The pain of slavery is resurfacing as demands for reparations. How can we resolve deep-rooted grievances and move on from the past?
How do we move forward when past suffering still affects us? Many people face that question in their personal lives, but there’s a collective dimension, too, as we’ve heard in the call for reparations for slavery that have accompanied David Cameron’s visit to Jamaica. Back in Britain we’ve heard incredulity that issues that seem so long past can feel so present. But the issues persist, and we can’t avoid the question of how we deal with grievances that are deeply rooted in history.
The closest connection I have to black slavery is probably watching 12 Years a Slave. But I grew up in a Jewish family where memories of anti-semitic persecution were fresh. I’ve lived with Indian Dalits who view Indian society from the perspective of their place at the bottom of the caste system. And I have family connections to Welsh mining villages and Northern Irish Catholics.
For all these groups, history doesn’t just belong to the past. There’s no end to the suffering people have experienced; and many troubles refuse to fade away with time. Some continue to shape the fortunes of nations and peoples, or they live on in the stories and memories that create a shared sense of identity.
Looking at these seemingly intractable issues as a Buddhist, I reflect, firstly on the importance of self-scrutiny. Buddhism stresses that we tend to see the world in a way that confirms our assumptions and biases. What’s more, belief systems and ideologies can objectify and justify those assumptions, presenting them as the objective truth and creating fixed, dogmatic views of ourselves and the world.
That’s why Buddhism stresses holding our views lightly and listening, openly and with compassion, to those we might otherwise dismiss. But it also warns that the past can be a trap. We can’t change history, and dwelling on grievances can in fact reinforce them.
The Buddha famously said,’Hatred is not overcome by hatred, but only by love.’ That challenges all parties in a conflict to look beyond their differences; and friends who work in conflict resolution tell me that the way ingrained and seemingly intractable conflicts are sometimes resolved is often not what we would anticipate. Change comes when the parties are able to see things from each other’s perspective and sense the fundamental human needs they are expressing. Conflict, however intense it may be in the present and however deeply rooted in the past, is a challenge to our empathy and imagination.