by Allison Hargus, creator/writer
Lyndon Harris welcomed me into his home to speak with me about restorative justice and all of the possibilities that activism through forgiveness can offer. When we arrived at Tigg’s Pond, the retreat center that Harris co-directs along with Reverend Posy Jackson, we rushed in from the frigid winds and blowing snow. The warmth of the center and Harris surrounded us, and began to soften the rough grip of February air. After we finished our comforting meal of chili and grilled cheese and exchanged routine introductions, we started at the heart of the matter: What is restorative justice? He began by explaining the Garden of Forgiveness, an organization that Alexandra Asseily originated in Beirut, Lebanon. After the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) ripped through the country, leaving devastation and discrimination in its wake, Asseily decided to take responsibility for creating peace and became a psychotherapist. The garden itself is located on the Green Line where the most fighting took place; it is designed to be a place for reflection and to escape the cycles of violence. These cycles of violence hold many areas of the world in its command. Since its success through Lebanon, ideas of restorative justice has spread to multiple regions. This led to a discussion of what happened after the Rwandan Genocide in recent years. Harris appeared at the 2009 Forgiveness International campaign in Rwanda. His speech followed a man and woman from Rwanda.
They took the stage- he noticed the woman was missing a hand. As she began to speak, she held the hand of the man next to her. What they shared next would shock the crowd. She explained she became a victim during the genocide and had her hand taken from her. The man who held her remaining hand took the microphone: “I am the one who did this to her.” As Harris relayed the event, tears caught in my throat. I caught a glimpse of true forgiveness. He explained that if a community devastated by these crimes against humanity can come together to spread a message of forgiveness and rebuild their home, how can we have an excuse for not following suit? In Rwanda, this idea works well because of the strong community identity they share. Inspired, Harris described non-forgiveness as a poison that could spread; for Rwanda, the community depends upon its members to keep itself afloat. To these areas in Rwanda, no good can come from wallowing in the grief and despair of the past. Restorative justice manifests through community meetings where the perpetrators will give a statement and admit to all of the crimes they have committed. As a consequence, the community then decides what the best course of action will be. They do not have traditional prisons. Their “prisons” consist of areas where they are free to roam about and there are no cell walls. But how could this work? This idea of community identity plays a large role in keeping these perpetrators on course. They will lose their own identity if they betray the community. Instead of normal sentencing, they commit to service projects to help rebuild for their community members. By this time in this blog entry, I’m sure you’re wondering: I thought this site was about non-proliferation… Well, yes. As part of my exploration for securing a safer future for our global community, I am pursuing the idea of restorative justice as a useful and cooperative tool for parties to come together to discuss the common good of reducing these threats. I discussed this idea with Harris and his response encouraged me: “We’re all in this together,” he said. Forgiveness is a large part of activism because if we go to a rally for our cause and meet the opposing side with anger, what change will we see? Harris became inspired after 9/11 when he found himself witnessing our national tragedy front and center. He resided over his ministry directly across from where the World Trade Center was located on that heartrending morning. As soon as he caught wind of the events unfolding, he rushed to aid his fellow citizens by ministering to them and helping in any way he could. We suffered a great loss that day, but it did not and does not have to keep us from greater things. As Harris so aptly stated, “When you give up your victim’s narrative, you regain your power.” After the fact, Harris decided to help heal the hurt of the area by heading a Garden of Forgiveness at Ground Zero. Unfortunately, this project did not gain support and enlarged anger from many who chose to hold onto rage instead of embracing the healing process of forgiveness. Earlier in the interview, I asked him “What is forgiveness?” This may seem a mundane question, but his answer helped me connect my cause to his. He explained that forgiveness is when we pursue justice or reparations from this act. The act of forgiveness does not mean letting perpetrators off the hook, it simply allows us to move forward in the solution-building process. If we can admit that there is a wrong, that will be the first step in the right direction. There are so many words and jewels of wisdom I gained from our discussion, I wish I could put every word he shared in this blog. I look forward to more communication with him in the future and embrace challenges with the knowledge he has armed so many others with. To learn more about Tigg’s Pond Retreat Center and the Forgiveness Seminar on March 21, 2015 go to Tigg’s Pond Retreat Center.