Interviewsand Articles


A Conversation with James O'Dea : Reconciliation, Forgiveness and Restorative Justice

by Richard Whittaker, Oct 3, 2010



My introduction to James O'Dea came at a dinner party two and a half years ago. I'd heard he had been the executive director of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, was an amazing guy and had some incredible stories. I knew nothing of his ten years as head of the Washington D.C. branch of Amnesty International nor of his several years as director of the SEVA Foundation. 
     As we sat down to a vegetarian Indian meal I was looking forward to what might unfold. Some good-natured jousting between our host and O'Dea led things off, but O'Dea was keeping his cards close to his chest. Nevertheless, before the evening was over, he did tell a story that lived up to anything I could have hoped for. It involved a visit with the Kogi people high in the Andes in the company of a Native American elder. I realized I was sitting across the table from someone whose life unfolded in contexts most of us only read about or see in the news. And having learned more now about O'Dea's work, I can appreciate why many of his stories wouldn't be good for dinner conversation. A year later, I got the chance to interview O'Dea.

Richard Whittaker:  I think Nipun [Mehta] told me something about what you've been up to. Have you recently been in the Middle East? 
James O'Dea:  I've just recently come back from Israel, Palestine, Turkey and Rwanda. 
RW:  I'd like to hear what you've been up to.
JOD:  Okay. As you know I resigned as president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences a couple of years ago and freed myself of institutional load, having had many years of carrying many institutional responsibilities. 
    When I left Amnesty International, even though I took up the job of executive director of the SEVA Foundation, at the same time, I began doing some dialogues we called "compassion and social healing" with Judith Thompson. I really wanted to look at the root causes of human rights violations. How do perpetrators get to be so wounded that they perpetrate? How does the victim transcend the victimization to move the story forward? So simultaneous with other responsibilities over a seven-year period, Dr. Thompson and I did a series of dialogues, including Israeli/Palestinian, Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland, Holocaust Survivor and former Nazi, and with torture survivors and that whole field. 
RW:  You and Dr. Thompson talked with these people, you're saying?
JOD:  Yes. We had circles in Cyprus and different parts of the world with both professionals in the field of reconciliation and forgiveness work and also with people who were caught in the conflicts. 
RW:  I see. How did the two of you get together?
JOD:  We actually met in Israel. She was doing some work with Dr. Elias Shakur who had founded an organization called Children of War. I'd gotten to know her work while I was at Amnesty International. But we both converged about looking into the root causes and then developing together a deep dialogic process to help unfold that. As part of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, naturally I was familiarizing myself with the latest theories in consciousness, mind-body health and I began to look at that whole question - what is the translation between individual healing and collective healing? And at the moment, we're doing a project together. It's called The Social Healing Project. 
     What are the streams of knowledge that are coming together today that are giving us a new template for collective healing? Some of that is around how world views change, how our basic map of reality and our belief systems change. How courts and systems change the work of reconciliation, forgiveness and restorative justice. And there's rather new work in trauma recovery. How do people recover from deep trauma? So we're looking at all these and mapping them. 
RW:  You were looking at how the streams of knowledge are coming together, did you say? 
JOD:  Right, and in different fields. From neuroscience, worldview, consciousness, the whole mapping of societal, political change and transformation, reconciliation and forgiveness work, peacemaking, peacebuilding. 
RW:  Does psychological theory come into this at all?
JOD:  It does. Positive psychology. Why is it that psychologists are saying, yes, we know now a great deal about post-traumatic stress, but we know less about post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth is when people have devastating, catastrophic loss and yet it builds their resilience, it builds their capacity. 
     The book I wrote, Creative Stress, is really all about that process. How do we face those energies from the universe that are raw challenges to us and use them as vehicles for our growth and transformation? Rather than following them into negative stress and victimization, or into punitive ideologies.
RW:  Is there way in which we need some element of stress in order to have the possibility of evolution? 
JOD:  That's the central thesis of my book, Creative Stress--A Path for Evolving  Souls Living Through Personal and Planetary Upheaval, that the energy of the universe is neutral. It's only in the last hundred years that the word "stress" has come to denote something negative. Before that, it was neutral. For the poet, stress is language, for the composer, stress is musical notes. So stress is a neutral concept. It's the pressuring of energy in a particular direction. So yes, absolutely. 
