandt’s right to make this gesture and to speak in the language of his Christian faith. Nevertheless, he said, as he looked at the history of American police violence against Black folk, he was dismayed by a pattern: the onus of peacemaking has been borne by the Black victims themselves.
I thought of Rodney King in 1991. Riots broke out the riots following the acquittal of four white LAPD officers who had beaten him on film. He appeared on a television interview. “Can’t we all get along?” he said. I remember how grateful I had felt for these modest words. I was afraid. I wanted the situation to be pacified.
Today I see things differently. I feel respect and gratitude for Brandt Jean’s statement of forgiveness and gesture of embrace, and I was moved by the way that Amber Guyger embraced him. At the same time, I know that this alone can’t the end of the matter. As I heard the speaker on the radio say, no one should confuse a personal act of forgiveness for the needed work of social, political and economic justice.
I have lately participated in family conversations on the topic of reparations.
I want to understand Botham Jean’s murder in the larger context of the series of police killings of black people, but also of the whole history of official violence visited on black bodies in America. And then I want to ask, where am I in this picture? And what do I do with this knowledge?
I have lately participated in family conversations on the topic of reparations. My wife’s family operates an organic farm in central Louisiana on land they acquired in 1929, land that once was a cotton plantation. We ask: what does it mean for us to acknowledge this land’s history of enslavement and sharecropping? What responsibility, if any, do we bear to make restitution for this history as part of our stewardship of this land?
We not only own the land, but we hold disproportionate financial wealth. It accumulated over generations by dint of good luck and the honest hard work of our forebears, all within a social, political and economic system that included them while excluding and exploiting others. What responsibility do we bear for using our money to shift this system?
The outward shift I require in order to work in partnership and live in unity must be rooted in an inward shift.
I know that the leadership skills in which I was trained – skills designed for my success within the system – will not serve me in this work without first being refined in fire. The systems that supported my forebears’ prosperity have imprinted themselves in me. I intend to work in unity; how do I avoid unconsciously replicating old patterns of separation and inequity in the process? How can I work across historic dividing lines and exercise my leadership collaboratively?
The outward shift I require in order to work in partnership and live in unity must be rooted in an inward shift. The work of unity will ask me to step out of the imagined security of my inherited role; I will want another ground on which to stand. I want to live in the truth of my own being apart from the distortions of an oppressive system. How can I find this truth within myself?
These are questions I have engaged through the practices we share in Wisdom & Money: the contemplative spiritual practices, the money practices and the Be Present Empowerment Model. In the Boston Circle we have engaged these practices within a relationship with members of REACH-Rwanda. Members of our circle have visited Kigali to learn from REACH members and to share with them in the Wisdom practices and money conversations. They have extended our sight of what is humanly possible in the way of forgiveness, reparations, reconciliation and unity in a nation that has suffered a history of division, exclusion and genocidal violence.
Are there human acts that should not be forgiven?
The Rev. Philbert Kalisa, founder and executive director of REACH-Rwanda, often tells a story about forgiveness: imagine that you are walking through the forest, and you are bitten by a viper. You can take your knife and chop the snake into a dozen pieces in revenge, but if you do, the poison will still be in your body. If you would save yourself from death, you must take yourself to the doctor for the remedy.
Survivors of human violence may carry pain or anger like poison in their bloodstreams; forgiveness is the remedy, the anti-venom for survivors of violence. Forgiveness is a unilateral act of self-healing. I am free to forgive those who have done me wrong, to release any will for revenge, regardless of any acknowledgement of wrong on their part. My free gift of forgiveness will bring healing to my own being, regardless of whether the gift is sought or received. The gift heals the giver in the act of being given.
Are there circumstances when forgiveness is inappropriate? Are there human acts that should not be forgiven? I think of Claudette, a REACH member, standing up in a circle of people at the Center for Unity and Peace, the machete scars there on her face and neck, to speak of how she came to forgive Jean-Claude, a man who murdered her family and gave her the scars, as Jean-Claude sat beside her.
A visitor in Kigali asked Claudette how she could possibly forgive the perpetrators of the atrocities she survived. She said that she could never have done it on her own, but that God gave her the strength. I think: Forgiveness may be humanly impossible, but nothing is impossible with God.
