Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa is well known for his work opposing apartheid and facilitating reconciliation and forgiveness after the fall of South Africa’s apartheid regime.
In “The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World,” Archbishop Tutu and his daughter Mpho defined forgiveness as “the capacity to make a new start.” They say “In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrongdoer to change.”
I have to be honest: In my own life, I’ve struggled with the question of forgiveness because I have so often heard and experienced it as a counter or alternative to accountability and change. Those who have been wronged are far too often called upon to forgive — but there are too few attempts to remedy the harm done or seek meaningful change on the part of the wrongdoer.
That is not forgiveness. As Tutu said in an interview, “Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending things aren’t as they really are … [Past harms] have an incredible capacity for always returning to haunt you. Forgiveness means that the wronged and the culprits of those wrongs acknowledge that something happened. And there is necessarily a measure of confrontation … And forgiving means actually giving the opportunity for a new beginning.”
I have been coming to learn in my personal life and the messiness of interconnected relationships what forgiveness looks like when behaviors don’t change. What I have learned is that it is okay — necessary, even — to set boundaries and conditions for continuing in a relationship if someone refuses to acknowledge harm done or work to remedy it. My ministry gives me the opportunity to ask, on a regular basis, what this looks like at a social level.
A few months ago, I was privileged to be part of convening a conversation on white supremacy and U.S. Christianity with Dr. Robert P. Jones, Father Bryan Massingale and Dr. Marcia Chatelain. They detailed many of the ways that Christianity in the U.S. and around the globe has enabled and promoted white supremacy. We could talk about the Doctrine of Discovery, an official papal document that is still on the books, that claims “Christian” nations can claim any land as their own if they “discovered” it occupied by non-Christian people. We could talk about the roles that ethnic enclave faith communities played in banding together to try to keep Black families from moving into their neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s.
The foundation of the United States and its global dominance and privilege is stolen land and stolen people. Economies in both the North and the South based their ability to generate massive amounts of wealth for a few white families on the stolen labor of enslaved Black families. This is the messy truth, and we cannot escape it. We cannot move forward without confronting this uncomfortable truth.
Over the past decade or so, the U.S. has seen public racial reckonings and white backlashes like nothing before in my lifetime. We have learned that the work of the Civil Rights Movement isn’t done. We have a lot more truth-telling to do. Only when we begin to do this work of truth-telling can we begin to repair the harm and restore right relationships.
Although the Biden-Harris Administration established Juneteenth as an official federal holiday to commemorate June 19, 1865, the day enslaved people in Texas received emancipation proclamation, we must have more than symbolic gestures to right the wrongs that our nation has perpetuated for the past 400 years.
Fortunately there is a path forward: President Biden can and must sign an executive order establishing an HR 40-style commission to study and provide proposals for reparations — concrete actions to repair the harm done by generations of slavery and all of the other policies that blocked Black families from accessing the wealth-building opportunities that white people were able to take advantage of. The commission would take an honest look at what is needed to begin repairing generations of harm. The stolen bodies and lives of enslaved people and the stolen lives and property of white mob violence cry out for redress.
Reparations aren’t new: President Ronald Reagan signed into law reparations for Japanese Americans who were interned in concentration camps during World War II. What is different here is that the harm needing repair isn’t from one singular incident. It is from 400 years of individual actions and government policy designed to enrich white people and deny opportunities to Black citizens.
Father Massingale has outlined a process for national racial reconciliation based on the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation. He points out that an examination of conscience requires honest truth-telling, that there must be genuine sorrow for the wrong done, that confession requires public acknowledgment of responsibility and that penance requires concrete actions to heal the harm done. Only once all of this has happened can we truly experience racial reconciliation in our nation.
We need a commission to study reparations for African Americans because we need public acknowledgment of our nation’s complicity and concrete actions to heal the harm. No matter how messy, we Christians need to act to repair the harm that has too often been done in the name of our faith tradition.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sister Emily TeKolste is a temporary professed Sister of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, and a Grassroots Mobilization Coordinator at NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. In her free time she enjoys playing in the garden and in the kitchen.