    The energy of the universe comes at us, comes at us and we filter it. We create a meaning process around it. If our meaning process around it pushes it aside, we should say that the physics of energy start to apply. That energy does not go away. It needs to be transformed. So it shows up in your blood pressure, your heart. 
RW:  This is what happens if we shove it aside, you're saying.
JOD:  Yes. And if we look at the energy, what could it possibly teach me? How could I grow though it? Then you begin to transform it into some growth energy, to supple energy. It becomes a vehicle for personal and spiritual growth. I say in the book, that we have both the personal and collective. There's a lot of blocked energy, collectively. It must be transformed if we are to evolve. We could say that when the primary energy of the universe meets consciousness, and when consciousness transmutes it, you have the evolutionary process. 
RW:  You've written a book and there's another one you're working on? 
JOD:  Yes. Creative Stress was published earlier this year and then the book Dr. Judith Thompson and I will be working on is about this field of social healing. I also have an essay coming out at the beginning of the year in a major collection on the concept of atonement. It's called "Creative Atonement in a Time of Terror." 
RW:  Now you have a Christian background?
JOD:  Yes. In early childhood I thought I had a vocation to be a Catholic priest and went off at age 11 to 13 to a seminary-a pre-seminary, to a boarding school. 
RW:  So you grew up a Catholic household in Ireland, right?
JOD:  Yes. Into a very enlightened Catholic household where the essence of the spirituality was central rather than any fundamentalist fixation.
RW:  I'm asking because some of the language you're using - atonement, forgiveness - resonates for me with my own Christian background. Do see your thought as having come out of your Christian background? 
JOD:  It has elements that are influenced by Christianity, but when you look at forgiveness work, Christians don't own the concept. In fact, it's applied more deeply in indigenous settings where restorative justice rather than punishment is the modality. So Christianity has much to answer for because of its fixation on punitive approaches. The whole American justice system has been influenced by that. And while there are great and luminous aspects to American justice, it is now a symbol of world disorder. The United States has a malfunctioning justice system. With less than 5% of the world's population, we hold 25% of the world's prisoners. That's punishment gone mad. 
     When you look at a society like Rwanda that went through its own genocide - of course, America doesn't like to admit that it went through its own genocide, but you ask any Native American and it's clear that the extermination of Native Americans was a genocide. You look at Rwanda sixteen years after a catastrophic genocide and they have instituted deep reconciliation, deep forgiveness and deep unitive processes. In relation to the genocide, they've reinstituted their own gacaca, which is a grass roots justice system oriented towards restoration, forgiveness and reconciliation. So many of the people involved in genocidal activities have been restored to their communities and are doing service. The country is a paradigm of how you heal from catastrophic levels of trauma. 
RW:  And you were there in Rwanda?
JOD:  I have just come back.
RW:  What did you experience when you were there?
JOD:  I experienced this incredible story. On day one when Paul Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front made it to Kigali to end the genocide, there were over a million bodies strewn across the highways and byways and villages of Rwanda. There were up to 500,000 orphans. There were hundreds of thousands of women who had been raped and who were developing AIDS. There were 2 million refugees on the border and no money left in the government. And out of that catastrophic situation, they built this political leadership that said, the only way forward is to rectify, to unify, to heal, to move the story forward. 
     It's now an ordered society. It does have deep psychological scarring from the trauma and I am working with the government to help find the resources and the leadership to create a national psychological trauma recovery program. The last thing you want is the intergenerational transfer of wounding. The government of Rwanda says, let's not live off this genocide of the Tutsis, but have the Tutsis and the Hutus reconcile and unify and move beyond this. 
RW:  You're saying that you're seeing some of this actually happening? 
JOD:  Yes. It's a well-documented story. 
RW:  I mean, it's a wonderful thing to envision healing, but I'm sure that you must want to see the actual working in real people and in real time to see if anything really is possible - in real life.
JOD:  Yes. And they actually allowed me to observe an gacaca court. You could call it people's justice. You could call it using elder wisdom and community collective wisdom to find the truth and heal. I actually saw it in process, one of the most exciting things in my professional career. 
RW:  Can you describe that?
JOD:  A thousand people who were imprisoned for genocidal activities - over eighty thousand of those people have been moved through the gacaca courts and they're now either finishing off very small sentences or back in communities doing restorative justice. 
