Can you really be sorry for something you’ve done, if you won’t take responsibility for repairing –or at least trying to repair--the damage?
Think about a person who’s done something to hurt you –something pretty significant. If you tell them what you need from them to repair the harm they’ve caused, and they ignore your response, are they really sorry? Or, maybe they acknowledge your words, but make no good faith effort to do anything. Or, what if they forget what you asked them to do?—forget that you even ever asked: Are they really sorry?
What happens if, at least periodically, they wring their hands and tell you that what they really, deeply want is reconciliation; and why-oh-why can’t you just forgive them? And then, as you hold the boundary on what you’ve asked for, this person starts to tell you and anyone else who will listen that the real problem is not what they haven’t done, but that you refuse to forgive. The problem is that you are grudge-holding; that you’re stuck in the past, won’t move on; and, the ultimate Christian kicker – that you refuse to forgive.
You see the trap: everyone knows that failing to extend forgiveness is the top of the hierarchy of sins in interpersonal conflict; the single worst thing you can do; a failure that’s much worse than whatever the initial wrong might have been. Or so it seems to go.
Accountability is hard work, no doubt about it. But the dynamic I’ve just described isn’t accountability, it’s a form of gas lighting. Further, even when accountability is in play, forgiveness is not something that can be demanded or forced from another person. Whether in the giving or receiving, forgiveness is always a miracle. To use a phrase from Keri Day’s book Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives, the best one can do is “make ready the ground.” (1)
I saw a meme on Facebook this week that illustrates what I’m getting at:
Question: What’s the best apology gift?
Answer: Changed behavior. (2)
Of course, I neglected to bookmark it and so had to do a google search to find it again later. In that process, I came across another, even more pertinent, meme:
In 202, we only accept apologies in cash or changed behavior. (3)
In the proposal for reparations issued by black clergy and businesspersons known as the “Black Manifesto” that was publically debuted by civil right leader James Forman at Riverside Church in New York in April 1969, cash literally was the changed behavior asked of white religious institutions. This proposal called for $500 million dollars in reparations from white churches and synagogues, to be routed to a specific group of organizations detailed in the document. (4)
The Black Manifesto’s demands were mostly rejected. In the four months following its release, only a little more than $20,000 materialized. So, basically, no cash and no changed behavior.
Here we are in 2021, trying to figure out what reparations means for us—for this congregation—in this time and place. I honestly can’t conceptualize a number as large as 500 million, and certainly not in dollars. In terms of individual people, $500 million equated to $15 per every member of the African American community in the United States in 1969. An inflation calculator I consulted said that $15 in 1969 is worth just over $110 (5) today. So that would be $110/person, times the 2021 population of African American U.S. citizens.
Reparations is an enormous task. But there are at least two reasons why CMC’s reparations work matters to me personally.
1. The reparations ask in the Black Manifesto was made specifically to churches and synagogues. What I believe we have to infer is that $500 million dollars is not the total amount of the reparations that this country owes to African Americans, but a line item of a much more detailed and comprehensive billing statement. That is to say, white religious institutions have a particular reparations debt to pay to black Americans, over and above the general reparations debt that other institution (like the American government) also owe. $500 million, or $15/person in 1969 dollars, is the amount that white religious institutions specifically owe to Black people for colluding theologically and spiritually with American racism. Here I need to note that I’m not just a member of this church, I work for a predominantly white religious institution that trains religious leaders, and I teach Christian ethics. I’m on the hook for this $500 million in a variety of ways.
2. The second reason CMC’s reparations work matters to me are the specific reasons the Black Manifesto gives for why white religious institutions bear this particular burden of repair. It explains that:
1. White churches are implicated in capitalism, the economic system that so brutally exploited (still exploits) black people.
2. Second, the church is one of the key institutions into which the money that white America generated through the exploitation of black people was (and is) placed. Now I’m no banking or finance wizard, but the way this makes sense to me is that it’s as if the church has functioned like an ‘off shore bank account.’ Fewer regulations and less transparency, combined with other perks like tax exemption, make offshore accounts financially advantageous places to put money one does not want scrutinized. But when the church takes and profits from money that was made as a result of black people’s exploitation, it is essentially providing institutional shelter for dirty money.
3. And the final reason is that Christian theology, ethics, and routinized practices of Christian living have a long history and live present of lending theological legitimation to racism and racist practices. At one time or another, slavery, Jim Crow, and now, the system of mass incarceration and repeated brutal killings of black and brown citizens by police, have all been baptized with religious legitimacy. In lending this legitimacy, Christianity aids and abets racism.
The Black Manifesto calls white religious institutions to accountability for their collusion with American racism. In the words of my meme, it demands an apology and evidence of changed behavior in the currency of cash.
I believe that this church is, or can become, a religious institution that is capable of hearing what has been asked of it as a predominantly white religious institution; of acknowledging the ask; of responding in a wholehearted way – giving it our best shot; and of inviting other to join.
Will it be enough? Almost certainly not. Will we be offered forgiveness? Experience reconciliation?
Who knows? By definition, you can’t demand or guarantee a miracle. Yet, being a part of the reparations committee’s work of developing a proposal for our congregation’s reparations initiative is a way for me to be part of a communal process of repentance and tangible repair. It is part of us becoming together, people who participate in readying the ground for the possibility of the miraculous.
(1) This is a phrase Keri Day uses in her analysis of Walter Benjamin’s religious critique of progress in Religious Resistance to Neoliberalism: Womanist and Black Feminist Perspectives (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) 24-30.
(2) https://me.me/i/hoegenic-whats-a-great-im-sorry-gift-boujeeslut-changed-... (accessed 3/13/2021).
(3) https://en.dopl3r.com/memes/dank/dead-boyfriend-atbrendonisdead-in-2020-... (accessed 3/13/2021).
(4)The Black National Economic Conference, “Black Manifesto” April 10, 1969, available at https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1969/07/10/black-manifesto/ (accessed 3/13/2021).
(5) https://www.dollartimes.com/inflation/inflation.php?amount=15&year=1969 (accessed 3/13/2021).