Storytelling: a Method to Heal from Historical Trauma

My friend, Tom DeWolf has been interviewed for a “Cities Tour” C-Span segment that is to air today, Saturday, 4/5/2014 @ 4:30 pm. EDT.  In this segment, Coming to the Table, an organization that “provides leadership, resources and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery,” is is prominently featured in this segment.  Tom discussed the book that he co-authored with Sharon Leslie Morgan, Gather at the Table:  The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade, in which they wrote of their exploration into the “deep social wounds left by racism, violence and injustice.”  It is their hope that their work inspires “a national dialogue about the legacies of slavery and racism” and that it offers “practical guidance for individuals and groups who want to heal themselves and America” from our traumatic past.

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An Exploration of Forgiveness in the Performing Arts

Artistic creations can be a means for the exploration of human attitudes, feelings and behaviors.  The performing arts are an example of an artistic media that can be utilized in this way.  For example, the use of theatre and film can be applied as method to explore some of the human attitudes, feelings and behaviors that are related to the topics of hatred, anger, tolerance, acceptance, as well as forgiveness.  Two such performing arts examples are The Laramie Project and Shakespeare as presented in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility (WVCF), a super-maximum security prison located in the state of Indiana.  These productions offer their creators and audiences alike, the opportunity to examine the attitudes, feelings and actions concerning how people relate to one another.  They also offer an opportunity for people to understand themselves better, as well.

The Laramie Project, developed by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company, consists of both a theatrical representation and an HBO film based on the actual 1998 murder of twenty-one year old University of Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard.  On October 6th, 1998, Mr. Shepard was bound to a fence and severely beaten and left to die in the outskirts of the small town of Laramie, Wyoming.  He passed away as a result of the injuries he sustained six days later.  This was a hate crime, since Matthew was targeted because he was gay.  The Laramie Project originated when members of The Tectonic Theatre Company went to Laramie in order to interview the residents concerning the circumstances surrounding the murder of Matthew Shepard, as well as their reaction to this incident.  Their purpose was to create a production pertaining to these events.

Shakespeare, as presented in the SHU at the WVCF, was born out of a prison outreach project that was developed by Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University, Dr. Laura Bates.  Dr. Bates offered prison inmates the opportunity to study Shakespeare.  She worked with men in solitary confinement as they rewrote the Shakespearian language to “contemporary prose” and the plays’ themes into “life lessons for the convicted and incarcerated” (Scotts-Douglas, 2007, pp, 110-111.).  Then, Bates’ drama group, Shakespeare Locked Down, performed and videotaped the production, and in turn, they shared their performances of the adaptations with the men in the SHU at WVCF (Scotts-Douglas, 2007, pp, 110-111.).  This opportunity offered the men in solitary confinement a way to meet their human need for community and companionship.  It provided that and much more.

These productions offered their creators and viewers alike a unique opportunity to learn about human attitudes, feelings and behaviors in relation to the themes of injury and forgiveness.  These themes can be seen in scenes from each production.  For example, in the HBO version of The Laramie Project (n.d), there is an especially emotional moment in the scene of the sentencing of Matthew’s murderer, Aaron McKinney, where one can see a process of forgiveness beginning to take shape.  Likewise, the SHU Shakespearian writers display a similar movement from a negative attitude toward one more positive, as they fashion a new nonviolent conclusion for Hamlet. These scenes present the performers in different stages along a continuum of possible attitudes, feelings and actions, ranging from the extreme emotions of anger, hatred and the desire for revenge and retribution, moving toward positions of greater tolerance and acceptance.

In a scene from The Laramie Project (n.d.), Matthew’s father, Dennis Shepard, feeling a great deal of pain and anger, expressed words of hatred along with a desire for revenge, even as he was generously accepting the plea bargain that the defense lawyer requested on McKinney’s behalf.  Dennis Shepard said in his ‘impact statement’ at the sentencing, “I would like nothing better than to see you die, Mr. Mckinney” while at the same time he was offering McKinney life instead of the death penalty.  He continued, “However, this is the time to begin the healing process” . . . “you made the world realize that a person’s lifestyle is not a reason for discrimination, intolerance, persecution, and violence” and “good is coming out of evil . . . My son died because of your ignorance and intolerance.  I can’t bring him back.  But I can do my best to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again.”  Wavering back and forth from a desire for healing to feelings of anger, he followed with,  “You robbed me of something very precious, and I will never forgive you for that.”  Although Dennis Shepard struggled with feelings of anger and hatred, he was beginning the process of healing.

Regarding the SHU Shakespearian production, the writers decided to modify the ending scenes for their adaptation of Hamlet.  The men in the SHU determined that Hamlet, when faced with the option to seek revenge or not, must choose the latter because they acknowledged that acting with vengeance could only result in more violence, his death or else his imprisonment.  The man in Cell E explained that, ‘Shakespeare doesn’t offer an alternative to the violence.  Is this the message we’re trying to send society, particularly the youth? No’ (Scott-Douglass, 2007 p. 113.).  The writers determined that Hamlet would present a speech explaining an alternative approach, ‘I don’t want to become what my father was. I don’t want to become what your father was. We’ve got to break this cycle, man, the two of us, right here and right now’ (Scott-Douglass, 2007 p. 113.).  The men in the SHU rewrote Hamlet in such a way as to send a message, in order to teach the world an alternative to retaliation.  This was a method for nonviolent social change.  In this way, the men in the SHU became some of ‘our most valuable teachers’[1].

Each production offered a unique lens with which one can observe the topics of hatred, anger, tolerance and acceptance.  The Tectonic Theatre Company explored the attitudes, feelings and behaviors of the people who witnessed a violent hate crime.  While in contrast, the men in the SHU considered their own role as violent offenders as they recreated Shakespearian dramas.  Each work, in its own way, led its creators to produce an outcome that would illustrate for the world an alternative response to violence that would work for a greater good.

Each of these scenes led their audience to consider the cycles of violence that are perpetuated in attitudes of anger, hatred, and revenge.  In the scene from The Laramie Project, Dennis Shepard spoke of attitudes, feelings and actions that were at odds with one another.  On the one hand, he desired revenge against his son’s killer, while on the other hand he desired an outcome for a greater good.  Dennis Shepard verbalized what social ‘norms’ kept silent.

In a similar fashion, the SHU’s Shakespearian project also created a space, that otherwise did not exist, for contemplation and dialog.  The men in the SHU experienced, first hand, the costs of violence and retribution.  They had learned from their own experiences that there is a better way.  They wanted to share their wisdom with others.  In order to do so, they rewrote the storyline of Hamlet so that it would teach its audience a different approach when confronted with conflict.

Both Shakespeare as portrayed in the SHU of WVCF, and The Tectonic Theatre Company’s production, The Laramie Project, have allowed their creators and audiences alike a space and an opportunity to discuss what was otherwise normally kept silent.  In this way, they have learned, and by this they are also now teaching, that there is a way out of the chaos that is left in the aftermath of violent actions and brutality.

Perhaps it is difficult to understand a response of kindness toward a violent transgressor, such as that which Dennis Shepard offered to his son’s killers.  To some, this type of attitude might not seem likely or even healthy.  Yet, there is scientific evidence that suggests that humans have been endowed with a “forgiveness instinct” that makes forgiveness possible and even desirable in such circumstances (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.).  A ‘forgiveness instinct’ acknowledges that one’s own protection and safety happens in loving community.  Therefore a response to transgression that is likely to build and maintain loving community is the preferred action.

