“Thoughts on Reparations” by Lucy Slater

March 17, 2024

Over the past five or six weeks, the Racial and Ethnic Justice Ministry Team (REJMT) has been leading us through the Lenten liturgy, calling us to pay attention to the harms that white supremacy has made to our church, and perpetuated through our church.  As we planned these six weeks, we thought about whether we needed to structure the content of what our team would collectively preach on, and while we ultimately decided to let the Spirit speak through each of us individually, I think at one point Peter came up with a nifty five “A”s framework for us preachers to consider – awareness, acknowledgement, acceptance,  action/accountability.

As is often the case, I think the Spirit has somewhat led us to follow this framework regardless of our intentions.  Jeanne started by explaining how she came to an awareness that she was white, and reminded us of the error and harms caused by considering being white as default/status quo in a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society.

Erica and Paul called us to acknowledgement and acceptance – Erica by presenting us with the uncomfortable truths we wrestle with as we pursue racial and ethnic justice. Paul by reminding us of the myths our church and culture have created to justify dispossession and enslavement and challenging us to acknowledge that there are no “chosen” people in Jesus’ cosmology.  And David added to our understanding and acknowledgement, and began to call us to action and accountability.

And, right from the very start of our work on this Liturgy, I have felt the need to preach on those last couple of As – action and accountability. Or in other words, Reparations. And let me tell you, the reason I wanted to preach on Reparations is not because I felt I had any answers to share with you – it was to challenge myself to struggle with a concept that fills me with fear and alarm, but also hope.  After all these weeks of becoming aware of and accepting and acknowledging the horrible, heavy burden of the evil of white supremacy, if there is one thing that is clear, it is that reparations for centuries of theft of power, wealth, and truth, as well as land and life are not going to occur with a one-time donation to our favorite charity.  When we talk about “repair” for something we have stolen, we don’t keep what we have taken, and give someone a gift, or a donation instead; we return what we have taken. And then we seek ways to repair the harm that our faithlessness, our deceit, our selfishness has caused to the spirit of the person we stole from, and to our own spirits, and to change ourselves and things so that the harm doesn’t happen again.

So reparations are both material (returning things that have been taken), and relational (repairing the broken relationship). Reparations at a systemic level reparation is a monumental task – returning wealth, power and position to American people of color, and healing the broken relationships between people of color and white people across our entire society.  It is a life changing, cultural, and spiritual effort spanning generations that entails all of us walking through the five A’s individually, and collectively.   Ta Nehisi Coates says that reparations is “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”  In the Gospel reading, Jesus talks about this kind of revolution in even more stark tones – calling us to hate our current lives and die to them.  But Jesus also promises us that if we are able to do so, we will bear much fruit and keep our lives forever.

Let’s begin with material reparations. I find this call very scary. I look at all I have – my house in Minneapolis, which is built on land stolen from the Dakota and Ojibwe; my 401k and retirement savings in mutual funds, which make interest from the white supremacist systems they invest in, and I tremble, and think – must I give my house and my savings away?

This need for safety/security is natural – right up there with our needs for air, water, food, and shelter on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We should not be ashamed of this need.  I remember when I was unexpectedly laid off from my job of 15 years in 2019- how hard it was for me to feel safe. I lived alone  – who would pay my house payments? How would I cover my health insurance? How could I ever afford to visit my aging parents in England again? How would I take care of myself in my old age?  My family and friends assured me they would never let me live in a cardboard box under a bridge – but all around me, I could see people who had been reduced to exactly that. My fears were not entirely unfounded.

But here is the thing – this lust for safety and control is also a part of white supremacy. Our white supremacist, capitalist systems are rooted in individualism.  Individualism benefits our consumerist system – how many more washing machines will we sell if each nuclear family, or ideally individual person has to buy one, rather than sharing them across a community? What kind of terrible working conditions or pay will we accept, if we don’t have family or community to support us and provide us with a safety net in hard times?    In actual fact, individualism makes us LESS safe!

