In the past few weeks, two major Protestant Seminaries have taken the surprising step of setting aside money for a fund to explicitly be used for reparations. In one case, Princeton Seminary (which has set aside $27 million) acknowledged that it had benefited from the “slave economy.” Virginia Theological Seminary—of the Episcopal Church—has set aside money ($1.7 million) to benefit the actual descendants of the enslaved persons who helped to build the campus. In both cases, these institutions have also acknowledged their complicity with segregation or with other ways in which black folk were not able to fully participate in the life of their community.
“Reparations” has been a surprisingly controversial word. For those who are still unwilling to even acknowledge the existence of white privilege, it has been difficult to even extract an admission that chattel slavery was a serious sin which had seriously damaged the moral fiber of our country. Even worse, they seem to believe that it is something which happened in the past—and which has nothing to do with them personally. So, they are not in any way responsible for either the past, or the present.
That is a challenging and difficult attitude to confront. Sadly, some of these folks are not willing to engage in dialog or to explore evidence which might contradict their world view. Their mind is made up, and as far as they are concerned, the subject is closed.
The Episcopal Church, for the past six years—at the two past General Conventions of the Church, has begun to address the issue. Small, but important steps have been taken in moving towards the beginning of racial healing and reconciliation. Even those have been met with some push-back. Our own experience in the past tells us, that—in the end—we do tend to come out on the side of justice. But, it does not happen overnight. In the case of other issues such as the role of women in the church and the ordination of LGBT persons, it took decades to work through the process to become a truly welcoming and inclusive community. Progress remains to be made! But we have made progress—and are moving in the right direction. There is much to be said for that.
In my own life, after a time of prayer and reflection, I have come to believe in the necessity of reparations. It seems to me that it is the only option which allows for the possibility of true healing and reconciliation. And, I think that the reparations need to be of such a scope that they will actually make a difference-not just a token. This will mean taking action which is painful for us—both monetarily and humanly. It will mean admitting that what we did collectively in the past was not only wrong-it was evil and sinful. It will mean admitting that we have continued to benefit from privilege while others have been excluded. It will mean sacrificing money, time and talent to work to rectify the injustice which has occurred and which occurs to this day! Perhaps it will need to begin with an apology, and act of contrition, and a litany of repentance. This prayer for forgiveness must happen on many levels-personally, ecclesially, and on every level of government-local, state, and national. Only then can the work of healing and reconciliation truly begin.
A helpful model which I have used in my own thinking and prayer is the “three steps” of conversion. They are contrition, repentance, and reparation.
Contrition is an interesting word. It is rarely used these days. And when it is used in ecclesial frameworks, it is often mis-used. Contrition should be contrasted with attrition (an inferior motive based on sorrow because of the “fear of hell”). Contrition is the realization and admission that I have chosen to act in ways which violate my connection to God, to other human beings, and to creation. Contrition is motivated by the love of God, of neighbor and creation. Through my actions—or inaction—I have either caused or allowed harm or injury to come into being. For that I am responsible. The first step means that I openly and honestly admit the nature of my wrong.
Repentance means that I am willing to move beyond a bare admission of sin. I am willing to move towards healing the wounds which I have caused. Repentance means admitting that I am capable of doing better. It also means that I commit myself to beginning that process. I make a decision to “avoid whatever leads me into sin” and to amend my life.
And yet, it is not only about me. I acknowledge that my sins have impacted God, other humans, or creation. Part of the process of healing will involve things like apologizing, asking for forgiveness, and seeking ways to heal the separation caused by my sin.
Repentance means inviting God into the process. Repentance means making an effort to not commit the same mistake, error, or sin again. Else, there is little reason for anyone to trust me or to be willing to give me a second chance. And, if I am not sincere and committed to healing and reconciliation, it would be truly hypocritical—and evil to pretend that I am serious about moving forward.
Conversion, finally becomes a possibility after the first two steps are taken. It may mean listening to words which are hard to hear. Words in which those I have wounded, hurt and “trespassed against” tell me how they have been impacted by my actions or by my inaction. That requires great humility on my part. But the truth is that I was wrong. I recognize that the wrong can never be undone—and that is essential! But it is possible to move beyond it. If those who have been wounded are able to offer forgiveness (and that is not always possible), then healing and reconciliation become possible.
