In an age of outrage, division, and fear, Van Jones is reminding Americans of the transformative power of forgiveness, grace, and redemption in his new docuseries The Redemption Project.
"I have come to feel that the culture in America is just losing empathy, grace, compassion and forgiveness," he told The Gospel Herald. "We've become a 'call out' culture and a 'cancel' culture and an 'I'm going to block you' culture. I wanted to do a show that would go 180 degrees in the opposite direction and lean into the idea of empathy in the hardest possible scenario."
The eight-part series, premiering April 28, follows the victim, or surviving family members, of a life-altering crime as they journey to meet face-to-face with their offender in the hopes of finding answers or some sense of healing.
In the premiere episode, a woman forgives the man who stabbed her son to death over a bag of heroin. In another, a father asks his daughter's killer about the events that led to the tragedy - an episode Jones said particularly affected him.
"The case in Oakland of Donald Lacy whose 16-year-old daughter LoEshe was killed in a drive by shooting was particularly powerful, because I was living in Oakland when that shooting took place," Jones shared. 'I knew Donald as a grieving father twenty plus years ago, so to go back to Oakland and be with him as he spoke to the murderer was personally very powerful."
Each episode concludes with forgiveness and reconciliation - or at least some semblance of closure for those affected. One goal of the show, Jones said, was to bring together survivors and those who committed a crime to seek accountability and answers they may not have gotten in the courtroom.
"The criminal justice system is so dehumanizing to victims and defenders and to see a show where everyone has humanity is medicine to the whole country," he said. "When a crime happens, all the experts weigh in. But the people at the heart of that crime often aren't heard from. They often just wind up pleading, they don't apologize, and the person who was hurt may or may not get to say something, and twenty years later, they still have no closure."
Jones, host of the "The Van Jones Show" and a CNN political commentator, told GH his own worldview dramatically shifted throughout the course of making the show.
"I realized what a coward I am and I still haven't forgiven people who have been mean to me in third grade," he admitted. "But now, it's harder for me as a TV pundit to enjoy the good fight in the way I used to. I find myself increasingly wanting to find common ground and areas of connection with people on the other side of the political divide, and that's not always welcome in today's tribal politics."
Jones is also the CEO of REFORM Alliance, an organization aiming to reduce the number of people serving unjust parole and probation sentences. He told GH The Redemption Project is his "sermon," but the REFORM Alliance is his "ministry."
"Where the pain is greatest, where people are locked up and caught up in addiction and stuck in generational poverty, that's where we should be leaning in," he said. "No political party, race, or religion can solve it alone. We need each other to solve problems. My work there is the hardest work imaginable, and I have to reach out to people who aren't like me to get something done. If we had more people who did that, it would lead to a more human political dialogue."
A Yale-educated lawyer who has worked with everyone from President Obama to Prince, Jones said his passion for social justice stems from a sincere desire to use his platform for good.
"My father grew up in poverty and joined the military to get out of it and raised an amazing family and helped a lot of people," he said. "Given the fact that I have a Yale law degree and I've had a chance to work with some incredible people, I couldn't sleep at night knowing I wasn't using it to help those who can't stand up for themselves."
Jones said he hopes The Redemption Project starts a "movement" of kindness and ultimately reconnects viewers with their own humanity and helps them realize the need for reconciliation in their own lives.
"Maybe reconciliation means unblocking some people on social media," he said. "Technology isn't helping. We think we're programming our phones, but in reality, our phones are programming us. Once you 'like' and share a few things, that algorithm knows who you are and what you like and will feed you more of the same. Eventually, you only see things you like and hear things you agree with. That makes empathy hard."
Returning to forgiveness, grace, and empathy, Jones said, begins with listening to those who don't sound, look, or act like you.
"We have to reach out, we have to look at TV stations that we don't like what they're saying, and we have to make friends again across those lines," he said. "Half the country blocked the after half after 2016. It's time to re-friend some people. The thing is, we're gonna disagree and that's human nature, and we've got to get to the place where we're excited about what we do agree on. That's the only way to have a country that works."
"This show is positive but heartbreaking and healing," he added. "If enough people tune in, then maybe the powers that be will realize we need more of this on TV."
The Redemption Project premieres April 28th at 9 pm on CNN. Watch a sneak peek below.