Under the Gargoyle: May-June 2001

Reparations, or Repentance?


How ought people come to terms with difficult, traumatic, even horrifying, histories? The issues are as pressing as they are vexing. Can individuals find a way to atone for the past? What role does repentance play? Can collective groups, such as nations, repent, atone, or forgive? What would such repentance and forgiveness look like? Is it possible to heal memories, or are they bound to be the fertile sources for mobilizing vengeance in the future?
Such issues haunt the moral, political, and religious landscapes of some of the most complicated sites of contemporary life, including the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, South Africa. Yet they also continue to haunt us in the United States of America. The United States has not yet come to terms with the difficult, traumatic, and horrifying aspects of its histories—especially in relation to slavery and racism.
Americans are haunted by this issue in diverse ways, yet it often remains as toxic waste lurking under the surface of other discussions. Rarely is the issue brought to explicit focus for discussion and debate—and, perhaps most importantly, constructive action in the future.
Duke’s campus has spent the latter half of the second semester explicitly trying to grapple with the question, thanks to the inadvertent prompting of The Chronicle’s decision to publish, without editorial comment, David Horowitz’s advertisement opposing reparations to African Americans for slavery. Horowitz had intentionally set a Catch-22 for the more than fifty universities where he tried to place the ad: If they rejected the ad, it was confirmation that “political correctness” reigns; if they accepted the ad, then his views were aired without needing to pass the normal process of evaluating an op-ed’s quality.
Many members of the Duke community were justifiably outraged by both the content of the ad and The Chronicle’s actions in publishing it without any comment. Some of the debate has focused on journalistic ethics, issues of free speech, and the criteria that should or should not be used in accepting advertisements. Many have also questioned whether The Chronicle adequately seeks to represent all of the Duke community in its work.
But the debate has turned more determinatively to the content of Horowitz’s ad, and the issue for which “reparations” has become the shorthand: Has the United States come to terms with the effects of slavery and racism on us all? This way of phrasing the question already puts me at odds with Horowitz, for I assume that the issue is not about what “we” (i.e., white Americans) owe to “them” (i.e., black Americans). It also puts me at odds with extremists on the other side, who perpetuate a “we-they” dichotomy through a superficial demonizing of “white” America. Rather, I am convinced that the crucial issue is how all of us who live in the United States should come to terms with the legacies of slavery and continuing racism.
This is the crucial issue because it has been so persistently evaded by the dominant strands of American culture, a culture that systematically enslaved persons for three centuries and then followed that with state-enforced discrimination and oppression for yet another century. Americans have not yet grappled with the consequences of such state-sponsored oppression, not only on the direct black victims and their descendants, but on the broader moral, political, economic, and religious landscape. When a colleague from South Africa is asked to contrast race relations in South Africa and the United States, he says simply, “In South Africa, we have them. In the United States, you don’t. In South Africa, race relations are complicated, difficult, and involve struggle. But at least we recognize what needs to be dealt with.”
In the United States, proposals for reparations, and those that oppose them, often turn to financial considerations and their feasibility—including who should get what from whom. Those are important issues, but they too quickly restrict the scope of analysis. I suggest that, drawing on the wisdom that can be found by including a theological analysis, we broaden the framework by initially changing the word from reparations to repentance. Both words focus on how to repair the damage, the brokenness, that has occurred in the past. How might people who have directly or indirectly benefited from slavery, and who continue to depend on the effects of racism, express repentance for the horrors of the past as well as the present?
After all, both Jewish and Christian traditions have long emphasized that any apology or regret over wrongdoing in the past—what those traditions call sin—must be accompanied by concrete deeds of repentance. These deeds are not a prerequisite to forgiveness, but they are requisite to showing that one understands the implications of forgiveness for the future. Any attempt to offer an apology and receive forgiveness that does not take into account the necessity of repentance is cheap and offensive. Repentance is crucial for discovering costly forgiveness that makes remembrance a moral virtue rather than a source for vengeance.
Of course, it is crucial that the repentance not be predicated on a presumption of infinite guilt. Too often people are made to feel as if no repentance will be enough, that forgiveness will be deferred indefinitely. Even with this risk, however, we need to put at the center of our discussions how repentance might be expressed for a system of slavery that oppressed millions and that continues to find personal and institutional embodiments of racism.
How might repentance be expressed? How might reparations be conceived to begin to heal the wounds of the past? I suggest four layers of perspective that might indicate that repentance and reparations are a serious issue for all of us in America.
First, there needs to be a serious and truthful accounting for the past and the realities of the present. One of the most offensive features of Horowitz’s advertisement is its use of half-truths, distortions, and deceptions designed to advance a pernicious ideological agenda. I do not presume that such a “truthful accounting” will be easy, or that there will ever be an agreed narrative of what happened to whom and when. But a willingness to search for the truthfulness of the past is critical to a more hopeful and just future.
Second, and closely related, there needs to be publicly articulated means of remembering truthfully in hope. Why, for example, are there so many memorials throughout the United States remembering the sacrifices made in wars, the traumas of the Holocaust, but very few that bear witness to the horrors of slavery? What might a memorial in Washington, D.C., look like that remembered the past of slavery and the realities of racism—not as a source for mobilizing vengeance, but as a way to offer hope for the future?
Third, we need a renewed commitment to eradicating racism in both its personal and institutional forms. Jewish and Christian traditions have long recognized that sin cannot be unlearned overnight, that repentance is a gift given by God to cultivate holiness over time. So there need to be concrete actions that seek to make “race relations” in the United States a reality rather than that lurking toxic waste below the surface.
Fourth, some form of financial compensation needs to be addressed as one means to show concrete repentance. Might such a clear, official statement by the United States government offer a clear recognition of the unique burdens of slavery and racism, and a way to move forward?
Each of these layers of perspective has been part of the work of South Africa’s efforts to come to terms with its past, especially through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. South Africa’s efforts have not been perfect by any means, but in their explicit willingness to engage moral and religious dimensions in their public debates, they offer a sign of hope—and a word of judgment on this country, which has done so much less in a century and a half than South Africa has in less than a decade.
During the spring semester, Duke’s observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday focused on a semester-long examination of “remembrance, reconciliation, and restitution” in South Africa in order to try to shed light on issues of race in the United States. I hope that the debates and protests prompted by The Chronicle’s publication of the Horowitz ad will heighten the enthusiasm for our examination of the South African experiment to begin more faithfully and truthfully to come to terms with the difficult and traumatic, even horrifying, histories of slavery and racism in the United States. Perhaps they will help us take specific steps toward a more faithful, truthful, and life-giving future.


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