Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Ruth Krall, "Bearing Witness: The First Step in Reconciliation"

Vincent van Gogh, "The Good Samaritan," original in the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

As my previous posting stated, I'm privileged to offer another set of essays by Ruth Krall, entitled "Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time." Part one of the series, which has the series title "Bearing Witness," consists of four essays. The essay you'll find below is the first part of Ruth's second essay in the "Bearing Witness" series, entitled "Bearing Witness: The First Step in Reconciliation." The second half of the essay will appear in a day or so after this.

As Ruth's footnote appended to the title of this essay states, she first presented this essay as an invited faculty presentation at the annual faculty retreat of her alma mater Goshen College in 2001. Please note that the footnotes to this essay begin with the number vi because the number sequence begins where notes in the previous essay ended. The first part of Ruth's essay "Bearing Witness: The First Step in Reconciliation" follows. Ruth has dedicated this essay series to her friend and mentor Nelle Morton.

Compassionate Peacemaking: Healing the World's Wounds One at a Time

Part One: Bearing Witness

"Bearing Witness: The First Step in Reconciliation" (vi)

Ruth Elizabeth Krall, MSN, PhD

Introductory Remarks

In May (2001) when President Showalter called to ask me about this presentation, the working title for this year's faculty retreat was in the form of questions: Is the work of reconciliation the mission of Goshen College? Should it be? (vii)

As I moved through the summer — combining selected days of work embedded within weeks of vacation and play — I ruminated on the question of reconciliation as institutional mission. All summer long I asked colleagues and personal friends to tell me what they know of violation, trust destroyed, and reconciliation (the restoration of trust). I pondered the issues faced inside those who are violated and the issues faced inside those who seek to be helpers of the violated.

For those of you who do not know me well, I am a clinician turned theologian and my particular theological interests lie in the intersections of healing work and theological work. Much of my own study and personal scholarship arises in my personal and professional struggles to understand the question and pursuit of healing in broken lives — lives in which memory, the body, consciousness, the psyche, and the spirit freeze, shatter, or distort during traumatic encounters with violence.

Restorative Work 

I am particularly interested in the restorative work of therapists and medical healers in the area of trauma disorders — that arena of shattered or fragmented consciousness that follows individual or communal exposure to violence and violation.

One aspect of this work always includes the very troubling question of forgiveness in the lives of those who have survived and who must now make sense out of their life in the aftermath of violence and violation.  The specific relationship of forgiveness to healing and the consequent or parallel relationship of healing to reconciliation remain quite unclear to me.

However, in the realm of the physical body, it appears as if the psychological or cognitive clutching of anger, rage, revenge fantasies, or unrelenting demands for repentance on the part of the violator are correlated in some as yet unknown mechanism with immune system failures. (viii)  One of my teachers, Dr. Emmett Miller, talks about the dangers to the physical body of holding on to emotional or cognitive negativity at deep levels of consciousness. While as a secular physician, Emmett does not ordinarily address the issues of spirituality, alienation, and healing, I am convinced a parallel universe exists. What affects the human body, affects the human soul; what affects the human spirit, affects the human body.

In anecdotal medicine there is a large and growing body of literature and practice wisdom that when healing flows into the individual, a certain kind of inner transformation had already taken place so that healing occurs. Dr. Emmett Miller notes that the work of clinicians is to help their patients brush away the negative narrative debris of their lives in order to open the pathway to spontaneous healing.

In a recent John Templeton Foundation newsletter, Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet, professor of psychology at Hope College, writes about the health status of those who hold onto thoughts of and desires for revenge and those who forgive. In this article, she claims that the latter have fewer health problems and less stress. About forgiveness, she writes:

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, minimizing, tolerating, excusing, legally pardoning, liking or reconciling.  Rather, forgiveness involves relinquishing vengeance, and adopting merciful thoughts, feelings or behaviors towards the offender....Granting forgiveness, she claims, is often difficult to do...[but] it  may paradoxically free [individuals] from the shackles of resentment and rage. (ix)

It is important to note that in some of the literature of therapists who work with consciousness disorders, clients often report a kind of spontaneous grace of forgiveness towards themselves and towards others. A clinical psychologist, Laurel Parnell, describes the experience of "Jan," a client with life-threatening pre-school encounters with violence focused around her mother's rage that she could not yet read and pronounce all of the words in Dr. Seuss.