Dennis Shepard understood this concept when he said, “I can do my best to see that this never, ever happens to another person or another family again” (The Laramie Project, n.d.).  The Tectonic Theatre Company understood it too, as evidenced when Amanda Gronich, one of its gay members, acknowledged that they might not be able to clear the town’s bad name.  “These people trust us. They want everyone to know that they are not this crime.  Its more than just clearing Laramie’s name, it is clearing their own, and I don’t know if we can do that” (The Laramie Project, n.d.).  Dennis Shepard, and the members of the Tectonic Theatre Company acted with forgiveness toward people’s violent attitudes and actions as they simultaneously exposed the unwanted attitudes and behavior and held the perpetrators accountable.

The men in WVCF’s SHU acted in a similar way.  They discovered, through the performances that they created, that violence is cultivated in a society, by people’s attitudes, feelings and actions.  Violence was all around them in their upbringing.  There was violence at WVCF too.  It was a social norm that one act of violence was returned with another act of violence.  When they studied the Shakespearian dramas, they discovered that it was an attitude that was the ‘seed of violence’[2].  Therefore, they set themselves to cultivate a positive and peaceful attitude and actions when they changed Hamlet’s conclusion.  In this way, they have called attention to the prevalence of a violent attitude in society that shapes how its members respond to one another, and they simultaneously demonstrated a preferred nonviolent way.

The performing arts, such as theater and film, have the ability to impact our perceptions.  They can be used to create a space for people to be able to observe areas of their lives that they might not otherwise wish to examine.  When one does make space for the exploration of the violent attitudes, feelings and behaviors of others, they may learn about their own violent tendencies, too.  Likewise, through the examination of the ‘self’ it is possible to learn about ‘others’.  When seeing with a resulting more expansive view, people may gain a greater degree of compassion for both themselves and others.  The performing arts are a medium that often exploits violent themes.  Yet through thoughtful and intentional productions, the performing arts may nurture and cultivate a culture that values an alternative peace-promoting response.

References:

Scott-Douglass, A. (2007). Shakespeare Inside: The Bard Behind Bars. Bloomsbury Publishing.

The Forgiveness Instinct. (n.d.). The forgiveness instinct. [Web page] Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgiveness_instinct

The Laramie Project. (n.d.). [Audiovisual Material]. (Original work published 2002) Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1qiTmF0p4


[1] Father Roger Schmit, the Catholic Priest in The Laramie Project (n.d.), used this phrase when describing the violent offenders, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, as ‘our most important teachers’.

[2] Referencing, again, Father Roger Schmit, the Catholic Priest in The Laramie Project (n.d.), when he used this phrase in describing Laramie community members’ negative attitudes and language against members of the LGBTQ community as, ‘the seed of violence’.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Examining the Amish Forgiveness Response to the Nickel Mines Tragedy

I have always had interest in learning about Amish folks, including their lifestyle and their beliefs, ever since I had originally learned of these people. I was intrigued by their different way of being in this world. Therefore, I had previously taken the time to learn a little bit about their history, and their way of life even before I had learned of the tragic shooting that took place on October 2, 2006 at an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, where six people lost their lives and five others were critically injured.

I knew that the Amish people have a heritage of persecution, and I knew also that they are a peace-loving people. The Amish tradition is descendant from the Anabaptist Christian radicals and dissenters of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation period (Who Are The Mennonites, n.d.). They are one of the ‘peace churches’. The Amish broke away from the Mennonite Church (one of the Anabaptist traditions) because they believed that the Mennonites were becoming too ‘worldly’. One of the Anabaptist faith’s key spiritual beliefs is “a forgiving love in all of life (Who Are The Mennonites, n.d.).” Amish faith tradition is based on these same spiritual beliefs of love and forgiveness that their brothers and sisters, the Mennonites, practice.

The immediate forgiveness response of the Amish people, to the tragic happenings on that Autumn day, are a testament to their deep belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ, such that followers of the Christ are to live their lives following his way of peace. The teachings of Jesus the Christ (the Christ is to be understood as ‘the way’) are that of nonresistance , distinct from nonviolent social change, somewhat like, yet different from, the method Mahatma Gandhi used when he led the movement to gain India’s independence from the rule of Great Britain (Kraybill, 2006.). The Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy is their testament to Jesus’ teachings, and as such, their generosity toward the family of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the shooter, was not surprising to me.

The Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy was that they reached out to the family of Mr. Roberts and immediately offered their condolences, forgiveness, assistance, and even began building community with the family (Kraybill, 2006). Jesus the Christ established a loving and forgiving example for peace-loving children of God to imitate in their own lives, and this is what shaped the response of the Amish people (Kraybill, 2006). This other way of responding to transgression is different from a typically individualistic and western worldview response to transgression, that of retaliation and/or retribution.

Perhaps this other way of responding to transgression is difficult to understand for many of us. In the book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Kraybill, Nolt, & Weaver-Zercher, 2010) the authors quote the father of a slain Amish girl as saying, “There was never a time that I felt angry.” From a non-Anabaptist perspective, this type of forgiving attitude might not seem possible or even healthy. Yet, there is scientific evidence that perhaps “natural selection has endowed the human mind with a ‘forgiveness instinct’ (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.).”

A forgiveness instinct may be thought of as “an adaptive solution to problems” in
environments where people are highly dependent on complex networks of cooperative relationships, policing is reliable, the system of justice is efficient and trustworthy, and social institutions are up to the task of helping truly contrite offenders make amends with the people they’ve harmed (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.).

A ‘forgiveness instinct’ then, understands that one’s own protection and safety happens in loving community, and it responds to transgression in a way that is likely to build and maintain loving community, even in the expression of violence. Perhaps anger and resentment (those feelings that would fuel retaliation and retribution) are not always the natural human response. Sometimes, it can be understood, that experiencing sadness (without an accompanying anger) and working toward the reconciliation of broken relationships will serve human needs in a much more fruitful way, than could attitudes and actions that might stimulate continued violence.

Knowledge in alternative ways to respond to harm can shape how one responds in such situations. The Amish learn their forgiveness response (‘instinct’) culturally, through their religious teachings and through their family traditions (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.). Their response to transgressions is not dependent on others’ actions, such as receiving an apology. In the circumstance of the Nickel Mines tragedy, the Amish acted quickly, reaching out to offer love, forgiveness and a way to heal, where such actions were neither expected nor sought. In these actions, the Amish have been a living testament of the way to peace, as their spiritual tradition has taught them. By their living testament to their faith, the Amish are also teaching how one can ‘do peace’ to ‘the world’.

The Amish testament of faith in loving kindness is a type of living memorial to the life, death and teachings of Jesus Christ. In the Huffington Post, September 30, 2011 article, Amish Memorials: The Nickel Mines Pasture and Quiet Forgiveness, author Donald Kraybill (n.d.) stated, “Memorials reveal the deep values of the people that create them.” Memorials are symbols, and their meanings, or rather how one thinks of memorials and monuments, determines whether they may be beneficial or harmful. To state this in another way, perhaps it is one’s worldview that determines one’s interpretation of, and therefore the principles expressed, though the creation of a memorial.

