Lately I have been asked how atoning for one’s past can help with communal healing. While I wish there was one simple answer for this oft-asked question, I have come to realize that atonement is a very delicate and complex process. In the most simplest form it is first acknowledging that your words or actions have caused someone harm, offering a sincere apology which I have found is one of the hardest things to do, and finally taking action to right your wrong.
If you knock over someone’s cup of coffee, it is very simple to say I’m sorry, grab a paper towel to clean it up, and offer to buy or make them another one. However if you slap a cup of coffee out of someone’s hand in anger, the dynamics change and a simple I’m sorry will not suffice. In the first instance saying I’m sorry is usually enough, as people know we make mistakes all the time. In the second instance saying I’m sorry isn’t enough, because slapping things out of people’s hands is a malicious and violent act. Saying I am sorry but not taking action to atone through sincere efforts like getting counseling for your anger or addressing the root cause is worse than not saying sorry at all. It’s worse because it doesn’t give your victim the comforting knowledge that you won’t victimize them or someone else out of anger again.
When a person has been the victim of a violent attack, bullying, or verbal abuse it is hard for them to reason that it won’t happen to them again. Growing up in Detroit I saw and was the victim of high levels of violence and I never felt safe in my home or community. I never got counseling and I never had anyone apologize to me for what they did, nor atone. As a result, I became very volatile and reactionary to my environment, ultimately going on to victimize others. It was a vicious cycle that continues, because as I discovered hurt people hurt people.
In order to disrupt that cycle I believe perpetrators of violent crimes and bullies should have an avenue to atone to those they have harmed. However, they must first be made aware of the redemptive qualities of atonement and learn the three-step process necessary to reconcile with the community-acknowledge wrongdoing, apologize to the victim, and atone through their actions. To this end we will launch the Atonement Project with the hopes of inspiring and facilitating healing between perpetrators and victims, and ultimately the community.