Somewhere in the process of doing healing work, the following insight occurred: "My mother's whipping me had nothing to do with me.  It was something that happened.  It is not who I am." Parnell goes on to report that the client then experienced a spontaneous and un-coached awareness, "If I forgive, I'll be vulnerable." A series of insights associated with forgiveness unrolled: "When I was a child I believed that if I forgave her and let go of my anger I would be vulnerable and could be hurt.  I believed I had to stay strong to survive.  I believed my anger made me strong. But I am an adult now and can take care of myself.  If I don't forgive and let go of the past, I'm hurting myself.  I'm the one who is carrying this pain inside.  Forgiving is not forgetting.  I will never forget what happened, but I can let go of the pain and anger. I can forgive now without compromising myself." Parnell concludes that her client had gained a global perspective of the events that had transpired in her life and felt compassion for all who had been involved. (x)

"Lois"— a client of physician Marty Rossman wrote to him about one of these spontaneous showerings of grace:

What was done to me, the traumas, the pain, and the fear are not who I am. I walk around in serenity. I would not trade my life for anyone else's. I see it all as an incredible journey to deep understanding, compassion, and to radiant self-awareness. Lois. (xi)

Yet, clinicians and therapists know how rare this kind of spontaneous transformation is. And no one seems to know how to replicate it in the lives of those for whom healing, reconciliation, and transformation are elusive.

In situations of violation and violence, how can the shattered consciousness be healed and reconciled? With experienced violence and violation, is it even remotely honorable to ask questions of forgiveness and healing? For their full healing, is it essential for victimized individuals to seek reconciliation with the perpetrator of violence? Or, as some authors and activists suggest, is this insistence upon reconciliation yet another form of violation?

It is important to note, therefore, that for many victims and their counselors, it is obscene to ask the question of forgiveness and reconciliation at all.

Many clinicians note the oppressive effect of asking the victim to forgive the victimizer, to become reconciled. Harvard psychiatrist and faculty member Judith Herman takes up the question of forgiveness (certainly one of the key issues in reconciliation work).

Claiming that revenge fantasies are mirror images of the traumatic memory in which the victim reverses the roles of victim and victimizer, Herman believes that revenge fantasies actually increase the victim's suffering. Similarly, Herman notes that the choice to bypass outrage, by a decision of the will to forgive, is yet another form of increasing the suffering.

Recognizing the impossibility of exorcising the trauma by either revenge or by unilateral declarations of forgiveness and love, Herman claims that what is necessary is deep mourning — all the way down to the bone — in which the victim finds that she can let go of her negative psychic attachment to the perpetrator. Never forgetting what has happened to her, she weaves her memories together in a new life narrative. Never forgetting what has happened to him, he comes to realize that he is now responsible for his own recovery — for how he re-constitutes his own consciousness and thinking processes.

Healing work has been successful when the survivor relinquishes a tenacious hold on her repetitive memories of victimization at the hands of the other as the (a) central defining aspect of her identity. For Herman, and for many others, reconciliation is never the outcome towards which they work. They consider this goal to be dangerous to the ongoing healing process in their clients. Rather, they work for safety, empowerment, healing and the reconstitution of consciousness itself. Apathy towards the victimizer, non-attachment to the event of victimization, is the outcome which best promotes ongoing healing in the life-long management of trauma. It is not, in this view, healing work to ask the question of forgiveness and reconciliation. The question, when asked of the client, is a continuing or repetitious violation towards the victim.

In ongoing work with trauma survivors — whether these be war survivors, sufferers of combat fatigue, first responders, sexual violence victims, hostages and kidnapping victims, child abuse victims, or domestic violence survivors — an engaging question surfaces:

What is the influence of violence awareness itself in the lives and consciousness of those who seek to work with - and perchance be a facilitator of healing or reconciliation?

