The Fetzer Institute and the Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace are collaborating on a project with two concurrent components central to the UNESCO Collective Healing Initiative. The first is conceptual, consisting in an investigation of what constitutes spiritual harm. The second is experiential, involving a series of intergenerational dialogues in communities that are living the legacies of transatlantic enslavement and colonisation. Together, these comprise the foundational knowledge and part of the preparatory phase for the collective healing processes.

How we conceptualise harm must reflect what is fundamentally important about human life. People can be harmed in many different ways: physically, psychologically, economically, socially and spiritually. However, spiritual harm transcends these other harms because it touches the core of what matters most, namely that all persons are equally valuable in a primary non-derivative manner. In sharp contrast, the goods and services that make up an economy, and the social infrastructure necessary for a functioning society, have value only derivatively.

Contemporary western conceptions of harm tend to be based on the hedonistic experience of happiness (or lack thereof) or subjective views of desire satisfaction, both of which are often assessed in monetary terms. These more readily measurable conceptions of harm either reduce the spiritual aspects to something such as mental ill-health, or render the spiritual as something replaceable, such as a set of causal benefits.

Arguably, we need the notion of spiritual harm to characterise the dehumanising economic system that has perpetuated exploitation, instrumentalisation, discrimination and marginalisation. We can see that spiritual harm is a common phenomenon in egoistical and individualistic societies where people’s capacity to love has been eroded. Similarly, the global ecological and climate crisis is a manifestation of unloving, the result of spiritual harm embedded in the structural violence.

More specifically, through the notion of spiritual harm, this project can bring to light harms
concerning the transatlantic trade of enslaved Africans, slavery and colonisation that are complex and profoundly damaging. A typical expression of spiritual harm is racism in its various forms, especially anti-Black racism, connected to transatlantic enslavement. Without such a recognition, collective efforts to address the traumas and legacies of anti-black brutality will tend to be directed exclusively at the economic. While economic justice is important, this narrow monetary focus ignores the deeper harms involved, and risks rendering reparative endeavours superficial. For example, the appeal to economic rights only tackles the symptoms of structural violence and does not challenge the underlying systemic design nor institutional processes that result in injustice.

Thus, the concept of spiritual harm is lamentably necessary. It can broaden and deepen the ways to address the legacies of transatlantic enslavement and colonialism through collective healing, and to advance a just society and a flourishing life for all. The concept also indicates that such harm can apply to everyone involved: the enslaved, the enslavers, and those who benefited financially from enslavement and the continued exploitation and oppression. While the damage to the victim is well-acknowledged, the lens of spiritual harm enables us to see that the harm can infect whole societies, including perpetrators. In recognising that all are bonded in the same dehumanising act, spiritual harm allows us to realise that racism has divided us into antagonistic opposites (the enslaved vs enslaver; victim vs perpetrator; black vs white; the elitist vs the marginalised), and to begin to transcend such divisiveness, returning humanity to love, to the right relationships.