In some circumstances, memorials and monuments may be used as a way to ‘never forget’ and in this they may act to perpetuate anger and even justify retribution and retaliation. For example, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Manhattan, NY is designed to help us to ‘never forget’ concerning the 9/11 tragedy that took place there in 2001. It is clear that the expression of remembrance by this memorial is that of great loss and anger. According to the official 9/11 Memorial website,

The names of every person who died in the 2001 and 1993 attacks are inscribed into bronze panels edging the Memorial pools, a powerful reminder of the largest loss of life resulting from a foreign attack on American soil and the greatest single loss of rescue personnel in American history (9/11 Memorial, n.d.).

We can think of and relate this sort of memorial to the angry actions to the Muslim community that continue to take place as a violent retaliatory response to the 9/11 tragedy. In this way, the reminder (the memorial or monument) may be harmful as it may perpetuate pain, anger and even violence, as a way of ‘honoring’ lost loved ones.

Yet, there are some types of memorials that do not act to perpetuate pain, anger and violence, but instead act to heal and reconcile broken relationships. An example of a healing response to the 9/11 tragedy is a particular Mennonite response. In order to commemorate the lives lost that tragic day, they offer the story of STAR: Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-’11, n.d.). This is a “training program, born from the ashes of 9/11”, that is currently being used as a healing model around the world (STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-’11, n.d.). This response, that these Mennonites have created as a different type of memorial, offer healing to those harmed on that fateful day, and it also offers healing to a larger world community in a way that can create a world with a greater degree of healing, reconciliation, and world peace, in addition to remembering lost loved ones.

Another type of memorial that was created in order to intentionally bring about goodness as a response to tragic events is another Amish living memorial. The Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy was to tear down the hurtful reminder of the schoolhouse and turn that place back into a pasture (Kraybill, n.d.). They built a different type of remembrance by planting five evergreens there (a living testimony to their five lost loves ones). These trees’ branches reach toward heaven as a way to continually remind their community of the loving and forgiving response that Jesus demonstrated as an example for peace-loving Christians to imitate (Kraybill, n.d.). These five trees remind the community that the forgiving, healing, reconciling response is the response of goodness in the face of wickedness as they remember their loved ones. The Amish living tree memorial is also one that offers the entire world a reminder that there is a way to create peace out of chaos.

The forgiving, healing, peaceful response to transgression creates a space for healing, growth and the reconciling of broken relationships. This worldview is generative, not destructive. The ‘world’ was astonished by the Amish’s immediate actions of forgiveness and reconciliation with the Roberts family. They were able to do this because they were able to recognize a larger perspective than simply their own. They could see that the Roberts family must also be experiencing pain and suffering. They could see that the mainstream culture is also experiencing pain and suffering as it was demonstrated by the violent actions of Mr. Roberts. The Amish loving, forgiving and peaceful actions (even as their hearts ache) puts a stop on the violent reactions that can take place in the aftermath of such a terrible event. As a result of the loving, forgiving, healing, peaceful actions of the Amish, the ‘world’ has become much more interested in learning to live in this way.

References:

9/11 Memorial. (n.d.). 9/11 memorial. [Web page] Retrieved from https://www.911memorial.org/about-memorial

Hershberger, Guy F. (1957). Nonviolence. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 15 January 2014, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Nonviolence&oldid=103288.

Kraybill, D. B. (2006). Forgiveness clause. Christian Century, 123(22), 8-9.

Kraybill, D. (n.d.). Amish memorials: The Nickel Mines pasture and quiet forgiveness. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/donald-kraybill/amish-memorials-the-nickel-mines-memorial_b_982144.htm

Kraybill, D. (n.d.). Why the Amish forgave so quickly. The Christian science monitor [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/1002/p09s02-coop.htm

Kraybill, D. B., Nolt, S. M., & Weaver-Zercher, D. L. (2010). Amish grace: How forgiveness transcended tragedy. John Wiley & Sons.

STAR: The Unfolding Story, 2001-’11. (n.d.). STAR: The unfolding story, 2001-’11. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.emu.edu/cjp/star/sept-11th-commemorative-book

The Forgiveness Instinct. (n.d.). The forgiveness instinct. [Web page] Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgiveness_instinct

Who Are the Mennonites? (n.d.). Who are the Mennonites? [Web page]. Retrieved from http://www.thirdway.com/menno/FAQ.asp?F_ID=2

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forgiveness in Art: A Comic Approach to Forgiveness Performances

We can explore and learn about human attitudes and behaviors through artistic means.  The performing arts are an example of a medium that can be used in this way.  For example, the use of a humorous sketch can be used as an entertaining way of exploring some of the human attitudes and behaviors that are related to our notions of forgiveness.

An example of a humorous sketch concerning the topic of forgiveness was aired September 14, 1974 in the first episode of season eight of The Carol Burnett Show titled, Eunice and Ed take Mama to Church:  Forgive Your Enemies.

Forgive Your Enemies Part 1                        Forgive Your Enemies Part 2

This sketch uses the techniques of “satire and observational comedy” as it “subtly pokes fun of real life occurrences and real-life human behaviors”, related to our notions of forgiveness by “inflating them and making fun of them (The Family Sketch, n.d.).”

This sketch brings to life the difficulty that people sometimes have in reconciling their very human (and opposing) instinctual inclinations to a “desire for revenge” and their “capacity for forgiveness” as they attempt to “make the world a more forgiving, less vengeful place (The Forgiveness Instinct, n.d.). ”

References:

The Family Sketch. (n.d.). The family sketch. [Web page]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Family_(sketch)

The Forgiveness Instinct. (n.d.). The forgiveness instinct. [Web page] Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/forgiveness_instinct

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Monuments and Memorials – Symbols of Un-forgiveness or Symbols of Forgiveness?

Memorials and monuments are symbols. Their meanings, or rather how one thinks of memorials and monuments, determines whether they are beneficial or harmful. What I mean by this is that perhaps it is one’s worldview that determines one’s interpretation and therefore the experience that is derived from a memorial or a monument.

For example, some folks certainly do use memorials and monuments as a way to ‘never forget’ and to perpetuate anger and even justify retaliation. For example, I often see Facebook posts to ‘never forget’ concerning the 9/11 tragedy. We can think of and relate this sort of ‘memorial’ to the angry actions to the Muslim community that continue to take place as a violent retaliatory response to the 9/11 tragedy. In this way, the reminder (the memorial or ‘monument’) may be harmful as it may perpetuate pain, anger and violence.

Sometimes memorials exist even as they are not consciously recognized as such. An example of such a memorial could be the transformation of the  continent of North America that has taken place as a result Western European colonial expansion. For me, attempting to understand how Native-Americans might feel concerning the loss and harm that they have experienced (and continue to experience) as a result of Western European imperialistic colonial expansion is difficult, because I am a recipient of the benefits of that social change, not a member of the oppressed culture. Yet, I am certain that Native-Americans experience daily reminders of their past and present injuries because the dominating mainstream U.S. culture serves as a constant reminder, even if no formal ‘monument’ exists. This type of memorial, therefore, may be an obstacle to healing, because it can be a constant reminder of one’s ongoing pain.