RW:   Have you any individual stories? 
JOD:  Are you talking about Rwanda? [Yes] Everywhere I go I see that story, which is why I'm focusing on it. I think Rwanda is a good example because it's where you get all of the elements coming together to create this profound level of healing and progress that the country is undergoing. It's really becoming an example of one of the most orderly societies in Africa. The essential agreement is when the political will combines with humanitarian, psychological processes. So in Rwanda, not only are there the thousands of gacaca courts, the government instituted community dialogue processes and clubs that were around reconciliation and healing. So there's a massive effort at all levels. 
     If you compare that with Israel, you have still a stuckness in the victim status. Israel is sort of transmitting, always, this sense of woundedness from the Holocaust in a way that they cannot see that they're now the dominator-perpetrator in the story. That's at a political level. As in Rwanda, you see in Israel and Palestine, average people - so-called average people - reaching out to heal each other.
     There's the Bereaved Family Forum in Israel/Palestine where family members who have lost their children or relatives to terrorist bombs or Israeli military assault, have reached across those lines to each other and have said, "if you're in as much pain as we're in, let's change the story." And of course, the stories of forgiveness of Rwanda are some of the most moving stories you'll ever hear. 
RW:  Could you tell any of those stories? 
JOD:  There's the story of Devota who's in the village of Nyamata, which I visited. They've left the church of Nyamata as it was, pretty much. They've just ordered the bones. But basically there are all of the blood-stained clothes, the bodies, the bones, the machetes, the pick axes, that were used to hack ten-thousand people to death at Nyamata, in the church.
RW:  Ohh...
JOD:  The church has a very mixed history. Devota was on the way to the church with Claudina and Claude, her two children - one three and one five. People told her, don't go, they're slaughtering people. So she ran into the swamp and hid her son near the swamp in a little hut. Then she and her daughter hid in the grasses. The Hutus came through swamp looking for people, assuming they were fleeing. And after the third machete strike, she fell unconscious.
     When she came back to consciousness she found her daughter hacked to death. She herself had three deep lacerations - one near the neck, another on her back and another on the back of her leg, but these didn't kill her. Then she crawled to try to find her son, but didn't get as far as the little place she'd left him. She found another hut where she fell unconscious again. 
     When she came to a second time another one of the genocidal people found her inside and hacked her and speared her some more and left her again. 
     One of the trademarks of the Rwanda genocide was leaving people to bleed to death. So they thought that they had taken care of her. But again, somehow - really, through Divine intervention, that's how she feels - she was not killed. 
     Then several days later - she could hardly move - someone had started to light the hut on fire. She doesn't know what happened. She feels that someone, or some being, dragged her from the burning hut where, later, she regains consciousness again somewhere outside on the ground. And there is the tiny little hut where she had left her son, Claude. She crawls to that hut where she finds that he had not been murdered, but had suffocated to death from the smoke of the fire. So now she's lost both children. She can't do anything but crawl. 
     A few days later, the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagame comes through. They're liberating the territory. They're ending the genocide. And they find her and put her on a litter and send her to the hospital in Kigali thirty miles away. There are only four doctors left in the hospital. There's a massive number of bodies in the street. And she's told by one of the doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres, that there's just no hope for her. Her lacertions are too deep, they're getting infected - in terms of saving people, this is called triage. She was triaged out. 
     But again, through her will to live and whatever those forces are in the universe, she did not die. About a year and a half later, she was able to start to move around and to feel, actually, a very Christian impulse to forgive, to reconcile, to be part of the movement that the government is pushing. It has changed the story. She goes to prisons where some of the people who created the genocide are imprisoned. She shows her wounds and scars and says that even though this happened to me, I'm ready to forgive. 
    Two of the men who were responsible for hacking her stand up and say we were the ones who participated in killing your daughter and we beg forgiveness. 
RW:  [silence, unable to speak]
JOD:  [emotional] Yeah, brother. That's it, you see? Forces combined to show this is the way to go - the capacity of human beings. In Northern Ireland, as I talk about in my book, Frances McAneny, who is shot during The Troubles in Londonderry in Northern Ireland, is rushed to a hospital fourteen miles away and loses pints of blood. When she comes to consciousness, the doctor and her family are surrounding her and the doctor is telling the family, "I've made her as comfortable as possible, but there is nothing we can do. There is a bullet lodged next to the aorta and if we tried to operate, we would kill her." Again, like Devota, basically she's told, prepare yourself to die. 
