Starting Point

Social Healing

What the work of generous listening and adventurous civility can inspire. Part of The Civil Conversations Project.

We take in the extraordinary wisdom of Congressman John Lewis on what happened in Selma on Bloody Sunday and beyond — and how it might inform common life today. A rare look inside the civil rights leaders’ spiritual confrontation with themselves — and their intricate art of “love in action.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and one of the world’s deep thinkers on religion in our age. He’s just released a new book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. In this intimate conversation with Krista, he speaks about how Jewish and other religious ideas can inform modern challenges. Rabbi Sacks says that the faithful can and must cultivate their own deepest truths — while finding God in the face of the stranger and the religious other.

“If you can’t talk about something, you can’t think about something. I’ve worked with students who could barely let themselves think, they were so scared of thinking the wrong thing.”

This conversation was inspired by Eula Biss’s stunning New York Times essay “White Debt,” which had this metaphor at its core: ”The state of white life is that we’re living in a house we believe we own but that we’ve never paid off.” She spoke with us in 2016 and we aired this last year, but we might just put this conversation out every year, as we’re all novices on this territory. Eula Biss had been thinking and writing about being white and raising white children in a multi-racial world for a long time. She helpfully opens up words and ideas like “complacence,” “guilt,” and something related to privilege called “opportunity hoarding.” To be in this uncomfortable conversation is to realize how these words alone, taken seriously, can shake us up in necessary ways — and how the limits of words make these conversations at once more messy and more urgent.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a poetic journalist and a defining voice of our times. He’s with us in a conversation that is joyful and hard and kind, soaring and down-to-earth all at once. He spoke with Krista as part of the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival before an audience of over 1,500 people, black and white, young and old. To a teacher in the audience who asks how to speak to the young now about the complexity of our world, he says, “Give me the tools. Arm me. Allow me to be able to understand why. That’s not hope, but I think that’s the sort of perspective I would’ve come from, at that age.”

Nothing is helping us more right now, as we watch human tragedies unfold on the U.S.-Mexican border and elsewhere, than a conversation Krista had last year with literary historian Lyndsey Stonebridge — on thinking and friendship in dark times. She applies the moral clarity of the 20th-century philosopher Hannah Arendt to now — an invitation to dwell on the human essence of events we analyze as political and economic. Our dramas of exile and displacement are existential, she says — about who we will all be as people and political community. What Arendt called the “banality of evil” was at root an inability to hear another voice.

We’d heard Derek Black, the former white power heir apparent, interviewed before about his past. But never about the friendships, with other people in their twenties, that changed him. After his ideology was outed at college, one of the only orthodox Jews on campus invited Derek to Shabbat dinner. What happened over the next two years is like a roadmap for transforming some of the hardest territory of our time.

In an unsettled political moment, at the end of a divisive campaign, the late, great civil rights elder Vincent Harding is a voice of calm, wisdom, and perspective. He was wise about how the civil rights vision might speak to 21st-century realities. Just as importantly, he pursued this by way of patient yet passionate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationship. He reminded us that the Civil Rights Movement was spiritually as well as politically vigorous; it aspired to a “beloved community,” not merely a tolerant integrated society. He posed and lived a question that is freshly in our midst: Is America possible?

Black Lives Matter co-founder and artist Patrisse Cullors presents a luminous vision of the spiritual core of Black Lives Matter and a resilient world in the making. She joins Dr. Robert Ross, a physician and philanthropist on the cutting edge of learning how trauma can be healed in bodies and communities. A cross-generational reflection on evolving social change.

In life, in families, we shine a light on the past to live more abundantly now. In this conversation at the Citizen University annual conference, historian Annette Gordon-Reed and painter Titus Kaphar lead us in an exploration of that as a public adventure. She is the historian who introduced the world to Sally Hemings and the children she had with Thomas Jefferson, and so realigned a primary chapter of the American story with the deeper, more complicated truth. He collapses timelines on canvas, and created iconic images after Ferguson. Both are reckoning with history in order to repair the present.

Go to the doctor and they won’t begin to treat you without taking your history — and not just yours, but that of your parents and grandparents before you. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson points this out as she reflects on her epic work of narrative non-fiction, The Warmth of Other Suns. She’s immersed herself in the stories of the Great Migration, the diaspora of six million African Americans to the north of the U.S. in the 20th century. It’s a carrier of untold histories and truths that help make sense of human and social challenges newly visible at the heart of our life together.

I am deeply convinced that change must be relationship-centered. We don’t create change purely on the basis of the content of a policy. We don’t create change purely on the basis of winning an argument or, even, winning a particular vote at a given time. Change has something to do with who we’re going to choose to be, together, as the human family.

John Paul Lederach

Tracy K. Smith has a deep interest in “the kind of silence that yields clarity” and “the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” She’s a welcome voice on the little leaps of the imagination that can restore us. She’s spent the past year traversing our country, listening for all of this and drawing it forth as the U.S. Poet Laureate. Krista spoke with her at the invitation of New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue, which has been in communal exploration on creating a just and redeemed social fabric.

One of the voices many have been turning to in recent years is Arlie Hochschild. She helped create the field of the sociology of emotion — our stories as “felt” rather than merely factual. When she published her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, in the fall of 2016, it felt like she had chronicled the human dynamics that have now come to upend American culture. It was based on five years of friendship and research in Tea Party country at that movement’s height, far from her home in Berkeley, California. Her understanding of emotion in society and politics feels even more important at this juncture. So does the reflective, self-critical sensibility this experience gave Arlie Hochschild on her own liberal instincts. Caring, she says, is not the same as capitulating.