Other memorials are created as living memorials in order to intentionally bring about goodness as a response to tragic events. I think of the lyrics from a song in the children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, “up from the ashes come the roses of success” and relate this to the Amish response to the Nickel Mines tragedy that took place on October 2 of 2006 . The Amish community had the school where the tragic event took place torn down, and with it the hurtful reminder. They built a different type of remembrance by planting evergreens (a living testimony) that reach toward heaven as a way to continually remind their community of the peaceful response that Jesus the Christ (the word Christ to be understood as ‘the way’) demonstrated as an example for peace-loving Christians to imitate and live.

The peaceful response creates a space for the reconciling of broken relationships. It is generative, not destructive. The ‘world’ was astonished by the Amish immediate actions of forgiveness and reconciliation with the transgressor’s family. The Amish were able to recognize a larger perspective than simply their own. They could see that the shooter’s family must also be experiencing pain and suffering. They could see that the mainstream culture is also experiencing pain and suffering as it was demonstrated by the violent actions of the shooter. The Amish forgiving and peaceful actions (even as their hearts ache) puts a stop on the violent reactions that can take place in the event of a tragedy. By their action, the ‘world’ has become much more interested in this peaceful forgiving, generative response. Roses are growing up from the ashes.

I also think of another tree-planting response to violence theme in the poem ‘Torture’ by Alice Walker, author of the novel, The Color Purple.

Alice Walker Torture Video from Amnesty Bermuda on Vimeo.

Please also listen to Ms. Walker speak about response to tragic events as she discusses the reason that she wrote The Color Purple here:

http://www.makers.com/alice-walker

Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, can act as a memorial, a testament to the lives of the African-Americans that lived, suffered, loved, joyed and died as a certain notion of ‘progress’ shaped a new country.

These three examples of memorials offer very different perspectives for one to consider. Surely, when a monument or memorial is intentionally built it’s purpose is to remember. Other memorials exist perhaps unintentionally, but because they generate memories, they are a memorial. Other times a memorial may be built in order to achieve growth, that is, to inspire a path toward healing, forgiveness, and perhaps reconciliation of damaged relationships. How one thinks about a memorial depends on the assumptions concerning the purpose of the memorial and this also depends on the worldview, history and circumstances of the person interpreting meaning from the symbol.

Memorials can act as symbols that remind us of a path toward healing and forgiveness. Sometimes, arriving at a state of forgiveness must be incredibly difficult.  Therefore, thinking of forgiveness might be better understood as a process. That is, a process that begins with pain, and perhaps even anger, but moves toward increasingly positive attitudes and/or actions that takes place in such a way as to bring about greater emotional, physical and/or relational healing. In this way, forgiveness is not something that is done and completed, but something that continues to take place and something that continues to bring benefit to those involved in the forgiveness process. Memorials can help us to accomplish this type of healing and forgiveness, if we choose this path.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forgiveness in Native-American Experience

Experiences of loss, slight and compromise are common occurrences to many native people in nations that were conquered as a result of the Western European colonial expansion that began in the 16th century.  For example, in what is now known as the United States of America, many native people(s) experienced situations of genocide, ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation as a consequence of this social change.  The anger that has resulted from these injuries has made it difficult for Native-Americans to experience a process of forgiveness as a response to the harm they continue to suffer.

One group of Native-Americans that experienced great loss was the Dakota people.  During the 17th century, Manifest Destiny, the Euro-American principle that the United States were destined by God to expand the virtues of empire across North America, was used to promote an acceleration of territorial expansion.  As a result of this expansion, the native peoples were forced to move to and live on ‘reservations’.  The land of the Dakota tribes became the Dakota Territory on March 2, 1861, until November 2, 1889, when the final portion of the then reduced territory was admitted to the union as the states of North and South Dakota.

During this time period, there were many conflicts and struggles between the native people and the pioneers.  Most notable were the U.S. – Dakota Conflict that took place on December 26, 1862 and the Wounded Knee Massacre that took place on December 29, 1890.  The U.S. – Dakota Conflict was the “largest mass execution in U.S. history” when “thirty-eight Dakota warriors were executed (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”  At the Wounded Knee Massacre, hundreds of Lakota Native-Americans were killed and at least twenty U.S. soldiers were awarded The Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest honor for their military action (Green, J., n.d.).  The Dakota people experienced immeasurable loss from these events: They were removed from their homeland, their way of life was forever changed, and there was a loss of trust between the Dakota people and the non-Dakota people.

youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tG7hEVUCwiU&w=420&h=315

The loss to Native-American people is not only an historical occurrence, because loss from these events continues to this present day.  For example, as portrayed in Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (One sky above us: The West, 1996), Albert White Hat (1938-2013), a Lakota man and teacher of Lakota language, at 16 years of age, was sent to St. Francis Jesuit Mission School, a boarding school.  Before that time, he grew up in his traditional Lakota culture ‘of stories’.  The purpose of the boarding school system was to force assimilation of Native-Americans to the dominant mainstream U.S. culture.  The students were not allowed to practice their traditions or speak their native language.  The boarding school system “killed those stories”, and with them, the Lakota culture, and for Albert White Hat, shame resulted (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  In this way, the loss experienced by the Lakota people, as a result of Western European imperialistic economic expansion, is unending.

For Native-American people, individually and as communities, forgiveness is difficult because they experience daily the injustices they currently endure.  Albert White Hat spoke of policy and laws that were imposed on Native-Americans by the white-man’s government and their schools.  These policies and laws, such as the 1851 Treaty in which the ‘Sioux’ tribes lost most of their land, were created with intention to destroy the native people and their culture, and appropriate native people’s land and resources for capitalistic gain to the benefit of non-native U.S. citizens.  In this way, Native-Americans and their culture and history were systematically excluded from mainstream U.S. culture and society.   Native-American people live daily with the injustices imposed upon them by mainstream U.S. culture and its government and policies, and therefore, forgiveness is an ongoing process that, as Albert White Hat said, will not end for hundreds of years (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  Forgiveness is difficult because of the ongoing hardship that must be endured as the result of loss of home, loss of way of life, and a loss of trust, but also because of the shame that results from the oppression imposed on them by a dominating culture.

Shame is a feeling of dishonor, and it is the opposite of self-respect.  Dakota and Lakota people feel shame as a result of living with a morally incompatible lifestyle and belief system that was and is imposed on them by another dominating culture.  The shame experienced through the oppression of a dominating morally incompatible worldview (a moral conflict) presents itself in a different sort of societal relations understanding and expression.

One illustration of incompatible expression is in the worldviews of the Dakota people in contrast to that of the U.S. government, and this is what eventually led to the U.S. – Dakota Conflict.  The Dakota worldview includes a certain understanding and expression of the notion of ‘relatedness’ as it pertains to ‘family’, ‘friends’, ‘father’ and ‘land’ (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  This is especially important to know in order to understand the Dakota notions of the ‘fatherly’ role of the U.S. government.  From the Dakota perspective, according to Anderson, as cited by Dowlin & Dowlin (2002), “fathers always willingly shared whatever they possessed with their children” and in contrast, the Euro-American use of the word father “means an authoritative, controlling relationship.”  This difference in worldviews concerning family relatedness explains how the territory treaty signing symbolized different meanings for these two groups.

