When The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary released its Report on Slavery and Racism in its history, its president wrote, “We must repent of our own sins, we cannot repent for the dead. We must, however, offer full lament for a legacy we inherit, and a story that is now ours.”
Yet, when asked about making reparations by donating to a historically black college in Louisville, Albert Mohler quickly rejected the idea. Instead, Mohler explained the seminary would educate and train black leaders itself.
Of course, the Southern Baptist Convention also lamented its racist past in its 1995 apology. While it called for the eradication of racism, it pledged nothing that actually repaired the harm done or changed the social conditions that perpetuate racism.
“Apologies without restitution are meaningless to those who have been harmed.”
I imagine this culture of apology without restitution is rooted in a kind of Southern Baptist theology that argues that all that is needed for sin to be pardoned is to ask for forgiveness. Actual reparations are unnecessary. (Elsewhere I’ve noted that this theology also partially explains a culture of sexual abuse among evangelicals).
These kinds of apologies are what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: “Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.”
One day, Simon Wiesenthal was part of a group of men led by their Nazi guards from the concentration camp to a makeshift hospital. While Wiesenthal was working, carrying rubbish from the building, a nurse stopped him, asked if he was a Jew and then led him inside to the room of a dying Nazi soldier. Wiesenthal sat, and the man grasped his hand and proceeded to confess his atrocities. He then asked Wiesenthal for forgiveness. Wiesenthal only sat in silence and eventually left the room.
For years he wondered if he had done the right thing.
In The Sunflower, theologians, political leaders and writers respond to Wiesenthal’s question, “What would you have done?”
Novelist Mary Gordon turns the question around. The Nazi guard, she argues, is wrong to ask Wiesenthal for forgiveness. Instead, she says, public guilt requires public confession, and, for the confession to have meaning, it must be accompanied by atonement to match the sin.
The Nazi guard, she explains, should have asked to be placed in the camps to die in the miserable circumstances of the Jews whose forgiveness he sought.
“Transformative justice calls for restructuring unequal relationships of power.”
Apologies without restitution are meaningless to those who have been harmed. Apologies do not change the ongoing and systemic inequalities that are the legacy of slavery.
In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates made a case for reparations for slavery. He noted the long history of the extraction of wealth and resources from black individuals and communities. What is needed now, he said, is repair.
Contemporary black communities still live with and suffer from the consequences of slavery, segregation and mass incarceration. Reparations begin to address both the culpability of the perpetrators and the injury of the victims.
Law professor Roy L. Brooks calls this the “atonement model.” He writes that “the goal is for the perpetrator to reclaim its moral character by initiating conditions that help repair its broken relationship with the victims.”
But repair is not enough. Reparations do not necessarily address the social structures that produce and maintain racism.
Transformative justice calls for restructuring unequal relationships of power. Scholars Maria Saffon and Rodrigo Uprimny suggest “transformative reparations.” They conceive of reparations “not only as a form of corrective justice that seeks to deal with the suffering caused by atrocities, but also as an opportunity to effect democratic transformation of societies.”
In other words, we must not only deal with the ongoing effects of atrocities, we must also change society itself. We must address current injustices that stem from historical mistreatment and transform the institutions that created and keep those injustices in place.
While the U.S. House of Representatives has begun to discuss a study on reparations, white Baptists themselves should also begin a deep and concrete accounting of responsibility with an eye toward transformative reparations and transformation of church and society.
Moderate and progressive white Baptist churches, too, should examine their histories and reckon with their involvement in and benefit from slavery, segregation and contemporary racism.
Transformative justice, like grace, is not cheap, but costly.
Lamentations may acknowledge sorrow over atrocities committed, but they do not repair the harm nor transform the world.