“The one who started the fire shall make full restitution.” Exodus 22:6b
U.S. House of Representatives member, John Conyers, (Democrat from Michigan) and I (United Church of Christ pastor and author) were the invited speakers at a two day conference titled, “Visions of the 21st Century: A Conversation about Reparations for Blacks in America” at Bethune-Cookman College in Florida, back in 1998. The purpose of the event, as reported in the Orlando Sentinel, was to consider, “whether America should make amends in some way for the historical enslaving of blacks and all its social and economic repercussions. It’s a bold move for the private, predominantly black college. No other topic stirs America’s emotions like race relations.”
While reparations may (or may not) be new to you ~ it was certainly not new to America, or to Rep. Conyers who had introduced a bill in every Congress for nearly thirty years (!) to study the institution of slavery and to recommend appropriate reparations, only to have the bill defeated every time. This was a bill to study and recommend ~ but not even that got through the House of Representatives after thirty consecutive, annual, legislative attempts.
Rep. Conyers is now deceased; but the movement to consider reparations is not. Once again, the topic of considering reparations for the legal enslavement of human beings is on the lips and in the hearts of many Americans. Once again, reparations has come up, briefly and predominantly among black candidates during the Democratic primary in 2019 ~ only to fade from the presidential platform as it had from the House of Representatives consideration.
Some of you may remember that Congress offered a formal apology and offered reparations to each surviving victim of the American internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The same was not, however, offered to African Americans, or even allowed to be formally considered by our national legislature. Much has been written and said since then, from various perspectives, about the internment of Japanese Americans, as well as about the enslavement of Americans of African descent.
What follows is a consideration for reparations from a Biblical perspective ~ whether you are a religious person or not ~ because slavery is deeply embedded and, in fact, canonized in Judeo-Christian tradition, heritage, and even sacred Scripture.
A key question to consider here is: If God condones slavery in words, traditions, heritage and is canonized in Scripture ~ then why shouldn’t we also condone, or at least ignore, the impact and ramifications of slavery in America that still exist?
Few people would, consciously, pose such a question to themselves or their children. But adults and children are not always motivated by conscious processes. We are all, to varying degrees, the inheritors of unconscious bias handed down to us by familial, political, cultural and religious traditions that are supposed to make us free and responsible persons ~ until we become aware of the religious and scriptural condoning, normalizing, and perpetuation of slavery.
What we refuse to deal with has a habit of dealing with us. No matter what you think or how you feel about it; whether you accept it or deny it; racial issues certainly do not dwell solely in the past. Have you not noticed? Attempts to close our eyes, cover our ears, and hope it goes away will inevitably fail us, and cause us great harm.
Like it or not, what is rooted in sacred scripture and tradition influences our beliefs and actions. In this pandemic and epidemic year of 2020, denial is no longer a viable alternative. Let us look now at slavery and some related issues that are alive and at work in America today:
“SINS” OF COMISSION & “SINS” OF OMISSION
“When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh year he shall go out a free person, without debt.”
This matter-of-fact passage shows us that slavery is canonized in Holy Scriptures. Many of us today seem to matter-of-factly accept that slavery happened, with many more contending that it was long ago and we should simply get over it.
However you may choose to define the word “sin” ~ there are sins of commission and of omissions. Sins of commission are sins that you commit. Sins of omission are those that you omit. Together they form the sins of what you do and those of what you fail to do; of what you say and of what you leave unsaid.
Let us get this straight right out of the gate: the church of the past need not have held slaves to have been complicitous in or tolerant of slavery. Countless pastors and priests offered communion (eucharist) to slave owners while proclaiming and praying together that we are “one in Christ.” Slave owners were also property owners, employers, officials, “upstanding” citizens, and large contributors to church coffers. Mess with the church slave owners and you mess with the church bank account. The same could have been said in the late 20th Century when church portfolios held investments ingold and diamond mines in apartheid South Africa. Fortunately, and with much work, a movement of divestment of such holding helped to bring an end to apartheid.
Silence can be a powerful weapon. The church’s past participation in slavery, and its tolerance, to this day, of what is called “the most segregated hour in America” (11:00am on Sunday morning while people are in their respective black, white, brown, red or yellow churches ~ speaks volumes of its tolerance of racism in society. In their respective, color-coded churches ~ communion is celebrated proclaiming still that we are one in Christ Jesus.
JUSTICE & INJUSTICE
“But let justice roll down like
and righteousness like an
“Justice” is the establishment of what is right through legal and fair procedures (confer: Deuteronomy 25:1) in accordance with what we believe to be the will of God. Althought it may have been legal ~ what is so just and fair about the fact that, during the westward expansion of the country, a person could move to the frontier; clear and settle the land; and then the land belonged to them ~ EXCEPT ~ that the land was taken from native, indigenous persons and that homesteading and land ownership was excluded to both slave and free Negroes? The ones who cleared and farmed the land and build the cities ~ even the White House that was build, in part, by slaves ~ could not own property.
Where is the justice in that? How can we, as a country, still refuse or resist even having a civil conversation about this ~ let alone consider reparations for those deprived of even a tiny taste of the fruit of their own labors?
ALIENATION & RECONCILIATION
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you; leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Matthew 5: 23-24
Without deciding whether this generation is responsible for the actions of previous generations and the enslavement of black persons in America; without first trying to argue that notion that black descendants of slaves should just get over it ~ we can surely acknowledge, admit, and accept the tremendous suffering that persons of African descent have endured in the past and present in this country.
