One of the blessings (and lessons) of Education for Ministry (EfM) is our weekly theological reflection, a way of discussing a topic through the lenses of tradition, culture, personal position, and action. Often one or more group members get insights, thoughts, and ideas that were like little revelations, making them see things differently and, possibly, changing their perceptions of even very familiar situations or words.
One night we were talking, and the subject turned to the treatment of slaves in the southern colonies. One thought that came out was the possibility of restitution or reparation to family members of deceased slaves as a way of trying to make amends. I’ve been thinking about this concept for a while and have been investigating what the actual words we’ve been using mean, as well as how the Bible would tell us to act.
Three words seem somewhat entangled in such a discussion: Retribution, the punishment for a wrong or criminal act; Restitution, restoration of something lost or stolen from an owner or giving payment for injury or loss; and Reparation, making amends or otherwise helping those who have been wronged. Restitution is also a legal process of compensation (usually monetarily) for damages while reparation/s are traditionally payments of time, effort, or money to do the same thing. Each word represents one facet of a process of attempting to right wrongs, whether done yesterday or decades, even centuries ago.
Concerning payment for those whose ancestors were sold into slavery by fellow African tribesmen to European slave traders and then transported to various parts of the world where slave labor was needed, it would seem difficult to me to define precisely who the enslaved ancestor/ancestors were, and how to honestly compensate them for the pain and suffering those ancestors and their descendants faced.
I wonder – is giving monetary restitution enough? Or do we give the appearance of providing for people who have been wronged without really addressing the problem and trying to fix it?
The Hebrew Scriptures offered many ways and means for wrongdoing to be amended and forgiven, each specific to a particular person, group, or nation. Many times God punished the people for going against God’s will, each time featuring a flood, an expulsion from Eden, a separation from the tribe, loss of land and property, and even exile. When the people finally repented and returned to following God’s rules, God lifted the punishment and forgave the transgressions.
Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, but not to be a total doormat either. We are to treat others as our neighbors, whether they are residents or aliens in our land. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners, care for the ill, children, and elderly, and to follow God’s laws. If we encounter evildoing, we are to do our best to counter it and remove it, returning ourselves and the land to righteousness under God. It sounds like a familiar tune for these days, at least to my way of thinking.
In culture, there seem to be strong feelings on both sides of the restitution/reparation/ retribution discussion. For Native Americans, almost every tribe has made a treaty with the US government, which has been broken time and time again by that government. Lands that were seized have not been returned, even though the areas are sacred to the tribes. There are still many tribes that suffer persistent poverty, lack of jobs, lack of healthcare, lack of education, and loss of lives by those who can’t see things getting any better for them. Veterans also suffer a high rate of suicide due to post-war trauma, lack of trust in the government who promised that veterans would receive care after their enlistments were over, and feelings of disconnect and alienation from family and community because of this lack of trust. Cultural groups have been marginalized and refused assistance when needed because they are “not white” and, therefore, not valuable in the greater community. There are so many examples that it is hard to limit it to just a few examples. All I have to do is look around to see them, and the feelings of frustration are heartbreaking.
Is it just monetary restitution or reparation that is needed, or are they only part of the cure? To whom do we need to make amends – like the Japanese interned in camps during WWII, the Jews who were ignored as they suffered and died in their ghettos and camps during that same war, the Native Americans who were slaughtered and infected with diseases to cull them from lands the whites wanted for themselves?
Perhaps we are all guilty of hubris, and words like restitution and reparation are empty words that sound nice but don’t really mean anything to us. The rich are taxed less and less, and the middle- and lower-classes are taxed more and more, often to having one or more in the family working two or three jobs (when they can get them at all), simply to make ends meet. Families, once touted as the foundation of our society, are fragmenting due to poverty, alcohol, drugs, frustration, and illness. What restitution/reparation will resolve their problems? What amends will patch the breaches and bring families, communities, and nations together again?
I saw a billboard a few years ago that said, “Don’t make me come down there” and was signed “God.” Maybe that is what it is going to take to straighten things out. Who knows? The only thing I can think of to do is treat people as I want to be treated, help someone whenever I can do something for them, and encourage others to do the Jesus thing of following the Beatitudes and obeying God. We have many problems to fix and accruing more every day. However we do it, we need to get started. God demands that of us.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. Her domestic fur-kids, Dominic, Gandhi, and Phoebe, keep her company.