Together with Fetzer Institute, the GHFP has been investigating what constitutes spiritual harm. The Principal Investigators are Prof Scherto Gill and Prof Garrett Thomson who are supported by a small team of researchers, and a number of international consultants.

Spiritual harm is the kind of harm that either impairs our capacity to love and care, or violates our dignity, or severs our connection with the transcendent or the sacred. As this connection with the transcendent consists in our spiritual core and defines the nature of our being, spiritual harm of this kind is the gravest. This is because it is experienced at the deepest level of our being, and can render life seemingly meaningless.

The notion of spiritual harm is key to acknowledging that being human has a sacred core and that we can be disconnected from this core by harmful forces and conditions. When people are treated atrociously with inhumanity, the resulting harm can amount to wounding at a spiritual level. Spiritual harm can result in trauma, including intergenerational trauma. Indeed, throughout human history, people have been harmed in many different ways: physically, economically, psychologically, socially and politically. However spiritual harm transcends all these other forms of harm because it is the most fundamental kind which lies at the root of our being.

There has been some recognition of these kinds of traumatic effects resulting from transatlantic slavery and contemporary racism, and this has led to some global efforts to address the mental health problems, economic inequality and marginalisation, albeit insufficient. However, these solutions often remain at the level of symptoms without addressing the deeper harms directly. Therefore it is important to inquire into the harm itself. To systematically inquire into the notion of spiritual harm enables us to explore ways to address and heal the effects of such harm.

We locate this investigation in the context of transatlantic genocide, slavery and colonialism, as well as its resulting legacy of racism. The characterisation of spiritual harm will help bring to light the layers of harm that go beyond the material and economic. This will enable us to appreciate better how both those who were violently enslaved and their descendants, and those who performed inhumane acts upon the enslaved, are both alienated from the sacred dignity of being human. However, there is a fundamental difference in their alienation: for the victim, this alienation seemed to confirm their inhuman existence, and for the perpetrator, this alienation appeared to affirm their human existence, a sign of their power. Both count as alienation from human dignity. Such harms are spiritual and they are among the gravest harms caused by transatlantic slavery and by its rippling racist effects that are propagated as structural dehumanisation. 

In this paper, we investigate two key questions: “What constitutes spiritual harm?”; “How might spiritual harm be addressed through healing?” To try to answer these questions, we will take a step-by-step approach towards characterising spiritual harm.