The Dakota and the non-Dakota people held conflicting worldviews as expressed through their definitions and assumptions concerning the concept of ‘relatedness’.  The U.S. government understood the expression of treaty signing “as a way to dominate the Dakota and gain possession of the continent” and by this, the “Dakota were left with confined living areas (reservations), restricted activities, and eventually unfulfilled promises of needed provisions (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”  The Dakota people likely felt resentment and anger due to the fact that they were misunderstood and therefore deceived in such a way that they now lacked self-respect because they lived in a degrading and shameful situation of relative helplessness and poverty.

In a similar way, theses two incompatible worldviews presented themselves in the expression of spoken language.  This was evident when Albert White Hat discussed how the oppressive boarding school system did not allow the students to speak their own language, and insisted on the use of the English language instead (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  The impact to Albert White Hat was that, because of the moral conflict in this situation, he felt shame and an overwhelming anger and he held onto that anger for many years.  At one point in his life, he felt that he had no choice but to kill members of the dominating oppressive culture in order to honor his ancestors.  For Albert White Hat, shame led to resentment, resentment led to anger, and anger led to thoughts of violence (as a way of regaining self-respect) and that blocked the path of forgiveness and healing.

Albert White Hat was feeling a great deal of shame, resentment and anger, and he was thinking violent thoughts, but deep down inside, what he really wanted was to live and to be happy.  He came to this awareness after spending some time fasting and meditating.  One day, when he rose in the morning and faced the East (which, in Native-American culture symbolizes renewal), he came to the realization that he did not want to follow a path of violence, but instead he felt that he deserved to live and to be happy (One sky above us: The West, 1996).  He knew that he had to forgive in order to do so.

As demonstrated in the experience of Albert White Hat, a state of un-forgiveness can be the source of many social ills including substance abuse, and by extension – spousal abuse, and even suicide.  An example of how forgiveness may help in the recovery of substance abuse, specifically that of alcoholism, is told by Sr. Molly Monahan, in her essay, Forgiveness in A.A (2008).  Sr. Monahan wrote that the stories of forgiveness, as told by fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), acted as “a faith that works” to heal.  She said that she heard of others’ experiences concerning the restorative powers of forgiveness. Then, when she reached step five of AA’s twelve-step recovery program, she experienced that she was, as were others, able to forgive not only the transgressions of others, but also her own transgressions.   She wrote that by this experience, she “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity (Monahan, 2008).”  By this account, it appears that a state of un-forgiveness can perpetuate destructive addictive behavior, whereas a process of forgiving can be healing.

Furthermore, a 2011 study, Forgiveness, Depression, and Suicidal Behavior Among a Diverse Sample of College Students, suggested that forgiveness, as a voluntary “coping process . . .may buffer . . . poor mental health outcomes (Hirsch, Webb & Jeglic, 2011).”  The researchers concluded from their study that “forgiveness of self and others could be an important way to reduce the interpersonal distress and depressogenic ‘psychache’ that often precipitate a suicidal crisis (Hirsch, Webb & Jeglic, 2011).”  Therefore, it seems that if a state of un-forgiveness may be a source of social problems, it would be reasonable then, that forgiveness could be a way to resolve them.

An extraordinary example of forgiveness acting as a balm to heal social ills and moral conflict between Native-Americans and non-native people is documented in Healing History’s Wounds:  Reconciliation Communication Efforts to Build Community Between Minnesota Dakota (Sioux) and Non-Dakota Peoples (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The authors of this paper begin their account with an explanation of a moral conflict, explaining how it existed and still exists between the Dakota people and non-Dakota people, and conclude the account with details concerning a model that aids a process of forgiveness and reconciliation that is currently in process between these two groups of people.

Dowlin and Dowlin (2002) detailed the moral conflict that existed between the Dakota and non-Dakota people.  They cited Pearce and Littlejohn concerning what takes place “when two incompatible social worlds collide” when they wrote,

1) Each side considers its own position vital and sees the adversary’s position as dangerous; 2) persons set aside feelings and beliefs that don’t fit easily with official positions and statements associated with their ‘‘side’’; 3) valid concerns on both sides are belittled, and important values are denigrated; 4) passion, energy, and material resources are depleted in fruitless and redundant battles; and 5) persons are left frustrated, turned-off, and despairing (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).

The moral conflict between the Dakota people and non-Dakota people cause people in both cultures to misunderstand and distrust one another, to avoid one another, to discount each other’s point of view, and to engage in costly conflict.

As illustrated above in the examples of what led to the U.S. – Dakota Conflict and the experience of Albert White Hat, the moral conflict between the Native-Americans and non-native people was evidenced by the incompatible understanding and expression of ‘relatedness’ in their differing worldviews.  Additionally, the colliding worldviews included different notions concerning power relations.  The Dakota maintained a relational, decentralized power structure, while in disharmony with Dakota values, the Euro-American model of power was a hierarchical and centralized system (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).  Because of these differences, the resulting initial response to one another was one of disgust (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The resultant conflicts that ensued led to Native-Americans being forced by the dominant culture, to live in isolation on ‘reservations’.  It is clear to see in this situation how the ignorance concerning each other’s way of understanding, and how the negative feelings of resentment and distrust that each group held concerning one another could result.

In spite of the seemingly insurmountable dilemmas caused by clashing worldviews, the Dakota people and non-Dakota people are now beginning a process of sharing and learning, which is resulting in a movement toward understanding, healing and reconciliation between these groups of people.

Dowlin and Dowlin (2002) explained that this movement toward transformation began with the efforts of two men who met on a fishing trip in 1958, Amos Owen, a Dakota and Bud Lawrence, a non-native businessman.  They engaged in “on-going visits, lengthy conversations, shared experiences in the way of family get-togethers, and the eventual collaborative creation of communally shared Dakota and non-native activities, which contributed to increased mutual understanding and appreciation of each other’s culture and uniqueness (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).”  This set the stage and a model of action that aids a process of forgiveness and reconciliation at the community, state and national level.

What began in 1963 as a mini-pow wow as an educational opportunity for children expanded to intentional acts demonstrating respect, honor and friendship and the promotion cultural learning opportunities.  It included a ninety mile walk by Lawrence and two other friends from his university in Mankato to Red Wing, Minnesota and another pow wow in reciprocation (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  These reciprocating communal events that demonstrated respect, honor and friendship, and offered educational opportunity continued and expanded and began a healing process between the Dakota and non-Dakota communities (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).

Of special interest are the events that took place that served to commemorate the thirty-eight warriors who perished during the U.S. – Dakota Conflict.  First, Lawrence began a yearly observance to the thirty-eight lost warriors by going to Mankato to offer prayers for the fallen men each December 26th, the day of the massacre (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  Then a pow wow was planned and dedicated to the memory of the lost warriors and took place at the Mankato city ball park (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The event was successful in that many showed up, but it was financially difficult to continue (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  Amazingly, a stunning occurrence happened just before the dancing began, thirty-eight bald eagles circled above the baseball field as if to “solidif[y] the understanding that Mankato events would commemorate the 38 executed Dakota (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002).”

As a result of these happenings, efforts to continue community actions of “dialog, collaboration, and communally shared experiences” expanded even to the state level and beyond (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.). Especially notable is that Governor Rudy Perpich even proclaimed 1987 to be ‘The Year of Reconciliation’ in Minnesota in observance of the 125th anniversary of the 1862 U.S. – Dakota Conflict (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).  The result of this effort is that the actions continued and expanded such that a ‘Year of Reconciliation’, a ‘Decade of Reconciliation’ and even a ‘Century of Reconciliation’ was declared outside of Minnesota borders, including actions taken by churches, schools, and governments, and these actions were further supported by the media (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).

