Friday, December 13, 2013

A National Forgiveness For Slavery

A very short month ago I had the privilege of attending the Mosaix 2013 conference.
 Wow.  Over 1,000 leaders from all over the country, at different stages on the multi-ethnic church continuum, learning and growing together!  There were many thoughts that have come with me from that conference, but one was from an offline conversation between my Pastor, Chris Beard, and David Anderson who were both speakers at the conference.  Chris asked David “what do you believe it would take to really break the back of racism in our country.”  David thought and finally answered, “a national forgiveness for slavery.”

Right, national forgiveness.  This might seem premature, after all the House and Senate couldn't even come into agreement on their national apologies which were offered in 2008  and 2009, respectively.  However, a simple discussion drove home its importance to me.  In Sunday school recently, I was talking with the 6th graders (adorable) about the power of forgiveness.   One boy mentioned there was one person he could not forgive- for leaving and for hurting his mom.  I took that in, took a deep breath and remembered that the Bible is still true no matter how your heart wants to agree with the pain of a young boy.  I took him to the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21-35) and by the end of it, he could see that unforgiveness will always turn us over to the torturers, just as happened to the unforgiving servant in the end.  The person we fail to forgive doesn't hurt- it’s us that suffer.

Slavery isn't a debt easily forgiven. Its long-term consequences are far from mitigated as understood by  those of us who research them or live them-
Consequences such as lower life expectancy, less favorable criminal justice outcomes, lower income by education level and the like are all differences by race that persist even when controlling for other factors.  I won’t detail the threads here, but these impacts can be clearly traced back through American history.  Still, neither the millions of lives lost, nor the injury done to many more, nor the persistent impacts of slavery rival our debt in the light of a Holy God.  It just can’t.  As the body of Christ we should embrace that truth and lead the way in forgiveness as a tool to build multi-ethnic churches that look like heaven.

1. It relieves a natural tension- The reason why the Senate apology for slavery never passed the full Congress was due to language about reparations. However you may feel about the topic, it is easy to see that the very mention of reparations brings up strong emotions and sharp divides.  Guilt, resentment and anger aren’t far behind.  By offering forgiveness without preconditions, negative emotions are defused.  It becomes less about “what do you want from me?” and more about a shared future.

2. It begins a conversation- Many Americans do not feel that they need to be forgiven for slavery.  They are unaware of its legacy or its benefits to those who built wealth from it (which in some ways is all of us).  Offering forgiveness also offers a non-confrontational way for those who are unconsciously ignorant (not a negative word, just a matter- of- fact one) about racial issues to learn and to grow. 

3. It puts the onus on the other party- Being offered forgiveness softens hearts in a way that promotes a response.  Just as it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance, our kindness to each other will bring us into closer relationship.

Now some will ask, what gives us standing to forgive?  
1.Philosophical literature generally extends the right to forgive to not just the direct but also the indirect victims of a wrong.  All Americans have been hurt by the sin of slavery to the extent that it has served to keep us racially separated, particularly in our churches, and in fact created racism as we know it through the slave trade.Furthermore, forgiveness is always appropriate where deep hurt exists. I have had more than enough conversations to know the pain of slavery remains- this on its own gives standing to forgive.

2.The second question is: who needs to be forgiven anyway?  Well in some ways we would be forgiving our great country for the great contradiction of promoting liberty and freedom while denying it based on skin color.  In some ways, we’d be forgiving Americans of all shades who remain ignorant of the contribution slaves made to building the country.  We’d be forgiving the evangelical churches who sanctioned slavery, were silent during Civil Rights and continue to be mono-ethnic today. And we’d be forgiving those who don’t recognize the momentum of history and its impact on our lives today.
Some attempts have already been made at just such a forgiveness as found at this link: .   It would be wonderful if a document such as this became an initiative of the Church.

The imperative to forgive becomes even more pointed as we mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela this week and celebrate his legacy.  His capacity to forgive and include his oppressors makes my jaw drop.  He taught himself Afrikaans while in prison to communicate with those in power saying “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”  He deepened in empathy and compassion while in prison instead of in hatred.  And although South Africa still has a tremendously long way to go in terms of bringing about complete equality, Mandela’s outreached life of reconciliation stands as a shining example to us all.

Forgiveness is not about others’ need to be forgiven; it is about the hurting needing to heal.  And I believe we need complete healing to move forward as one church: multi-ethnic, multi-racial, worshiping across every division of human origin.  I am more than willing to forgive.  I pray we collectively don’t forget.