The Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University–including the Coming to the Table class I attended–has come to an end. I’ll return my focus to upcoming events in support of the P.O.V. broadcast of Traces of the Trade on PBS later this month. Before I do, here are a few thoughts on Coming to the Table.

Our class provided a broad perspective on the lingering damage we have inherited–collectively and individually–from the legacy of slavery and a road map with potential paths toward healing. As I explained in a previous posting a key component to healing is understanding trauma and its potentially infinite, destructive cycles. I’ve watched David Works and his response to the deaths of his daughters and being almost killed himself and remain in awe over his and his family’s choices. One choice David and Marie made was to meet with the parents of the young man who killed their daughters. They hugged and cried together.

Natural responses to trauma include reacting with aggression and/or feeling like a victim. The “survivor/victim” response can result in a cycle of physiological changes. Instinctual reactions include fight, flight or freeze. We feel shock, injury, denial, anxiety, and fear. Realizing loss can result in panic, suppression of grief and fears, anger, survivor-guilt, shame, humiliation and the need for honor and vindication. Some people learn helplessness, re-experience the event and have fantasies of revenge.

The “aggressor/enemy” response can result from seeing one’s self as victimized. We may feel shame and humiliation. We can develop a good-versus-evil narrative and dehumanize and demonize the enemy. We may justify using violence and see it as redemptive. We may decide to pursue our own needs, even at the expense of others. There may be social and cultural pressures to do so. We act in self-defense and believe we are restoring honor and justice.

Both of these reactions lead to a “good versus evil” narrative and the elimination of the humanity of the evil ones. If I eliminate the human qualities of those who harmed me, revenge is easier. Both cycles lead to vengeance, which creates more victims. People move easily between the “survivor/victim” and “aggressor/enemy” cycles, creating one giant,  vicious, circle-eight cycle–the sign for infinity.

Both cycles are destructive. Healing and reconciliation require us to break out of them and pursue a different path. The path to reconciliation–either individually or as a community–includes truth-telling (facing all the facts within their historical context and considering the impact on, and feelings of, both victims and victimizers), justice (acknowledging the harm and taking action–agreed upon by the victims and the victimizers–to repair it), compassion (accepting one’s self, having empathy for “the other”, and forgiveness), and peace (relationship-building, communication, and understanding).

Restorative Justice principles are used throughout the process. Traditional justice asks three questions. What law or rule has been broken? Who did it? What do they deserve? Restorative Justice goes further, asking who all are harmed? Why are they hurting? How do we repair the harm for everyone? It is a longer and more complicated process. And it has a chance to achieve what traditional justice rarely–if ever–does: deep healing, reconciliation, and peace.

Participants in Coming to the Table are committed to using this model to bring people together who are normally isolated from each other. It began as an effort to heal from the legacy of slavery. It is evolving into a process that can help people heal from all forms of racism and oppression.