What began as a friendship between two men from very different cultural backgrounds expanded to a national level cross-cultural exchange.  What is being created by these types of events is a “place where dialogue, ‘new ceremonies,’ shared meanings, and shared histories [can] take place (Dowlin & Dowlin, 2002.).”  In other words, Native-American history, culture and experience are becoming more and more accepted elements of U.S. culture.

In fact, these same types of methods of reconciliation are now being used in the growing field of Peace and Justice and the practice of Restorative Justice.  One especially pioneering group of individuals that work in the Restorative Justice field is the Mennonite Anabaptists.  The Anabaptists are another group who have historically experienced situations of oppression and extermination by a dominating culture because of their different cultural beliefs.  Many individuals of their group were murdered for their religious beliefs during the Radical Reformation period of the Catholic Church that began during the sixteenth century in Germany and Switzerland, as documented in the Martyr’s Mirror (1994).  This is the group from which the Amish have descended.  Members of the Amish religious sect shocked ‘the world’ by their very quick forgiveness response to a tragic occurrence when an angry shooter killed five students and harmed five others at their Nickel Mines School, in Pennsylvania on October 2, 2006.  In the wake of this tragedy, the Amish community responded with forgiveness and kindness to the deceased shooter’s family.  In doing so, they practiced their deep faith in the ways of Jesus Christ by offering “forgiveness and actively making peace” as an “alternative to perpetual fear” and strife (Kasdorf, 2007.).   The Peace and Justice field and Restorative Justice programs are not forgiveness per se, yet they have similar elements of practice that result in relationship restoration and the healing from transgressions.

In Anabaptist circles, which include the peace churches of the Mennonites, the Amish, the Hutterites, and the Brethren in Christ, Howard Zehr is considered the ‘grandfather’ of the Restorative Justice practice in the field of Justice and Peacebuilding (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online, n.d.) (Howard Zehr, n.d.).  The model of Restorative Justice that he advocates incorporates cultural values of both the Native-Americans and the Maori of New Zealand in his philosophy that includes the “core values” known “as three ‘R’s’ – respect, responsibility and relationships (Restorative Justice and Peacebuiding, n.d.).”  Zehr states that the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University “is organized around three central fields: trauma awareness and healing, conflict transformation and restorative justice. Several other auxiliary fields include healthy organizations and community development.  (Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding, n.d.)”  The methods used in the EMU Center for Peace and Justice programs mirror the methods currently being used by the Dakota people.

That the methods used by less dominant cultures are being studied and in turn now used by the dominant culture in order to create spaces for dialog, collaboration, and communally shared experiences in order to foster forgiveness and healing is encouraging.  As cited by Kazdorf (2007), David L. Weaver-Zercher affirmed the notion that “the Amish symbolically function as ‘a saving remnant’ within the dominant culture.  Perhaps this is true also for the Maori and the Native-American peoples and other non-dominant cultures, too.  Non-dominant cultures have been systematically oppressed and excluded even as they have so much to share with the people of the dominating culture; it is comforting that this is now changing.

To summarize, Native peoples experience a great deal of loss including negative social and health effects that are a result of a morally conflicting worldview imposed on them as a consequence of Western European colonial expansion.  The oppression they experience has, for many years, blocked the way of forgiveness and healing.  Yet, what began in the 1950s as a friendship between a Dakota man and a non-Dakota man has become a healing model that has expanded to a national level.  This model of reconciliation aids a process of forgiveness by using indigenous values in order to bring disparate groups together through communal events that demonstrate respect, honor and friendship, and offer educational opportunities as a way of fostering understanding and reconciliation among these people.  This is restoring self-respect for Native-Americans and allowing a space for healing.  These same methods are now being used in other peace and justice programs.  It is clear that the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, effort that is required in order to understand and forgive transgressions may be key to achieving a world of greater justice and peace.

References:

Dowlin, S. L., & Dowlin, B. (2002). Healing History’s Wounds: Reconciliation Communication Efforts to Build Community Between Minnesota Dakota (Sioux) and Non‐Dakota Peoples. Peace & Change, 27(3), 412-436.

Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. (n.d.). Global Anabaptist Mennonite encyclopedia online. [Web page] Retrieved from http://www.gameo.org/index.php?title=Welcome_to_GAMEO

Green, J. (n.d.). The medals of wounded knee. Nebraska history [Web page]. Retrieved from http://nebraskahistory.org/publish/publicat/history/full-text/NH1994MedalsWKnee.pd

Hirsch, J. K., Webb, J. R., & Jeglic, E. L. (2011). Forgiveness, depression, and suicidal behavior among a diverse sample of college students. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 67(9), 896-906. doi:10.1002/jclp.20812

Howard Zehr. (n.d.). Howard Zehr. [Web page] Retrieved from https://www.emu.edu/personnel/people/show/zehr

Kasdorf, J. (2007). To Pasture: “Amish Forgiveness,” Silence, and the West Nickel Mines School Shooting. Cross Currents, 57(3), 328-347.

Monahan, M. (2008). Forgiveness in AA. (Cover story). Human Development, 29(2), 16-19.

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 24, 2014, from http://digital.films.com.library.esc.edu/PortalPlaylists.aspx?aid=1667&xtid=44418

Restorative Justice and Peacebuilding. (n.d.). Restorative justice and peacebuilding. [Web page]. Retrieved from http://emu.edu/now/restorative-justice/2009/04/20/restorative-justice-and-peacebuilding/#sthash.Rg3eb5D3.dpu

Van Braght, Thieleman J., and Thieleman J. Braght. Martyrs mirror. Herald Press, 1994.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

If One has Forgiven, Why Might it Then be Necessary to Forgive Daily?

Sometimes, forgiveness is an ongoing process.  For example, in Native American Survival Challenge:  Forgiveness v. Anger (chapter 12 of One Sky Above Us:  The West, a Film by Stephen Ives, 1996), Albert White Hat (1938-2013), a Lakota man and teacher of Lakota language, at 16 years old, went to St. Francis Jesuit Mission School, a boarding school.  (Before then, he grew up in his traditional Lakota culture ‘of stories’.)  The boarding school system killed the native Lakota language stories, and their culture, and for Albert White Hat, shame resulted.

The policy and laws, of which Albert White Hat spoke in this short film, were those imposed by the white-man’s government and the white-man’s schools upon the native people.  These policies and laws systematically exclude(d) Native-Americans and their culture and history from mainstream U.S. culture and society.  The policies and laws were/are imposed by the dominating culture and were/are unjust and they were/are intended to destroy native people and their culture, and appropriate native people’s land and resources for capitalistic gain and to the benefit of the rich, property-owning (property-stealing) capitalists.

The impact to Albert White Hat, as a result of these injustices to Native-Americans and their culture, was an overwhelming anger where he felt that he had no choice but to kill in order to honor his ancestors.  Yet, he wanted to live and be happy.  He felt that he deserved to live and be happy.  He knew that he had to forgive in order to do so.