The system has isolated me and taught me that separation from the joy and suffering of others was a privilege.
When I imagine how God’s grace might work in me to forgive or seek forgiveness, I don’t picture some power descending from above or entering me from outside me. Grace emerges from within me in the form of – whatever action it is that, until that moment, I had not known I was capable. The action creates something new; something from the promised, longed-for future comes into presence.
For example, I may say unconsciously speak words that give offense to my companions. When the offense is not ignored or smoothed over but spoken, I might habitually brace to deny the offense or defend myself or make light of my companions’ feelings. If instead I am able somehow to soften, take in the information and respond from ease — that would seem to me a moment of grace. It creates the possibility for me to act with more consciously in alignment with the world I am seeking,
The pattern of this response – softening rather than bracing; listening rather than defending – is the same pattern of inner release and opening that I know through contemplative practices such as Centering prayer. As Cynthia Bourgeault has pointed out, the practice of Centering Prayer imprints in the practitioner a neural pattern that allows thoughts to be released as they arise in the mind. As I release thoughts, I release identification with ego. I quietly become aware of presence within. With daily practice over time, I find an inner spaciousness that receives whatever I release and through which something new may arise.
This spaciousness allows me more readily to move into repentance when I see my own complicity in systemic injustice and violence. I see that my forebears in America and I have willingly accepted the material advantages of an unjust system. This makes us complicit in that system. Rather than deny, defend or belittle this truth, I can listen. I can release my identification with the system that shaped me for its purposes. I can repent – that is, raise my awareness — and pursue reconciliation with those that have suffered harm.
The moment I make this inward turn, something else shifts for me. My repentance turns me away from my smaller identity, my “made self,” and aligns me with the flow of renewing energy from the center of my being. I then am able to see that the unearned advantages of my social position have not entirely benefitted me, despite what I was taught. The system has not nurtured the deepest level of my humanity. The system has isolated me and taught me that separation from the joy and suffering of others was a privilege.
An exchange of forgiveness may initiate but it cannot complete the work of reconciliation.
These inner shifts toward forgiveness or repentance occur, of course, at the personal level. Forgiveness and seeking forgiveness are unilateral acts, but they turn us toward one another.
Confession and clemency are gifts that heal the giver in the giving; they heal also the gifted. Mercy and blessing flow in all directions in the exchange.
Jean-Claude is the police officer and militia member in the Rwandan genocide who gave Claudette her scars. He testifies freely to his crimes. He then tells the story of coming to himself in exile, throwing down his weapon and returning home. He entered the church in Nyamata, the scene of his crimes, and publicly confessed to his wrongdoing. He was given absolution. With the support of friends, he came to the door of Claudette’s home, seeking her forgiveness. Time and again she turned him away. And time and again he returned.
To see Jean-Claude and Claudette sitting together in the REACH circle is to know that they are reconciled. Together they are a new creation founded on mercy and non-judgement.
An exchange of forgiveness may initiate but it cannot complete the work of reconciliation. For the new possibilities of relationship created by mercy to be sustained over time, obstacles from the past must be removed. Restitution must be made for what was taken or destroyed. Only material reparation can “make the rough places plain.”
Claudette tells the circle that she sometimes suffers from the distress of PTSD. “I call up Jean-Claude and tell him, I am having a bad day, I need you to come over here. And he comes and stays with me.” For Jean-Claude and Claudette, reparation was not a one-time transaction. Reparations are woven into the fabric of the life they now live together.
In 2003, the Rwandan government risked failure in its efforts to empty the prisons of the perpetrators of genocide. Prisoners had only to confess publicly their wrongdoing and agree to make restitution for their crimes and they would be released. Yet many preferred to remain in prison.
They had little incentive to return to their homes. They would face neighbors who were the survivors of their crimes. Their own kin might disown them. They might return to homes with children born to their wives during the years of their imprisonment. And who would hire them? How would they live?
REACH responded with a program of restorative justice. A woman trained in reconciliation visited the prison and said, “Confess! I have already forgiven you, and I want to be with you in heaven.”
