My Turn: How do we heal now?

Published: 1/31/2021 4:51:49 PM

President Biden calls for “healing the soul of our country.” Lincoln wrote of “binding up the nation’s wounds.” Has the current exposure of our nation’s brokenness revealed an opportunity to give these words new meaning?

To heal is to return to an original state of health: repair, rebuild, restore. However, because of America’s original sins of genocide and enslavement, our task is to build rather than rebuild, to co-create a more healthy and equitable nation.

James Baldwin offers guidance: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Social healing starts with acknowledgement and accountability — first steps in addressing harms done. Our settler colonial history begins with the near destruction of Native Americans and enslaving of captured Africans. In later centuries, unrestrained industrialization and rampant capitalism led to abandoned farms, factories, inner cities and struggling residents. This is not our only story, but a reality we must face in order to heal.

We live in the shadow of this lineage. That we are divided and angry should come as no shock. We can trace a through-line from ignoring the consequences of our history to the zealotries of the present. Vast differences in power, privilege and prospects divide us. Members of our society face exhaustion and despair.

Addressing root causes requires re-thinking our current economic assumptions about wealth and poverty. Why not a 2021 version of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps to strengthen infrastructure and simultaneously build relationships across cultures? How about replacing the shame and resentment of welfare by a guaranteed basic income that meets everyone’s safety and security needs?

Now is the time for visionary government intervention. Imagine an overarching National Task Force on Social-Economic Relations that dedicates resources to structural and relational steps toward healing. Economic and social change belong together; one without the other remains insufficient. We have the skills to reduce our dehumanized perceptions of each other and the wealth to create life-affirming jobs that reduce inequities and bolster dignity.

Harnessing the combined strengths and ingenuity of government, social service organizations and the private sector could pull us back from the disconnects that divide us. Let’s prioritize carefully constructed strategies to build empathy and inclusion using savvy media, nationwide educational institutions, religious leaders and communal dialogues to soften animosities and animate our common life.

Our beliefs do not arise in a vacuum. Webs of personal and collective history determine our behavior, shaping our perceptions, actions and voting preferences. We are, however, somewhat flexible, able to shift attitudes and behaviors as life evolves. Sincerely acknowledging the historical damages inflicted on others contributes to bridging divides.

In acknowledging the past, government representatives and individuals can offer apology and express genuine remorse. Post-World War II Germany recognized the necessity for high-level apology and atonement for grievous harms. Their government promised to monitor and protect against future injury and offered extensive compensation, admitting that remorse is shallow without meaningful reparations.

We need skilled and determined leadership to initiate a national conversation of formal reparations for both recent and historical damages. The incalculable harms of slavery and the ravages of rampant inequality have left behind communities on all sides of the racial and political divides waiting for economic and political justice. An inclusive concept of human rights will help overcome competitive race, class and regional resentments.

Fear is the unspoken fire of social unrest. Fears of changing family relations, loss of status and economic decline often result in destructive behaviors in our homes and on our streets. Throughout our history, we’ve seen hate crimes and violence increase in response to even modest progress in, for example, women’s empowerment or civil rights. Gains for one group are misinterpreted as losses for another.

Clustering together to stoke grievances, those who sense exclusion, insult and scorn may imagine that revenge is their only tool to right perceived wrongs. Instead, revenge escalates into further confrontation, resulting in cyclical and mutual destruction. Smash windows, storm the Capitol, burn down cities, believe you have nothing left to lose. None of this will cease until we address the deep structures that have brought us here.

Unattainable material and psychological needs frequently drive violence. Increasing economic security and the human potential of everyone will reduce the impulse to lash out in misdirected rage and blame. Sustaining change in our country requires meeting the security, welfare and recognition needs of all members of our society. Cycles of peace and justice will emerge when our nation lives up to its ideals of economic, political and social equality.

Paula Green, founder of Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, leads Hands Across the Hills, the Massachusetts-Kentucky dialogue project.

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