From work being done at Harvard (Herman, van der Kolk), Berkeley (Levine), and Stanford (Sapolsky, Zimbardo) we have a growing awareness that the helping relationship — whether that be of United Nations workers in refugee camps on the edges of war zones or rape crisis counselors in therapeutic relationships — this growing awareness teaches us that in the helping or reconciling attempt, a situation is created in which the violence itself is always a third party to the work, creating cycles of re-victimization and re-traumatization for victims inside the healing relationship and creating new victims among those who seek to help. Herman describes this well:

Some of the most clinically astute observations of the treatment of borderline personality disorder [were] written when the traumatic origin of the disorder was not yet known. In these accounts, a destructive force appears to intrude repeatedly into the relationship between therapist and patient. This force, which was traditionally attributed to the patient's inner aggression, can now be recognized as the violence of the perpetrator. The psychiatrist Eric Lister remarks that transference in traumatized patients does not reflect a simple dyadic relationship, but rather a triad: "The terror is as though the patient and therapist convene in the presence of yet another person. The third image is the victimizer, who demanded silence and whose command is now being broken." (xii, xiii)

In his case presentation of "Lois", an audience participant asked physician Marty Rossman about his personal inner life response to working with survivors of childhood sexual violence. Rossman paused for a moment and then he commented:

Doing this kind of work] has forced me to grow a tremendous amount. It touched me in places in me that I can't describe-the horror, the fear, the disbelief. [At each step] I was left wondering if I was really ready [for this work.] On the other hand, knowing the necessity [as a physician] to be there, that these things do happen, it forced me to feel deeper feelings...and it was good for me. (xiv)

In this teaching presentation, he (Rossman) repeatedly emphasized the need for peer consultation and peer supervision. This is a theme (the need for peer supervision) repeated in the work of the Harvard clinical research project, Victims of Violence. (xv) As members of the Harvard faculty have been working in a wide variety of locales, a repeated theme is the need for helpers and caregivers to avoid over-extension, isolation and unending sacrificial giving of the self to others.

A Basic Shifting

Not knowing that the retreat's title had been changed to a declarative one, I finally decided as I drove alone on the back roads of California that there could be no other answer than a simple yes to the question which President Showalter had raised on the phone with me: Is reconciliation the mission of Goshen College?

Each time I returned to the question, a litany drummed itself into my consciousness:

Yes, of course, of course yes: the work of reconciliation is the work of all of us who are attracted to Jesus;

Yes, of course, yes: the work of reconciliation is the vocation of all of us who seek to be educators; 

Yes, of course, yes: the work of reconciliation is the central work of all of us who seek to be healers in a world of woundedness-a world filled with people who know much more about violence, coercive domination, mis-use of power-over them, and oppression than they know about the path of a sustainable, justice-filled, non-chaotic peace, that peace which our Hebrew foreparents in faith called Shalom. (xvi) 

Yes, of course, yes: the great religious traditions of the world all teach that a genuine inner life of the spirit manifests itself in the loving or compassionate ways that we treat others.

But, as I listened to my own inner litany of "yes, of course, yes," serious questions about this perception also forced their own competing litany into my awareness.

As I drove thousands of West Coast miles, my thoughts kept coming back to the Pauline comment from Romans which I first learned from my mother.

Interestingly, Volf also lifts out this passage. I do not do what I want to do but what I hate...What happens is that I do not the good I will to do, but the evil I do not instead (Romans 7:14-20). I will paraphrase these Biblical words here for my own purposes this morning: The good that I would do, I do not do and the evil that I should avoid, I do not avoid. From my vantage point as a summer wanderer, this is one of the central problems of too-casually or too-easily claiming reconciliation as an institutional vocation, mission, or central religious calling.


vi. Note: This chapter (Bearing Witness: The First Step in Reconciliation) was first given as an Invited Faculty Presentation at the Goshen College Annual Faculty Retreat (August 19-20, 2001) at Camp Amigo in Sturgis, Michigan. That year's retreat theme was Called to One Hope: Our Vocation in Reconciliation.

vii. August, 2001: re-edited, November, 2019.

viii. Witvliet, Charlotte van Oyen. "How Does Forgiveness Affect Our Health?" John Templeton Foundation Progress in Theology 7(5), November, 1999.

ix.  Ibid., p. 1.

x. Parnell, Laurel. Transforming Trauma: EMDR. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. P. 230.

xi. Rossman in Rossman, Martin L., David E. Bressler, and Roxanne WhiteLight. ATS/3B: Interactive Guided Imagery with Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse. Mill Valley, CA: Academy for Guided Imagery, 1997.

xii. Emphasis mine.

xiii. Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1997. Pp. 136-137.

xiv. Rossman, op. cit.

xv. For information about the Victims of Violence project, see Powell, A. (September 3, 2014). "Three Decades of Treating Trauma," The Harvard Gazette Online.

xvi. Yoder, Perry. Shalom. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1987.

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