REACH offered perpetrators who confessed the opportunity both to make restitution for their crimes and to be restored to the community. Prisoners organized themselves in crews to build houses for the widows of their victims and others whose homes had been destroyed. As they made the bricks and built the walls, the prisoners received food and water from the widows. When the house was complete, the widows received the prisoners into their homes. Many prisoners volunteered to build other houses.
Restorative justice involves more than a transaction between independent parties, an exchange of some calculated value that is owed by one to another. Restorative justice takes its bearings not from history but from a desired future. It creates the conditions for a sustainable relationship going forward.
I understand the possibility of reparations today in the US in this same way. Through the accidents of life I have wealth at my disposal accumulated by the labor and thrift of honest people working in a system that happened, in my forebears’ case, to be skewed in their favor. Out of my desire to live in a world that is more just, I would like to release that accumulated wealth to flow for the work of reparation. I want to participate in building the foundation for a sustainable future in unity.
I wouldn’t try to engage in reparations work outside of relationship with people who are entitled to restitution. My way of being in the world has been shaped – to what degree, I can’t judge — by the long histories of unjust systems. I want to be in a reconciling relationship with the people from whom the system sought to separate me. In some way that I can hardly now picture, I want to live in unity with all kinds of people in my corner of America.
When REACH members speak of unity, they are not imagining a desired future. They use the word to describe the daily practical means by which they rebuild their communities in peace.
Twelve years ago, I could not imagine bringing a group of Americans to Kigali in order that they might do reconciliation work back home. But that is what is happening.
In 2008 two members of Wisdom & Money’s Boston Circle, Caroline Marvin and I, witnessed a cohort of women – survivors with widows and wives of perpetrators – receive recognition for completing REACH’s training in reconciliation. We heard women of the group speak of how reluctantly they had come into the training; of how they had been unable to meet the eyes of other women in the group; how nonetheless they had listened to one another and shared their stories; how they had sought, given and received forgiveness from one another.
Once they had taken their certificates and celebrated with a meal, the women gathered in another room to share with their guests their plans to continue together with a shared activity as a Unity group. They had decided to start a cooperative soapmaking business in their village. They hoped to sell enough in the village marketplace to earn a few coins with which to pay their rent and feed their children.
A group from Wisdom & Money visited the women last year in the home on a mountain slope where they work together to make the soap. Their fragrant and beautifully wrapped “Turimwe” (“Unity”) healing soaps are now found in gift shops and hospital rooms in the city as well as in the local market. Many have made their way to America as gifts.
More significantly, the women persevere in unity. They work together in their business and share its provision. They bear one another’s burdens, whether the daily trials of sickness or poverty, the continuing recovery from bereavement, or the strain of separation from husbands still in prison. To be in the presence of these women, to hear their stories and to see how they touch one another with such gentleness is to know that here, in this circle of reconciliation and unity, human beings are alive to the hope within them.
From the beginning of my friendship with Rev. Philbert Kalisa, he has expressed that hope that people would come to Kigali from many nations to see the fruits of reconciliation among the members of REACH-Rwanda. He wasn’t looking for these visitors to become funders, though that could happen. He wanted people to see what was possible so that they might be inspired to return to their homes to undertake the work of reconciliation and unity in their own context.
Twelve years ago, I could not imagine bringing a group of Americans to Kigali in order that they might do reconciliation work back home. But that is what is happening. Next June, Wisdom & Money will be traveling to Rwanda with a group of people from the United States who want to learn from Reach’s work of unity.
Today, I am particularly focused on what it means to do this work here. I am committed to being in circles here that bring people into respectful conversation and united action across all the differences. I know all this is possible because I have seen it done. I have witnessed these wonders: circles of genuine reconciliation, where forgiveness is sought, offered and received, even after unspeakable horror; circles of reparation that lay the foundation for sustainable new community; and circles of unity persevering together in bringing forth the world we long to live see.
I have seen these circles in Rwanda and in the US; in REACH and in gatherings of Be Present, Inc. I believe that through my years of participation in the Boston Circle of Wisdom & Money, I have been given tools and practices that allow me – elite wealthy straight white conventionally-abled ordained US citizen that I am – to participate authentically in these circles.