As an attendee of the annual conference of the New York State Dispute Resolution Association, I recently had the privilege of experiencing a day-long training on restorative justice for mediators facilitated by Elizabeth Clemants. Elizabeth is the founder of an incredible non-profit called Hidden Water, which provides no-cost mediation and restorative approaches for adult survivors of childhood sex abuse and their families – including former abusers who are ready and willing to walk the path of the perpetrator by taking responsibility for the harm they have caused. She clarified during the training that we have all caused harm – that we all must walk the path of the perpetrator. Hearing such a deeply Christian message at a professional training set me back on my heels a bit. It has also sparked reflection, the first fruits of which I share here.
Have you ever experienced the tender sweetness of holding a sleeping baby? Part of what is so special about those moments spent cradling a new life is an infant’s freshness and newness and openness. Their skin is so soft and smooth that it practically glows. Their eyes are wide and full of wonder. They smile, laugh and cry easily and freely and naturally. Even a few years later, everything is different – toddlers are routinely mistrustful, and their knees and elbows are already roughened by years of crawling and falling. Exploration and painful lessons take their toll. Life scars us.
People scar us, too. We all have to reckon with the way others hurt us. We can brush it off, ignoring the wounds inflicted on us. We can downplay it, emphasizing our resiliency while de-emphasizing the capacity of others to hurt us. We can justify the harm others have done us, attributing our pain to our own defects, our own shortcomings. All of these are valuable psychological defense mechanisms. They prevent us from seeing ourselves as disempowered victims and preserve our self-image as strong individuals capable of shaping our own fate, which is critically important for our emotional and material well-being. We are not the absolute masters of our fate, though, and given enough life experience, given enough pain and grief, each of us will confront the limits on our ability to direct our own life. Each of us must reckon with what that means for how we see ourselves and our world. This challenging work is one of the essential foundations of wisdom, and it is the path of the victim.
But there is another path, equally important and in some ways harder to walk.
Each of us moves through the world damaging others with our sharp edges. Often we hurt others by accident. Sometimes we do so on purpose. But none of us is so virtuous or so careful as to make it through this world without leaving wounds in our wake. We have withdrawn from those who had a right to expect our emotional engagement. We have imposed on those who had a right to expect our restraint. We have abandoned those who had a right to nurture, and we have oppressed and abused those who had a right to freedom. To own the reality of that, to sit with its impact, without minimizing, denying or justifying it to ourselves – that is a work that takes courage and the willingness to sit with painful truths. That is the path of the perpetrator.
Not only is holding grief and sorrow for the way each of us harms those we encounter part of the path to wisdom and maturity, it is also a nonnegotiable part of the Christian walk. If we cannot own our sin – both the evil we have done and the good we have failed to do – we cannot receive the grace of God. Without admitting our guilt, we are incapable of receiving forgiveness. Without being open to the realities of our own faults and temptations, we will never be willing to “stand still in the Light and submit to it,” in the words of the prophetic Quaker George Fox. No matter our race, ethnicity, economic status, gender identity or political affiliation, we can never step into the fullness of God’s promise for us until we admit our inability to live lives of righteousness and goodness without him, and until we sit with the real pain and damage that implies, some of which we may never know.
Walking the path of the perpetrator is not for the faint of heart. Listening to those we have hurt, letting the Light show us the darkness inside – it’s a painful thing. But the Spirit of Christ is with us, and within us, as we do this work. And in that Spirit, all things are possible.