     But something in the universe says, no, not this one. So weeks later, the doctor comes to her and says, "Frances, we don't know what's going on, but you're going to have to get on with your life." So here she is alive today, a woman with an actual physical bullet lodged next to her heart in peacemaking and reconciliation with Protestants and Catholics. 
     For me, the social healing story is a story of one. It's showing these capacities and showing also the structures, the thinking, the systemic transformation that needs to, and can go with these efforts all the way up through the political level, through the science and medical professions, through trauma recovery work, work that can template both individual and societal transformation.
RW:  As I was listening to the story of the woman in Rwanda, I was wondering how being close to such stories, how that would affect you? How do you keep going? You must be transformed, yourself. 
JOD:  I like to tell people the story of my birth because it seems like a fractal or a pattern that's been there through my life. It seems that I was conceived on November the 10th in 1950. My parents seem to know that because on November the 11th 1950, their oldest daughter, just coming up on 11, died. My mother discovered she was pregnant while she was mourning the death of her first daughter. So I experienced in my mother's womb all her suffering and love and woundedness. Then when I was born, my family said, James' birth is the signal that we have to move from mourning to celebrating new life. We have new life to take care of. So it's almost there in the fractal of my own story, the story of loss, of death, of wounding, but that is not the end of the story. 
     Whether it was ten years in Amnesty International or living in Beirut during the war or in Turkey during the fighting and, literally, the knifing that I experienced in the civil chaos that led up to the coup, I've always experienced that truth, that as hard and as painful and as tragic and as catastrophic as it can get, my role is to say, that is not the end of the story. Look for the transformation. Look for the healing. Look for the next chapter in the story. And in the evolutionary sense, that's where I think humanity is headed. I believe I'm one of the people who is witnessing the birth of the new humanity through all of the deepest and darkest wounding processes, yet a human being is emerging who is conciliatory, who is forgiving, who has the capacity to transform even the most hateful aggression. 
RW:  Did I hear you say you were knifed?
JOD:  Yes. I was knifed in political violence in Turkey. It was related to right wing and left wing students attacking each other. 
RW:  What happened there? 
JOD:  I was coming home one evening. I was at the Izmir Collegiate Institute as a teacher. It was late and I missed my tram on one side of the market, but I knew if I crossed the market to the other side, I could get a transfer and make it back to the American Collegiate Institute. There was a large group of students, obviously with the intent to battle with each other. So I ran into a side street and hid for what seemed like a very long time. I could hear no one else in the market place, when I came out, but there were five people standing there and they immediately thought I was part of the other group. So they attacked me and I was knifed in the arm and the leg and rump, and then pushed against a wall bleeding with a knife pointed at my heart. 
   I squeaked out that I was English. One of the guys in the group asked, "Are you really English?" And I said, "No. Actually, I'm Irish." When they realized they'd attacked a foreigner they ran away. 
   I started walking down the street, but then I collapsed because of loss of blood. One of those mysterious angels of the night came and found me, put me in a car and literally rolled me out onto the steps of a public hospital. To this day, I don't know who that person was who saved my life. Then I got fixed up and had to get on with my life - a great initiation, really.
RW:   That's really something. 
JOD:   I've lived a story of many levels.
RW:   Honestly, it's very moving to hear these stories. And you've been present at several conflicts, you said.
JOD:   I was there in Turkey during the period that led up to the coup. That would be '76 to 1980. And later I was in Beirut working with the Middle East Council of Churches. That was the period when the Israelis invaded Lebanon and pushed out the PLO who went to North Africa. And then I was in West Beirut and the Israelis decided to return and occupy West Beirut. That's when there was a massacre of men, women and children at the Palestinian camp of Sabra and Shatila. You could say that this was a very low point for me. I heard graphic stories from doctors who were part of the Middle East Council of Churches medical team about what transpired in those camps. I was close to losing my faith in humanity at that time. But it spurred me to work for Amnesty International.
RW:  And you were with Amnesty International for ten years, you said.
JOD:  Correct. I was the director of the Washington office, which carried on a leading lobbying role both of the U.S. and foreign governments. 
RW:  What prompted you to move on from Amnesty International? 
