modern nation-state, race

Reflecting on the Representatives’ Apology, A Link

A friend and conversation partner of mine from Union put up a post on the God’s Politics blog, reflecting on the recent House of Representatives apology for slavery, titled “Will an Apology for Slavery Lead to Real Repentance?” Some of the comments… can be pretty uninformed and/or inane, however, I do recommend reading Ben’s article. It ends with:

I affirm the need to forgive. However, in this situation it is even more vital to remember the meaning of repentance. The Greek word for repent is “metanoia” and it means to change one’s mind or purpose. The U.S. government, regardless of any apology, cannot be properly forgiven because it has not undergone a sincere “metanoia.” For this apology to yield any meaningful sincerity, it must be reinforced by real, concrete action. A great starting point would be to cease building prisons in lieu of quality schools. This would contribute not only to the reconstruction of black families, but all poor families ravaged by our corrupt legal system. Sadly, this act of sincere repentance (and it is only one of many possibilities) will probably not happen, mainly because of a nagging feeling I had when I first heard of the apology. I had this strange feeling that the apology came with the House members sitting down, so as to protect their wallets. Real American repentance for racism is going to cost us, not just sentiment but also money, and a lot of it. That said, now let’s see how sincerely repentant our government is.

Sounds about right.

Oh, and those of you who are going to say something of the sort, “I’m white but not responsible,” please look up the definition of “White Privilege” and “complicity” before you comment.


8 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Representatives’ Apology, A Link

  1. Zach says:

    I was halfway with you til the last paragraph. Inherited complicity is what got Jews labeled Christ-killers for 2000 years.

    Someone once said, “In those days people will no longer say, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ Instead, everyone will die for his own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—his own teeth will be set on edge. ‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant.'”

    Apparently, those days haven’t yet come. And apparently Jesus was being foolish when he forgave his oppressors prior to their repentance – in the midst of their sin. The foolishness of God… somebody once said something about that too.

    I’m all for a correction of societal and structural evils. Racism is still very much alive. But if repentance must be made concrete, then so must forgiveness. And what concrete forgiveness is envisioned and longed for here?

  2. I can’t speak for Ben, but I do have my own thoughts. Albeit, they may seem blunt. I do not mean to be offensive, but I want to first be clear and not pull any punches on what should be addressed.

    Inherited complicity should’ve likewise had gone to the Romans/Italians as well at the least. But that certainly didn’t. Citing inherited complicity of the Jews was an excuse to take their banking money (because they’d already been widely denied the ability to farm). Complicity, in this sense of white complicity, is the act of reaping benefits today from the severe oppression generations ago, because the oppression is still structurally and personally alive today.

    As for forgiveness, its pretty hard to forgive someone while being killed by them, or in this case, made to work three jobs to make enough money to eat or used as lab rats at Tuskegee. While noting Jesus’ forgiveness on the cross isn’t a bad thing (in fact its good), nor is it rejected, however, it is questioned when asked for from the white mouth. It is questioned in the same way that James Cone questions whites telling blacks to not use violence, particularly when those whites are not pacifists. Why would we tell blacks not to use violence when it was obviously used on them? Its rather suspicious I think. (Even though I’m a pacifist, the reason I hesitate is because I think the church should be liberative, and I seek to make it so, but what effect does that have on, say, racial profiling on the highways or attempts for loans that are outside of the church’s control? I have no good answer and I don’t know what to do.)

    I also think we need to seek forgiveness, rather than expect to be forgiven. To seek forgiveness is to seek to correct the relationships (sounds a lot like justice: ). To seek forgiveness is fundamentally concrete, and cannot simply be words, which is Ben’s point. To seek forgiveness would be going to black churches (because they were thrown out of the white churches) and ask for forgiveness to start with. To seek forgiveness would not be participating in white flight — geographically leaving someone behind so as to not deal with or even know them is a significant, negative statement.

    I don’t think, as a white man, that we are in any position to expect forgiveness as of yet. Whatever forgiveness there is, is God’s grace, because we haven’t yet done enough to earn it.

    Now we’re to the heart of the problem, asking for grace — to be credited something we have not fully worked for — while not intending to live up to it as a person, church, or society? Thats beyond hypocritical. Thats a lie that comes from the core of someone’s being. Its the fruit. So if we expect the black community to be Jesus, shouldn’t we be expected to be Jesus as well? I don’t think Jesus put stipulations on people like that — he actually said to give up money, which, ironically, would take us somewhat from an advantaged position.

    As for concrete forgiveness envisioned and longed for? I won’t speak on that right now, maybe Ben will.

  3. Zach says:

    I appreciate the candor. And I echo the disclaimer: it’s a razors edge between offensive and dishonest.

    Anti-Semitic “Christ-killer” language was coupled with claims that Jews continued to prey upon Christ’s followers. The hard facts are certainly not analogous. The average white American is not in the same situation as the average 14th century European Jew. But what is the same is the rejection of Christ’s ethic on the part of those who refuse forgiveness to their oppressors (and to others who are somehow connected to them).