An image which I learned years ago which has been very helpful to me is that of the “sin pole” in the yard. If I plant a pole in the yard and then take a handful of nails and drive them all the way in, they do not remain visible. Over time, though, they may rust and bleed. Then it becomes easier to see the streaks and scars resulting from the nails.
After some time, I might take a hammer and pull out the nails. If I do that, the holes which they caused will become apparent. I have pulled out the nails which I drove in. But the holes which they caused still remain.
To fix the pole, I would have to do a lot of work. I would have to fill in each hole with wood putty. After it had cured, I might be able to sand away the imperfections and paint the pole. From the outside it might look as if though nothing had ever happened. But the pole would never really be the same as before the nails were driven in. It would now be filled with repaired and camouflaged processes which would only superficially cover what is hidden beneath the surface.
Contrition is recognizing and acknowledging that I drove the nails into the pole. Repentance is removing them with the hammer. Conversion, is taking the steps to try to heal the wounds—in so far as that is even possible. Wounds and hurts may be forgiven, but will never—and should never be forgotten. Otherwise it becomes tremendously easy for them to be ignored or repeated!
What must I do to make amends for my actions? What must I do if I want to mend the breach which separates me from God, neighbor, or creation? At this stage, words are not sufficient. Action is required. The nature of the wound determines the response which is required.
Some historians have stated that the two great “besetting sins’ of this country are chattel slavery and the ethnic cleansing of our indigenous population. We either put them in chains in an attempt to exploit them, control them, and profit from their labor. Or else, we tried to kill them. I am very sorry to say that this is NOT taught as truth in our educational system.
Our politicians want to speak highly of our accomplishments and successes. They almost never admit our failures. Nor do they explain the degree to which those successes have been derived through the enslavement and subjugation of others—from the very beginning of our existence as colonies and as an independent nation. They are not willing to admit that we stole the land of native peoples and forced them into captivity on reservations. They are not willing to admit that we violated treaties, brought diseases which decimated Native Americans, and then attempted to eradicate the language and traditions of the first peoples. They are not even willing to admit that these evils, sins, and injustices ever took place!
It seems to me that what is needed is a national holiday of mourning for the sins of slavery, segregation, exploitation, unjust imprisonment, and cruelty to people of color—but most especially to African-Americans (past and present). Perhaps a second one for the abuses against Native Americans? There should be a national monument in the capital to which officials would go and lay wreaths each year. There would be a speech from the President—or others—acknowledging the truth of racial injustice in the history of our country. One expectation each year in the State of the Union address would be the issue of racial reconciliation and healing. What will the administration do in the coming year to make a difference? To promote justice, equality, healing and reconciliation?
The U.S. government should also issue a formal apology for allowing chattel slavery to occur-for centuries (1619-1865). Then we must acknowledge the sin of Jim Crow laws, of racial segregation and discrimination, and of racial profiling, targeting men of color for offenses leading to imprisonment, and acts of violence against people of color by police officers and others. There will also be a need to acknowledge, going forward, the ways in which elected officials—at every level of government—have sinned against the basic human rights of people of color and of immigrants to this country.
Then, we need to have an open and honest discussion about reparations. These days it seems fairly easy to prove using genealogical tools, who the descendants of slavery are. There should be some monetary grant given to every single living descendant of slaves (in the form of a pension?). There must also be additional funding for education, health-care, and housing for those impacted by the horrible legacy of chattel slavery and discrimination. Only then, will the victims believe that we really are serious about healing and reconciliation.
Finally, we need something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Victims should be able to tell their story. What was it like to be a descendant of slaves? What experiences of injustice, racism, oppression, and discrimination have people had? How did those impact them and their families? What is the reality of a racist society like for everyone?
When the insights gained from these hearings are made public, it will then be time for individuals and groups to be held accountable. What acts of reparation must I undertake, for instance, as a descendant of families who held others in chattel slavery? What reparations are required of counties, states, municipalities, and our national government? What about congregations, dioceses, and denominations? What about schools, and other organizations which benefited from slavery, segregation and discrimination?