JOD:  I think eventually it was my own transformation of running out of moral outrage, the exhaustion of waking up every day to murder, torture, mayhem. I sometimes tell this story of how the death of Iqbal Masih was pivotal for me. 
     Here was a child who I think at the age of seven was freed from being shackled to a loom in Pakistan. Iqbal became a child activist for human rights for other children shackled to looms in the carpet industry in Pakistan. At age eleven he received a human rights award for his work. And before he reached age twelve, he was brutally murdered. 
     I came home one day having just heard about his death. I have three sons and every evening we would do family sharing around the dinner table. I was the first to share that evening and I shared the story of Iqbal Masih. My youngest son, Devon, who I think was maybe seven at the time, without blinking said, "And I scored a goal in soccer practice today!" 
    I felt, "God, doesn't he hear? Doesn't he understand?" And then I realized it's getting bad if I'm bringing this home and trying to proselytize my own kids at the dinner table. It was a signal that I needed to move on.
    But it had a beautiful ending to it. My oldest son, Booth, the next day saw a large article in the Washington Post about the death of Iqbal Masih. The next day I'd come home and was just lying on the couch exhausted. My son came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. He tapped my shoulder and said, "I understand, daddy."
RW:  That's very touching. 
JOD:  So I went from Amnesty International into the crazy world of Wavy Gravy and Ram Dass and Larry Brilliant and the SEVA Foundation for six years. 
RW:  That's a big change of pace.
JOD:  It was a big change of pace and it was very healing for me. Because I got to work on issues of blindness, community development, Native American diabetes - very practical things. SEVA does wonderful work in those arenas, very thoughtful, deep community development, blindness prevention and sight restoration. Yes, there's a big contrast between the heaviness of Amnesty and the beautiful insanity of people like Wavy Gravy, who are not insane at all. Wavy would come to the office with a fish on a leash and things like that which were a little different. 
     Of course, the contrast between California and Washington DC was striking. I remember my first week with SEVA. There was a person responsible for the newsletter, which really needed revamping. I said to her, these are your goals and objectives. She said, well, I don't really work with you. I consult the board - or something like that.
     I told her that was going to change and that this was how we were going to do it. A few weeks later I came to her and said, let me see your progress. She said to me, if this kind of pressure is going to continue, I'll have to leave. I said, pressure? [laughs] 
    You know, with my staff in Washington, I'd have to call at midnight and say "Go home!" You know, trying to save somebody's life from torture became so - you just didn't know where to stop. So California was an adjustment for me at first. People leaving work on time. Actually I learned that this balance is really healthy and good. 
RW:  Would you just say a little about what your latest focus is?
JOD:  I think it's an exciting time when we recognize that the centrality of how belief and attitude and worldview organizes our lives. And how do we transform those worldviews, individually or politically, that are dysfunctional whether it's this obsession with punishment or victimization?
RW:  Do you have models, you and Judith Thompson, models for how to do this?  
JOD:  Well, we're looking at and have interviewed all kinds of people around how their beliefs work and change, and what are the emergent and evolutionary ideas. And we go to places like Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland and we check it out. 
RW:  Yes. Because it's one thing to have wonderful ideas, but you know, I'm sure, how recalcitrant and deeply ingrained our habits are as people. 
JOD:  Yes. That's why we want to go to difficult spots and look at those people who are transforming the story to see how do they do it. How do you have a fifteen-year old daughter blown up in a terrorist bomb and then reach out to the other side? So, yes. We look at the hardest and gravest places and then how that transformation process works-and how what we know in the healing process, the new psychology, the new science, how that all is contributing to how we can transform the story. 
RW:  What about the question of the unconscious? Is that a question for you? 
JOD:  Yes. It's what we call the intergenerational transmission of wounding and victimization, and how do you bring that to the surface? How do you dialogue? How do you do the trauma recovery work? How does the political process support it? Because there are many elements that have to come together for a society to move the story forward. If the political will isn't there, or if the therapeutic work isn't there - there are many elements that have to come together. 
     You know, there are these brilliant people in the world, but I always bow down to the so-called average person who shows that, in fact, average human people can and do change the narrative in a very profound way. 
     Our whole evolution as a species is not about so-called brilliant people just giving us their ideas. We love our heroes and our leaders in the thought field, but equally the people who are doing it are the people I take my hat off to. 
Visit James O'Dea's website to learn more...    

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine   


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