Adrienne Maree Brown has launched a most important inquiry into how we do
transformative justice, some of her inspired words followed by my response:
* * *
I think this is some of the hardest work. It’s not about pack hunting an
external enemy, it’s about deep shifts in our own ways of being.
But if we want to create a world in which conflict and trauma aren’t the
center of our collective existence, we have to practice something new, ask
different questions, access again our curiosity about each other as a
And so much more.
I want us to do better. I want to feel like we are responsible for each
other’s transformation. Not the transformation from vibrant flawed humans
to bits of ash, but rather the transformation from broken people and
communities to whole ones.
I believe transformative justice could yield deeper trust, resilience and
interdependence. All these mass and intimate punishments keep us small and
fragile. And right now our movements and the people within them need to be
massive and complex and strong.
* * *
Thank you so very much for launching this centrally important inquiry. I
appreciate your starting with the fact that we don’t yet know how to do it.
We’re afraid of our own freedom - because freedom makes us fallible. We
can’t stand being this vulnerable.
We keep desperately looking for the one who is not fallible, the pope, the
guru, the leader, the prophetic blogger, the preacher. But none of them can
be perfect forever, so we never really find what we are looking for and we
are endlessly disappointed. This disappointment triggers our rage.
We then hide behind the victim. We make the victim infallible - always
subject, never agent, ever pure.
We are looking for a place to hide from the churning and the ache and the
layers of complexity that makes each one of us human. We are not only
afraid that we will get hurt. We are terrified of our own inevitable
capacity to hurt others. We can’t stand the price of freedom.
We use our own shame to shame others. We confuse justice with judgement.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life has been to turn my
shame into guilt - to transform it. It is a most daunting task, this act of
shifting from “I am wrong” to “I have done something wrong.” “I am wrong”
makes me want to hide. “I have done something wrong” makes me want to atone.
I have committed transgressions that I will have to contend with until the
day that I die. I have been shamed and torn down and I have believed I
deserved it. There is absolutely no redemption available in that place. We
don’t need to stop this because it doesn’t feel good, we need to stop
shaming because it does not work.
Very recently I have also been “called in” and “called up” in the most
loving of ways. I have been asked to see parts of myself that I was not
able to see on my own. I have had people that have been hurt by my actions
show me the highest compassion. I have seen people make themselves
vulnerable all over again just to help me see myself. These have been some
of the most radically transformative experiences I have had in my life.
These are the acts of compassion that are helping me become the man that I
want to be.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that we are harshest with our allies, with those
that we want to love. I’ve seen “solidarity lines” against elders of our
movement. I have seen people who have devoted all of themselves to the work
of social change torn down and chewed out and disappeared from movement
space because they were not perfect yet. We are acting out against our very
selves; we are eating our own.
I believe in accountability. I believe that those who lead and preach and
wield power on our behalf need to be held to a higher standard. I think
that people who refuse to learn need to be asked to step aside and take
closer looks at themselves. I think they need to be loved intensely; they
need to be held and be seen.
But the poison that we spew only serves to poison us. So I passionately
agree with your three suggestions for transformative justice when
1. Listen with ‘Why?’ as a framework.
2. Ask yourself/selves: what can I /we learn from this?
3. How can my real time actions contribute to transforming this situation
(vs making it worse)?
The last time I had a crisis in my primary relationship I realized that I
had spent months and months blaming. Pointing the finger. Accusing.
Justifying. Taking myself out of the equation. Opting out of relational
space. It wasn’t until this changed that everything started to change.
So to your points I would add that:
We should check ourselves when we are getting really “blamy,” that’s
usually a sign that we don’t want to see our role in the very thing that
We should always, always, always honor the people who are hurt, the victim
of whatever case, we should also act to protect them. But we should be
vigilant and careful not to cement them into that space. Victim should
remain a moment, never a permanent state. Victimhood should not be fed.
We should act with unbearable compassion. I try to keep in mind the words
of the Christ, he said “I was in prison and you visited.” He didn’t say “you
visited me when I was innocently put in prison.” He didn’t say “you
liberated me while I was in prison.” He said “you visited me,” you came to
SEE me, you did not deny my humanity while I was in prison.
It will all change when we are bold enough to love in this way, and when we
are able to forgive one another every time we fail to do so.
Adrienne Maree Brown, you have been one of those people that have shown me
unbearable compassion when I have fallen on my face. For that I’m eternally
grateful. Thank you for living in the world we are trying to build.