    I agree entirely with your third paragraph. I would however add that while forgiveness should not be demanded of those at Tuskegee, the lack of forgiveness is a break with the ethic of Christ. Christ does not force his ethic on the unwilling. And I know (from admittedly much more mild) experience that forgiveness can seem all but impossible sometimes. But it is precisely in the midst of oppression that Christ demonstrates his power, and he calls his disciples to follow him.

    I agree that reconciliation involves something much like solidarity: standing with one another and bear each other up in times of trouble. When one member mourns the whole body mourns. But unity works both ways. It requires both repentance and forgiveness. Christian forgiveness should neither be demanded by the unrepentant nor withheld from them.

    I think we more-or-less agree, just with different emphasis. I have a lot of anger for those who blithely ignore injustice. And my anger is doubled when those same people take the name of our Lord, in vain. I understand the refusal to abandon the path of Christ when it comes to forgiveness (though I do not pretend to personally understand the degree and quality of the offense endured by, say, those subjected to the Tuskegee experiment). But this decision to forgive or not is THE decisive moment of Christian discipleship.

    I don’t demand forgiveness at that point. I don’t in a certain sense even expect it. Forgiveness is definitionally only given freely. It is not deserved nor is it required. For the victim of racism to live and move in Christ and forgive his or her unrepentant persecutor is nothing short of miraculous.

  4. Well, if you need any clarification, I know Ben is a Niebuhrian. He seems to think ‘ol Rienie is right on the Jesus ethic. He also cites theologians like Delores Williams as well.

    And while I am certainly not a Niebuhrian, I think Yoder was right, I do think that forgiveness is something that isn’t transactional and may take a long time. Considering slavery and segregation combined were over 400 years, that could take a long time to process as a community. Processing something does not seem explicitly talked about at Jesus’ or Stephen’s death. They were already at a certain point, at a place communities often are not, perhaps even the Jerusalem community where Stephen came from. Remember the suspicion about Paul by the community in Damascus? One notable exception would be the Amish in response to the school shooting by the truck driver, however, the Amish lack the suspicion built up over the 400+ years of lying, stealing, rape, murder, etc. As tragic as it was, it was an instance of senseless violence, not centuries (and its been some time since the Anabaptists literally bled for their faith as the result of a systematic attack). Cleansing and trust building takes time between people, much less communities. Especially when the church is still segregated.

  5. Zach says:

    Maybe on a societal level ideas like forgiveness and repentance need to be redefined. I know that I have something very particular in mind when using these terms, and it has to do with the individual. I think it is important to build our group ethics upon the foundation of personal discipleship. But the meanings of sin, culpability, complicity, repentance, and forgiveness will be noticably different when they are removed from the context of the freely willing person and placed within that of a group which is composed of members, some of whom are a step removed from the personal correlative of these ideas. For instance the grandchildren of slaves and owners can legitimately apply ideas of group culpability, repentance, and forgiveness. While at the same time, strictly and literally speaking, personal culpability, repentance, and forgiveness do not apply to the children of the fathers who ate sour grapes.

    Confusion over the group/personal distinction quite often impedes needed reforms. I attended a teacher training meeting today about cultural understanding where this line was blurred, and I got the impression that quite a few people simply got bored and stopped listening when it seemed they were being held responsible for things that happened entirely without their consent. Energy was wasted that could have been set to positive use. In this case it was the “culturally sensitive” critic of white privilege who contributed to it’s continuation.

  6. Ah, now here is a dramatic difference.

    “I think it is important to build our group ethics upon the foundation of personal discipleship.”

    I think its important to do it the other way around. All senses of personal discipleship, when understood through the church, are inherently communal first. They’re relational. Its impossible to be a Christian without the church or tradition, no matter how often it is denied.

    Also, I’m not sure what kind of personal discipleship you speak of if its not located in Christianity. Good morality? Personal responsibility? Protestant work ethic? Family values? All are a disconnected, secular ethic that thrives on “American freedom” and individualism. Although I do suspect you claim to locate first in Christianity because you use the word sin and are actually reading this blog.

    Actually, to blur the lines is helpful. The distinction between personal and group is often not blurred enough, particularly because its a modern anthropology — not necessarily a Christian notion. However, after blurring the lines, one could easily go wrong.

    I am complicit in white privilege no matter whether I do something or not. By the color of my skin, no matter how much I reject it, I am still at times unjustifiably privileged. This is not noted enough when talking of white privilege, because this is not something easily affected or controllable. In fact, this is part of the very essence of community — the community chooses you. There is, in a very real way, no control. How unAmerican and unHuman. However, we must identify this to understand who we actually are. We are more complicit when doing nothing, and less, but still complicit when we fight the injustice, because we live in an unjust society. Simply, complicity is a fact of life.