What matters is simply that the grievance exists, and that it not be allowed to fester, no matter who wronged who. This scripture citation does not seek to determine who is right and who is wrong. It seeks reconciliation. It expects us to work it out among ourselves. To be the church of Jesus the Christ, we are called to leave our gifts at the altar and be reconciled. Then the gifts can be gratefully received. The large gifts of the slaveowners who marvel at their own generosity to the church while perpetuating a system of oppression is an empty gift, tainted by inequity and injustice. The goal and the gift is reconciliation.
REPENTENCE & FORGIVENESS
“They have treated the wounds of
My people carelessly
saying, ‘peace, peace,’
when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they
Yet they were not ashamed,
They did not know how to blush.”
Jeremiah 6: 14-15
Someone stole Mary’s car out of his driveway one night. The police caught the thief, arrested him, jailed him, and the judge sentenced him. As a condition of a reduced sentence, the judge ordered the thief to go to Mary’s house and admit to the crime, apologize, and ask for forgiveness. The thief did just that. He rang the doorbell, made a tearful and sincere confession, and begged for forgiveness. Mary looked at him and said, “I can tell you are sincerely sorry. But where is my car?”
Repentance AND some sort of restitution could confirm the sincerity and truthfulness of any petition for forgiveness. Restitution is an essential part of penitence. Reparation may be an essential part of healing. It may prove to be a bonafide way forward for our country.
Many, if not all institutions in our society are on solid ground if they endeavor to atone for past injustices through a sincere commitment to the cause of the restoration of human and civil rights for excluded, disempowered, disadvantaged, and discriminated against descendants of slavery in America.
INSULT & APOLOGY
“A rich person does wrong and even adds insults,
A poor person suffers wrong and must add apology.”
A notable bearer of sincere apology was once offered by a religious leader and the institution he represents when Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the slave castle on the island of Goree, Senegal in 1992. The Pope prayed for God’s forgiveness, and he prayed that the scourge of slavery be forever banished from the earth.
A prayer asking for forgiveness for the church is appropriate since the Cristian church remained in covenant with slave owners and segregationists and the church made little or no effort to stop the gross injustices, indignities and inhumanity bestowed upon slaves. When wrongs, insults, and lies are replaced by sincere apologies, restitutions and reparations ~ then America will finally find itself on the road to healing, after decade upon decade of denial and dead end journeys.
INDIFFERENCE & EMPATHY
“Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother. We saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.”
Joseph’s brothers envied and resented him because he was their father’s favorite. They led him out into the desert where they intended to kill him. They tossed him into a pit and then, indifferent to his pleas, they actually had lunch at the top of the pit as their brother screamed from within it.
A group of Egyptians came by and offered the brothers some money for their brother, which they gladly took. Joseph thus was sold into slavery by his own brothers.
Joseph led a miserable life in Egypt for a while until, through strange and interesting circumstances ~ Joseph was recognized as a useful person with rare talents, and eventually rose through the ranks of countless people to become the number two person in all of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh.
Years later, during a time of famine, the brothers ventured to Egypt to purchase grain to take back home to fend off starvation. Through a twist of fate, Joseph located his brothers and had them thrown in jail. He wanted them to know what it felt like to be an imprisoned slave, rotting in a cell. Finally, Joseph had his opportunity for revenge against the cruel injustice of having been sold into slavery.
Joseph slipped silently into the prison and drew near his brother’s cell. He overheard their confession that they were paying the penalty for what they had done to him so many years ago. They knew they had witnessed his anguish when he pleaded with them, but they would not listen.
Upon hearing their confession, Joseph wept and forgave them. More than revenge, apparently, Joseph was seeking empathy for the degradation of slavery inflicted upon him by the actions of his brothers. The brothers had refused to listen to Joseph’s pain, or to see suffering from his perspective.
It would not be fair, and I would be remiss, if I were to say that nothing has been done in the past on behalf of the descendants of slaves. The Congregational ancestors of the United Church of Christ, in which I am ordained, paid heavy fines and went to jail for their participation in the Underground Railroad. They funded a Chair at the Evangelical Seminary in Puerto Rico. They formed the Amistad Committee to provide for the legal defense of the Amistad slave ship revolt. They helped create the American Missionary Association, the first anti-slavery mission on American soil. They helped found seven historically black colleges and over five hundred schools.
However, despite the good work of many persons with a variety of skin colors ~ our country’s unwillingness or inability to come to terms with slavery has hurt ~ not only black-skinned persons who are the descendants of salves ~ but all Americans.
The refusal to admit, accept, apologize, and atone has resulted in our inability to feel or express shame, empathy, lament, or grief that could aid us in finally setting the past behind us. A straight line could be drawn between the inability to come to terms with slavery and with what is happening, once again, in America today. We, as a country, have not allowed ourselves to grieve the painful parts of our past; and so we are not capable of letting go of them; and that dooms us to repeat them in the future. The saddest and most infuriating part of this is that it is all optional.
With faith in the God of our understanding and with a Holy Spirit as our guide; with empathy and justice as our weapons; we need not be afraid to scratch the surface of issues of race for fear of what we might find. It is a troubling reality that the things we are indignant toward or afraid to face will not disappear. They will continue to find a way to haunt us.
We are currently too much of what we are becoming to return to what we have been. The time is now for us to address these issues ~ not in pits-and-pieces-here-and-there; but as a comprehensive, national endeavor.
There is much good news in this painful story… if we take heed and act now. If we endeavor to undertake some or all of what has been herein penned; and if other minds, hearts and souls expand upon it ~ I do believe, with God as my witness ~ that we will be far better able to place our hands over our hearts and say aloud and together, “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for ALL!” Amen.
Dwight Lee Wolter is pastor of the Congregational Church of Patchogue on Long Island, New York. He is author on several books; three of which are on blame, anger & forgiveness. He blogs at dwightleewolter.com