What does compassionate accountability look like? Equal Justice USA‘s Sam Heath reflects on the impact of his decision to join the anti-racist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 and explores what true justice, accountability, and safety look like and what is required of us to break the gridlock of prideful tribalism in our country. Sam writes:
On August 12, 2017, I made a choice to take my kids to a protest of a white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, VA. Yes—that rally. Being at the counter-protest in my hometown was both right and effective. It was also a really hard choice to make.
The rally took place just a block from the Robert E. Lee statue, a symbol of the white supremacy and hatred on display that day. Three people lost their lives in the events that unfolded, and many more were physically injured. The racism, violence, anger, and fear that day traumatized an entire town.
My family and I stood with a minister, who looked at me and said, nodding to the counter-protest podium, “We do this,” then, shifting to my children, “so they don’t have to.” My proximity to these events inspired me to make the move from awareness to action.
“True Safety is more than just the absence of violence—true safety is the presence of wellbeing.” —Sam Heath
I now work with a national nonprofit called Equal Justice USA, where we believe that true justice is not punishment. Justice is safety, healing, and accountability that has the power to repair what is broken. Safety is more than just the absence of violence—true safety is the presence of wellbeing.
In our organization, we work to end the death penalty, promote restorative justice, and to enable responses to harm that do not center prosecution, prisons, or police. We build community safety by listening to those in the community and strengthening the solutions that have love as a method, motive, and outcome.
“My prayer is that Christians will see our nation like we see people – a mix of wonderful and wicked actions, of beauty and brokenness. In seeing our nation that way, we respond to violence by engaging both individuals and institutions. Both Individuals and institutions need to be held accountable for the harm they cause.” —Sam Heath
True justice reflects Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan, which means our neighbors are anyone who has a need. Need knows no boundaries of race, status, or political party. Ultimately, addressing the needs in our community requires more than awareness; it requires action.
My prayer is that Christians will see our nation like we see people – a mix of wonderful and wicked actions, of beauty and brokenness. In seeing our nation that way, we respond to violence by engaging both individuals and institutions. Both Individuals and institutions need to be held accountable for the harm they cause.
Accountability is not synonymous with punishment. True accountability means that individuals and institutions go on a three-part journey: 1) Acknowledging the harm done; 2) Restoring with a physical act determined by the harmed party; and 3) Changing things in a person or system so that the harm can’t happen again. It helps that the acronym for the above process is ARC, especially when we remember Martin King saying that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Meaningful action is needed to break the gridlock of prideful tribalism in our country. Bringing a trauma-informed response to harm can break the cycle of violence and cultivate healing in the face of harm.
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Have you experienced healing from taking accountability? What was your experience? Share your reflection with us.
Sam Heath leads Evangelical Network USA (EJUSA), an organization that works to respond to harm with healing. Sam’s hometown in Charlottesville, VA where he has acted as a church elder, history teacher, and student for years. Evangelical Network USA works to transform the justice system by promoting responses to violence that break cycles of trauma. Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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