    Case in point that may or may not be less racial: The Iraq war happened entirely without my consent (actually it was against my will and I believe the faith), and yet I am still complicit because I reap the benefits of the war, within America’s economic and military superiority.

    But do deal with this complicity, should I be allowed to tune out? No, instead the exact opposite is true, to push the church in the direction it ought to be, like an ecclesial movement against torture.

  7. Zach says:

    By distinguishing personal and group ethics, sin, culpability, sin, repentance, and forgiveness I mean only to distinguish the overall frames of reference: one which acknowledges the person and one which does not. I do not mean to speak of a typically American or Protestant-work-ethic sort of framework that fails to acknowledge the social and relational aspect of all personal acts. I understand that most people who deign to use the word ‘individual’ do have this sort of ridiculous idea in mind, but I do not.

    Look for instance at how you speak of complicity. “I am complicit in white privilege no matter whether I do something or not. By the color of my skin, no matter how much I reject it, I am still at times unjustifiably privileged.” You speak in the passive voice; complicity and privilege are done to you. You claim to be responsible for the consequences of others’ actions. This is the confusion of personal and group that I spoke of. The ‘you’ who is complicit is not the ‘you’ who makes moral decisions and is responsible for his actions. The ‘you’ who is complicit is a passive receptacle of imputed guilt.

    Now the group DOES exist. And this whole that is more than the sum of it’s parts is (I suspect) more responsible for sin than the sum of the responsibilities of it’s parts. I’d identify this extra-personal, more-than-an-aggregation-of-individual-sins, as demonic (a claim I’m not eager to debate here). I only mention this to affirm that I am aware of this dimension of life. However, to work exclusively in this framework is to exclude personhood. And to place the person within this framework i.e. to impute personal guilt by means of extra-personal contamination is to blur lines that ought be made clear.

    The sin of Israel (unfaithfulness and injustice) took on extra-personal dimension so that the enitre group itself was characterized as violent and the group sat under the condemnation of God. But this does not then impute personal sin to every newborn or faithful follower in the land. I’ll grant that this understanding is ‘modern’ in comparison to the fault-by-contamination view of sin. But from our point of view Ezekiel and Jeremiah are quite ancient.

    The must be some misunderstanding about what I mean by discipleship. I do not locate it outside of Christianity. When the victim of oppression chooses to refrain from forgiveness, that person has ceased to participate in discipleship. When the lord commands something, his followers are defined as those who keep his command. Certainly, the victim of oppression is owed reparations. The disciple forgives this real debt.

  8. In a very real sense, complicity is decided on by the community at large. That’s what makes it complicity. Complicity is not always something that someone wishes or accepts, but it still happens. As a white man, as far as I understand it, it is still easier to get a loan than a black man. This isn’t my choice, but it is part of the society that I live in and I profit from it, or cannot stop it. I’m complicit. Nevertheless, I am still the same person who at the same time attempts to reject and subvert the conscription, otherwise I dichotomize my life into compartments and in the end, I am a citizen first to society at large, rather than to the church. Foucault importantly notes centralization (of power by the state/society) and individualist decentralization happening work together, begun centuries ago, and while our society has progressed to some degree, it still formulates identity through its individualism and American unity.

    In fact what I drive towards, with the help of Stanley Hauerwas (if you’re unfamiliar with him, I suggest a read through of his book A Community of Character: Toward A Constructive Christian Social Ethic) is that, as we live in the church first, decentralization and centralization are not our paradigms for existence. Personhood is important, but cannot be understood outside of the community centered around the memory of Jesus. Personhood isn’t individualistic, personhood is fundamentally relational. If we play into the assumptions of Enlightenment anthropology, we end up with what you’re frustrated with and what you put forward — one person forgiving a whole group of people (which is socially constructed by racial categories brought by supersessionsism and scientific classification, but is criticized and rejected within the Kingdom of God).

    For example, when you say, “When the victim of oppression chooses to refrain from forgiveness, that person has ceased to participate in discipleship” such a statement cannot be read outside of the broader context of a segregated church in America. Who is there to forgive when they are not around? And how is there reconciliation for the dead (hint, Metz deals with this when dealing with the Jews and Germans)? Forgiveness is for both parties. We cannot place the individual outside of their community: the prophets, while warning Israel/Judah and attempting to subvert the way the country was going, still were part of Israel/Judah. When the temple fell, everything thing around the temple fell for everyone. Simply put, forgiveness of one’s brother or sister is a matter of the church. In fact, it is a, if not the, function of the church.

    Also, important to note, for us, the scripture about dust and logs in people’s eyes is particularly relevant. However, this must be understood within the church, who works to reconcile the bruising we have done to each other. I am hesitant to say that the offender should call for forgiveness, but that the church should mediate the problem, as it already is inherent to the existence of its people. It isn’t so “black and white” when discipleship is located in its proper place, as a function of the community.

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