Photo Credit: Fundación para la Reconciliación (Colombia)
Context & Experience:
The 2016 peace agreement between Colombia’s government and the country’s biggest rebel group has put an end to a half-century conflict that killed more than 220,000 people and uprooted more than 6 million. Colombia is now facing a massive task: addressing the accumulated anger, as well as the culture of retaliation and revenge that have affected the daily life of so many Colombians for decades. The peace process is still very fragile and the official reintegration process of the ex-combatants is far from perfect; many fear a resurgence of violence.
For the past 15 years, the Colombian-based not-for-profit Fundación para la Reconciliación has been working to create a training of 60 hours (3-4 hours per week, over a few months) that supports individuals – both perpetrators and victims – and their communities in “forgiving,” which is defined, in that context, as “giving up the urge for retaliation and instead act upon compassion and kindness.” On the other hand, “reconciliation” is defined as “moving from distrust to trust.” In this model, forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same process: the first one involves a deep reflective personal experience; meanwhile, the last one requires the disposition of more than one person to be achieved. These two processes as complementary. The methodology promotes people work in small groups of 3 individuals who serve as mirrors for each other.
The training takes place through Escuelas de Perdón y Reconciliatión (ESPERE), Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation, which Padre Leonel Narvaez Gómez put into action in 2003 under his organization, Fundación para la Reconciliación. The Fundación’s methodology is now in practiced worldwide and, as well as the ESPERE, it operates a number of key programs and projects that feed into peacebuilding and reconciliation on an individual, local, and national level. The Fundación has reached 2 million people globally, and the model is now practiced in 21 countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe.
One of the key benefits of the ESPERE is that the content can be adapted to suit the spiritual and cultural interests of the participants. They are also dynamic in that the peaceful practices and behaviors developed and healing process experienced do not necessarily need to relate to a violent or wartime experience; the ESPERE can aid people in the resolution of everyday conflicts and as such, the schools develop a culture of reconciliation ‘grain by grain.’
Rituals are a very important part of the process, with defined sequences of steps that help participants to progressively build a rapport as well as create and maintain a safe environment among them. Those rituals are based on traditional rituals present in Colombian culture with some influence from Christian rituals that help symbolize the transformations that participants are going through. For instance, “Going from Darkness to Light” symbolizes the possibility of transforming rage and pain. Another ritual with water symbolizes the clearing of the past (“The Liberation”) and the desire to move forward. Another ritual (“The Clay Pot”) symbolizes how certain principles are the “glue” (are critical) that makes life sustainable, helping participants to choose the values that they want to put forward from now on.
Other rituals focus on empathy and compassion for the former enemy. “The Potter” ritual helps to metaphorically represent the essence of the offender in clay and to commit oneself to promoting the positive aspects of this person, who is present in the room through this representation. Others in the group are supporting the process. “Looking with New Eyes” ritual guides the participants into seeing oneself in the other person.
These rituals contribute to the repetition of certain practices and exercise of skills in the hope of creating new habits. For the participants, the reward is in the progressive transformation of the pain and fear. A lot of the work is about giving a new meaning to people’s memories. Forgiveness does not change the past, but it changes the present and the future. Forgiveness moves from being a spiritual process to becoming a refined expression of respect and compassion for all human beings, and an expression of humanness.
Participants are reporting change in their physical and mental wellbeing, including because of the new support that they have found in the group with whom they have been working. In different parts of the country, former perpetrators and victims have started to work together for their communities. The impact on families and communities has already been manifest in entire communities in areas where there has been a lot of violence and killings: people chose to organize larger ceremonies during which they offered forgiveness.
About Fundación para la Reconciliación:
The vision of Fundación para la Reconciliación is to contribute to the construction of peace and happy coexistence among different people in Colombia and the world, promoting the culture and pedagogy of the spirituality of caring, forgiveness, and reconciliation through people who practice what they preach.
In the summer of 2018, Fundación para la Reconciliación entered into a two-year partnership with the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Fundación Santafé de Bogotá to conduct an evaluation investigating the impact of the ESPERE program on the psychological and social wellbeing of victims of the Colombian armed conflict. The research will investigate the ways the ESPERE contribute to improved mental health, social capital, and positive life changes for participants, all of which are indispensable in communities severely affected by violence.
Traditional Water Ritual (Photo Credit: Fundación para la Reconciliación, Colombia)
Forgiveness remains a fairly understudied topic within psychology, and neuroscientific studies dedicated to forgiveness are also relatively few. However they already highlight very important dimensions in the mechanisms of revenge and forgiveness as intertwined aspects of cognitive systems designed to navigate the difficult terrain of complex social interactions. Understanding the brain systems that underlie the fundamental choice to forgive or not — and to seek forgiveness or not — particularly in the case of the most harmful behaviors and transgressions of the human laws, is crucial to better know how to repair relationships in a way that is respectful and sustainable. The methods of neuroscience have evolved enough for us to more concretely research the tragedies of our world, and the courageous journey of those who choose to forgive.
Another dimension in the experience of the Schools of Forgiveness and Reconciliation is the power of the rituals that are being used as they contribute to the repetition of certain practices and exercise of skills that can help create new habits, and indeed contribute to the rewiring of the brain. Rituals can also be viewed as a way to create change, to transform (or even re-interpret) norms, perceptions and behaviors. Rituals of reintegration and healing in post-war contexts such as this, generally include both the re-affirmation of collective rules and their reinterpretation . Further, the sequence of rule-governed behaviors, characteristic of rituals, helps create a space of mutual understanding among the participants (see White Paper).
3.2. Rituals provide a sense of safety that can allow for the suspension of the fight/flight response and can ease the stigma around traumatic experiences
4.2. Rituals serve as an important mechanism to convey intentions and create a space for the possibility of mutual understanding
5.1. Benevolence, compassion, and forgiveness are powerful values that can motivate a person to choose peace
6.2. Some form of deliberate practice, devotion, or ritual is necessary to reaffirm these powerful and emotionally-charged memories and maintain the connection between outward behavior and core spiritual values
7.2. Transcendence is also associated with a sense of hope that supports individual and collective well-being
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Photo Credit: Fundación para la Reconciliación (Colombia)