For the Lakota people (as is the case with other Native-American people) it is a daily reality to forgive what was done/is currently being done to their people, their culture, their land, and their entire way of life.  Because Native-American people live daily with the injustices imposed upon them by mainstream U.S. culture and its government and policies, forgiveness is an ongoing process that will not end for hundreds of years.

References:

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 1, 2014, from http://digital.films.com.library.esc.edu/PortalPlaylists.aspx?aid=1667&xtid=44418;

One sky above us: The West, a film by Stephen Ives. (1996). Films On Demand. Retrieved February 7, 2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tG7hEVUCwiU

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Gilded Six Bits: A Complex Story of Forgiveness

The Gilded Six Bits, a short story written in 1933 by Zora Neale Hurston, is tale about forgiveness.  The story takes place in a small African-American town of Eatonville, Florida, in the early 1930s.  It is a complex tale of love, desire, indiscretion, anger, fear, uncertainty, disappointment, bewilderment, need, reconciliation, and finally, acceptance.  The main plot is that Joe Banks reconciled with his wife, Missie May, who betrayed him and bore him a son, which may not even be his child.  In this story, a complex process of interdependence and forgiveness is revealed.  Yet this simple plot contains many subtle layers.

The Gilded Six Bits from Frank Scallo on Vimeo.

When thinking about Missie May’s betrayal, it is important to question, “How could an African-American woman buy her husband the sort of gift that (presumably) white-skinned women provided to their loved ones during that time and place?  Where did any woman find paying jobs during that time and place?  What kind of jobs were they?  Who were the type of women that got hired?  What sorts of jobs were offered to uneducated African-American women at that time? Were good paying jobs available to African-American women who lived in isolated African-American communities?”  The situation is very complex.  Embedded into the story are social dynamics (and inequalities) that are connected to economics, race, and gender.  I think it would do us well to not apply our own contemporary standards of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ to Joe and Missie May’s actions.  Instead we can learn from their responses to the injustice that existed all around them.

Consider the injustice in the intersection of gender/economic inequality.  At that time in history, it was a social norm that women depended on men to provide income for the household.  Consider also, how Joe Banks treated his wife under those circumstances.  Joe Banks initiated a game with his wife each week after he was paid.  The game was that he would throw money at her and she was to chase him and catch him and search him to find the gifts he was hiding in his pockets.  This resulted in a playful sparring and displays of affection and love.  Yet, in a way, Joe Banks bought his wife’s affections and set the stage for future outcomes.

I wonder if Joe was truly aware of what his actions communicated?

Joe would throw money to the floor (to the floor ! ! !) for Missie May to retrieve and place next to her dinner plate.  Missie May would say,

“Who dat chunkin’ money in mah do’way?” . . . “Nobody ain’t gointer be chunkin’ money at me and Ah not do ’em nothin’.”

Why did Joe do that?  What message did that send to Missie May?  Joe treated Missie May like she was for sale and he was buying her affections.  Was he aware of that?  Perhaps not.  I suspect he was just living life in the way that history and society shaped it for him.

I believe that Missie May was coerced into positions of prostitution because of a situation of desperate poverty.  Remember, this story took place in the southern U.S. in a very poor African-American community during the Great Depression.  This was only 70 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and 31 years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s success with the Civil Rights Movement.  This context indicates the level of oppression and poverty that these folks endured.  Consider the description of the community, the house, the yard, and the rather bleak disposition of that time and place.

It was a Negro yard around a Negro house in a Negro settlement that looked to the payroll of the G. and G. Fertilizer works for its support . . . But there was something happy about the place.

This was an impoverished place during a time of great austerity.  Missie May relied on her husband to provide for her, and he treated her like a prostitute in return.

Joe degraded Missie May in other ways, too.  Consider the way he encouraged a game of touch-me-here and touch-me-there search-my-pocket-for-trinkets.

“Unhhunh! Ah got it! It ’tis so candy kisses. Ah knowed you had somethin’ for me in yo’ clothes. Now Ah got to see whut’s in every pocket you got.”

Joe smiled indulgently and let his wife go through all of his pockets and take out the things that he had hidden for her to find. She bore off the chewing gum, the cake of sweet soap, the pocket handkerchief as if she had wrested them from him, as if they had not been bought for the sake of this friendly battle.

“Whew! dat play-fight done got me all warmed up!”

Isn’t that the sort of grooming that dirty old uncles do with their nieces and such?  I see no love in this, only manipulative behavior.  The actions speak, “If you want what I have – then give me what I want in return.”  Joe bought his wife.  He owned her.

Joe not only treated his wife, Missie May, as though she was a prostitute and for sale, he also dominated over Missie May in other ways.  He controlled what she was allowed and not allowed to eat.  Consider how he denied Missie May of the spicy potato pudding that she made.

Missie May reached for a second helping of the tater pone. Joe snatched it out of her reach.

After Missie May had made two or three unsuccessful grabs at the pan, she begged, “Aw, Joe, gimme some mo’ dat tater pone.”

“Nope, sweetenin’ is for us menfolks. Y’all pritty lil frail eels don’t need nothin’ lak dis. You too sweet already.”

“Please, Joe.”

“Naw, naw. Ah don’t want you to git no sweeter than whut you is already.

He also controlled what clothes she would wear and what activities they would enjoy.

We goin’ down de road a lil piece t’night so you go put on yo’ Sunday-go-to-meetin’ things.”

Missie May protested that she did not want to be objectified, but that she wanted to be treated with respect, instead.

“Don’t you mess wid mah business, man. You git in yo’ clothes. Ah’m a real wife, not no dress and breath. Ah might not look lak one, but if you burn me, you won’t git a thing but wife ashes.”

Yet, Joe insisted that she go, and he paraded his wife as an objectified showpiece to a known womanizer, “Mister Otis D. Slemmons, of spots and places–Memphis, Chicago, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and so on.”

“Go ‘head on now, honey, and put on yo’ clothes. He talkin’ ’bout his pritty womens–Ah want ‘im to see mine.”

Missie May had no interest in meeting this man, or in his money, but it was Joe that insisted that she go.

“Joe, Ah hates to see you so dumb. Dat stray nigger jes’ tell y’all anything and y’all b’lieve it.”

All throughout this story, Joe was in control, manipulating Missie May, leading her to where she would go and what she would do, even sometimes against her will.

Missie May had no interest in the man or the lifestyle of Mr. Slemmons.  It was Joe who desired riches, and recognition.

“Good Lawd, Missie! You womens sho is hard to sense into things. He’s got a five-dollar gold piece for a stickpin and he got a ten-dollar gold piece on his watch chain and his mouf is jes’ crammed full of gold teeths. Sho wisht it wuz mine. And whut make it so cool, he got money ‘cumulated. And womens give it all to ‘im.”

“Ah don’t see whut de womens see on ‘im. Ah wouldn’t give ‘im a wink if de sheriff wuz after ‘im.”

Missie May did not want the gold coins for herself; she wanted them for her husband.

The impression I received was that Missy May was raised the daughter of a prostitute, and it was feared by her mother-in-law that Missie May would follow in her mother’s footsteps.  Joe’s mother said, after the baby was born,

“You ain’t ask ’bout de baby, Joe. You oughter be mighty proud cause he sho is de spittin’ image of yuh, son. Dat’s yourn all right, if you never git another one, dat un is yourn. And you know Ah’m mighty proud too, son, cause Ah never thought well of you marryin’ Missie May cause her ma used tuh fan her foot round right smart and Ah been mighty skeered dat Missie May wuz gointer git misput on her road.”

