Now Is the Time to Address, Repent, and Repair
On Juneteenth, we honor and observe those in Galveston, Texas who were the last to receive the news that all enslaved people were now free. As important as it is for Juneteenth to be a national holiday, this national commemoration must be paired with support for policies that name and address the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that continue to this day. To ignore our country’s sin of legalized chattel slavery, to pretend that it did not exist, or that it is no longer relevant to modern life, is to be in complete denial.
Joan Neal, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice Deputy Executive Director and Chief Equity Officer, contributed open remarks for NETWORK’s recent H.R.40 Webinar. Watch below.
Slavery happened. Black human beings were put in chains, in bondage, and in indentured servitude, for more than 200 years. It is a part of America’s history and we must start by telling the truth about it. Especially, people of faith, for whom honesty and truth-telling are values. Scripture and our religious tradition tell us you cannot be truly free of sin unless you admit that you have sinned, make a firm determination to sin no more, and, make restitution for what was lost. The sin is not forgiven until all parties are whole again. As a country, as a people, we cannot move beyond this evil until and unless the country tells the truth about our history and takes responsibility for the wrong it has done to a group of its own citizens.
The question of reparations for slavery has been on the table in this country for two centuries. Even though the 13th Amendment ended legal slavery in the United States in 1865, the residual bondage of African-Americans has continued even to this day. The ideology of white supremacy not only persisted, it found ways to morph chattel slavery into second-class citizenship through laws, structures, systems and cultural traditions at every level of our society. Enough is enough!
More than four hundred years of racist policies, laws and practices have deprived African-Americans of equal access to participation in the cultural, political, social and economic life of this country. And the Catholic Church not only condoned this evil, but participated in it. The global Catholic Church supported the Atlantic Slave Trade starting with the Doctrine of Discovery, which appears in the 1455 Papal Bull of Pope Nicholas V, authorizing the enslavement of African people in the pursuit of new territory for Portugal and Spain. In the United States, many religious orders including the Jesuits, as well as individual Bishops, dioceses and churches, embraced enslavement, Jim Crow laws, and other forms of discrimination and racism.
The Catholic Church gave slave ownership moral absolution and enthusiastic acceptance. Moreover, centuries of racist violence, like what we saw in Charleston, South Carolina and Buffalo, New York, and oppression, like the many states where voter suppression laws are being passed to depress the Black vote, continue to be incompatible with and contradictory to the Christian call to love one another as we love ourselves and to live in right relationship.
It is time to confess, to repent, and to repair. The harmful legacy of white supremacy and the enduring racial wealth gap must no longer deny Black people good health, educational and economic outcomes.
How do faith teachings call us to respond? What is our moral responsibility in the face of this history as well as the ongoing impact of the legacy of slavery?
As Catholics and as followers of Christ, our faith calls us to be in solidarity with all who have been or are marginalized and to act for what is right and just. That means in this case, if you are white, to fearlessly tell the truth about white supremacy, racial injustice and lack of equity in our society in order to diminish the impact of historical and contemporary racism in today’s political, social and economic systems, frameworks and institutions. It means that you courageously face up to the original sin of this country, renounce it once and for all, and do all in your power to repair the damage that has been done to your neighbor. It means that you take responsibility for the sins of the past, repair the wrongs done in this day and time, and ensure that the sins of your ancestors are not visited upon your children, your neighbor’s children or their children’s children or anyone in the future.
The prophet Micah told us what God expects of us– ‘to do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with God.’ Now is the time for the United States to ‘do justice’ for African-Americans. Individual reparations programs, like that of the Jesuits, are commendable but they are not enough. We need a national reparation program that achieves a meaningful closing of the wealth gap between Black and white Americans, now estimated to be $11 trillion.
That is why we, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, support establishing a federal commission to study reparations, either by passing H.R.40 through Congress, or through an executive order from the Biden-Harris administration. This will take the first step forward to do justice with mercy.
Now is the time. Now is the time to take the step forward, to say no more evading responsibility, no more denying the truth of the past, no more refusing to repair the wrong. Catholic teaching is clear: Our entire national community must move forward together toward reparatory justice so we can become that beloved community we envision.
Now is the time to address, repent, and repair. This Juneteenth, 157 years after that momentous day in Galveston, may our reflections on the symbolic importance of this anniversary move us to action.