Missie May might very well have come from a home where her mother lived a life of prostitution.  If so, this is the way that Missie May learned to survive.

It is a fact, that for millennia, women have sometimes used the only way they could see possible to earn an income.  One reason that they do this is because society excludes them from other forms of gainful employment.  They want or need to provide for their loved ones (or even themselves), but see no other way to do that.  It is also a fact, that for millennia, men dominate over women.  Many women learn that it is safer to submit quietly, as then they are less likely to experience a violent reaction from a rejected man.  Additionally, women are expected to submit to a purity culture, and men are not.  Women who do otherwise are many times stigmatized and penalized.

Consider also the injustice of the intersection of racial/economic inequality.  Joe was impressed with the display of wealth and braggart personality of Mr. Slemmons.  Joe desired what Mr. Slemmons had.   Because Missie May loved her husband, she wanted him to wear fine gold decorations as Mr. Slemmons did – and Mr. Slemmons explained that white-skinned women gave their loved ones gold coins.  So Missie May devised a plan so that she could give a fine gift of gold coins to her husband, but her plan backfired when Joe arrived home unexpected.  If Joe had not been so impressed with the trappings Mr. Slemmons displayed, perhaps Missie May might not have made the choice that she made.

I wonder if Missie May would have chosen different actions if life was different for African-Americans in that time and place, than it is was.  If Missie May wanted to provide her love with fine gold coins (as she was told that white-skinned women did) where would she have access to such?

In the face of their imperfect responses to the gender and racial economic injustices, the husband and wife spent some time in anger, fear, uncertainty, disappointment and bewilderment over what had taken place.  Yet their dependency upon one another kept them together.  They each filled a need for the other.  It was the recognition of their need for one another that allowed them to reconcile and realize a new place of acceptance in their lives. Both Joe and Missie May learned to accept their imperfect responses to the oppressive situation and desperate poverty in which they found themselves.  They came to a place of acceptance that each of their actions rose out of situations of great poverty and the racial injustices that had shaped their lives.  They learned to forgive their individual and collective responses to unjust social systems.  One was not ‘more guilty’ and in need of greater forgiveness than the other.

Social pressures shape an individual’s actions. Recognizing a larger perspective may soften the hurt and open the door to a process of forgiveness.  It is easy to rush to a judgment concerning Missie May’s guilt and Joe’s good heart.  It was good that he was able to forgive Missie May and he even pointed out to Missie May that she should forgive herself too.  I believe that the main point of the story was that these folks should forgive themselves and each other for the very difficult situation in which they currently found themselves.  Their actions rose out of situations of great poverty and the racial injustices that had shaped their lives – people for sale !  They learned to forgive their imperfect responses to an unjust economic system.

Applying this teaching to our own lives, we can understand that none of us are perfect and that we depend on one another for our own wellbeing and survival. When we realize our own imperfections, we can find it easier to accept others’ imperfections. Additionally, other’s actions may be the result of how we treat them. Joe and Missie May came to terms with each other’s imperfections. Joe forgave Missie May for her indiscretion and accepted the gift of a son. Missie May forgave her husband for paying her for affections with the gilded coin when she once again joined in with the playful payday routine of coin tossing and searching for gifts. Forgiveness is being able to see beyond one’s own and pain and suffering and being able to take in the perspectives of others.  Forgiveness is about recognizing that we need each other, and its about acceptance of human imperfections in both self and other.

By this tale, Zora Neale Hurston communicated the complexity of human interdependence and relationship.  Perhaps one of the author’s intents was to explore the social injustices that take place where the intersection of racial, gender, and class inequalities meet.  These are all evident in her very short story.  Perhaps another intent of the author, was to also examine the injustice in the systems so that an individual’s imperfect responses and actions to an unjust system can be forgiven.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Thinking About the Nature of Forgiveness

 A forgiveness quote that resonates with me at this moment is by Lewis B. Smedes,

Healthy anger drives us to do something to change what makes us angry; anger can energize us to make things better.  Hate wants to make things worse.

Thinking of this quote as a ‘forgiveness quote’ (although there is no mention of the word forgiveness) suggests that perhaps forgiveness can have something to do with a desire for social change. This sentiment mirrors an interest of mine, that of Nonviolence as a strategy for social change.

Nonviolent social change ideology insists that one cannot bring about peace through violent means.  This parallels the notion that “hate wants to make things worse”.  Hate in response to an injustice will not result in an improved relationship or personal well-being.  The strong negative emotion of hate will only bring about more negativity.

While hate begets negativity, the feelings of anger can act in the opposite way, as a force for reconciliation.  This may, at first, seem counterintuitive.  Yet if an injustice does not stir any strong emotion, it is unlikely to result in changed actions.  The strong emotion of anger can act as a sort of fuel, to propel one into action, perhaps to take a risk – or as Allan G. Johnson named it in his book, Privilege, Power and Difference, to get off the path of least resistance – and do something that will effect change.

An example of how anger can be used as a force for good, is when Mahatma Gandhi used his anger toward racial injustice to fuel his Nonviolent action (Nonviolence) that led to India’s eventual independence from the rule of Great Britain.  This independence was achieved through nonviolent means that also allowed for reconciliation and a working relationship between these two nations.  Gandhi recognized that the best way to ‘fight back against the enemy’ was to make him your friend.  This required forgiveness.  Anger was the fuel that motivated Gandhi’s creativity in developing a means for achieving peaceful reconciliation.

Another example of anger used as a force for good is that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of Nonviolence in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.   I read a news article yesterday, in the Daily Kos, that described Dr. King’s  accomplishments in a different way than I have ever before considered.  (I have recently begun to study a U.S. history that has not been ‘white-washed’ !)  What was brought to light in that article was that some folks might think that Dr. King was less-than-effective in his leadership, because there is still a great deal of racial inequality in the U.S. today.  Yet, this is not the only way to see and understand this situation.  In reality, and the thing that is difficult for many folks to see (we may tend to turn away from seeing what we consider ugly), is that the Reverend effectively led a movement that ended a reign of violent terror in the U.S.  In this way, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used his anger toward racial oppression to fuel a successful social movement that brought a greater degree of social justice to oppressed groups of people.

I think that perhaps when we are engaged in feelings of hatred, we have a very limited view – that of our own pain and suffering.  Hatred could be a driving force behind the ‘white-washing’ of history.  Hatred for what was done in the past.  Hatred for the legacy of racism.   Hatred for slavery and violence.  Hatred for the massacre and extermination of so many people.  This hatred can be blinding in that it prevents some folks from looking very closely at the awful truth.  This leads to an incomplete and therefore rather mythical version and understanding of U.S. history (and therefore even ourselves today).  In forgiving, we may be better able to see a larger version of the truth – including the ugly parts – in a way that allows us to respond in thoughtful ways, rather than simply reacting to it.

Injustice can cause strong emotions such as anger and hatred, but these two strong emotions are not similar.  Hate is a destructive force, while anger may be thought of as a force that can motivate one into action that may result in positive social change including forgiveness and possibly even reconciliation.

© Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog, 2013-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nancy Babbitt and Just Desserts Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.