And insidiously, individualism also encourages us to focus on our own personal complicity and sin, conveniently distracting and disconnecting us from building community to bring about the systemic changes that need to happen, leaving us believing that we have to fix everything ourselves, and paralysed by shame and guilt when we cannot.

So, I don’t think we are called to make reparations, alone, by ourselves in our homes, writing checks that will devastate us. That is not repair, because while it might recompense one or two people for our racism, it stops short of mending the relationship, and of changing ourselves and our systems, so that the harm is not repeated.

Reparations is also relational. Sarah Augustine in her book “The Land is not Empty” that we have been studying in the School for Christian Growth, says that true repair is building right relationship with those we have stolen power and wealth and truth from.  Right relationship means recognizing our interdependence – that we are all, white, black, indigenous people related to each other, that the actions of one of us impacts all, and that our individual survival is bound up with the survival of all. It means awakening to the reality of oppression of others as intolerable, and aligning ourselves in solidarity with those who do not live in that condition by choice.

Sarah Augustine calls this “entanglement”: (Other words for it might be mutuality, solidarity or partnership – or maybe even family).   For white folks right relationship and entanglement requires giving up our individual power and privilege, because unless we share power we are not sharing a fate, sharing the same risks, having “our survival bound up with yours”.  Entanglement also implies sharing our wealth and our resources (just as I, as a mother, share my house, my income, my time with my children without question). Entanglement does not absolve us from the call for personal, individual sacrifice: If our financial security endangers those we are interdependent with, and is secured at the expense of those we seek to repair relationship with, then we are not truly entangled. And we will sacrifice our financial security in order to be in right relationship.  If we see the powerless, the oppressed, and those we have stolen from suffering, then entanglement calls us to share of what we have – for restoration, and then, for love. 

All of us – black or white find this entanglement challenging. Building right relationship between white people and people of color and indigenous people in the U.S. is HARD! For people of color – well as a white person I don’t feel I am in any position to describe or suggest exactly what that might entail for you, but I do know that entanglement and right relationship requires commitment and investment from all. For white people, I think it means accepting and repenting of our white supremacist society, reaching out to those we have harmed, letting go of our individualism, and our beliefs about meritocracy, examining and putting aside our sources of income that are exploitative, and sharing what we have.. On top of all of that we have different cosmologies, different cultures. We have been taught for generations to see each other as strangers. People of color carry scars of the harms they have experienced (impoverishment, family separations, traumas, insults, mistrust, fear), and white folks carry scars of perpetuating those harms (spiritual disconnection, loneliness, defensiveness, guilt, shame). We get exhausted, overwhelmed, and cynical at building right relationship.

But let’s look at that scary scripture from John a little more carefully, because Jesus is actually comparing us to grains of wheat, to seeds,  falling into the earth. And in many cosmologies, Earth is our mother/grandmother – who loves and nurtures all beings equally, to whose family of plants, insects, animals and peoples we rightfully belong. So Jesus is not asking us to die physically, he is asking us to unclench, to let go of our egos, to fall into the arms of our Mother Earth, reconnect with our true selves, reconnect with our family of all Creation, and allow ourselves to be transformed into people who serve God and each other, people who bear much fruit, who can heal each other, and take care of each other.

We can become those people of reparations individually and institutionally.  As an individual, I think I am called to expand my community – to reach out to people unlike myself, to people whom I and historically my ancestors have harmed, and then to begin to see and treat those in my community as family. To talk to people, to share food, to share shelter, to help educate, to take care of them in sickness and old age. This is not an easy thing for me, or for any of us. It is a commitment. It is costly, financially and emotionally.  I’m an introvert, who loves her quiet little house, and I think of how hard I have worked, and worried, and spent just on my children, or my siblings, or my parents over the years, and sigh a little with exhaustion at the thought of expanding my family now. There is the fear as well as the promise that as we grow in love for our neighbors, of where our hearts will lead us!

Institutionally, how do we as the Seekers community enter into reparations? How do we seek solidarity or entanglement? How are we reaching out to indigenous and communities of color, and standing side by side with them in solidarity – learning to work together to heal our country from white supremacy? When we think about our investments, our domestic and international giving, how can we think of these as avenues to understand and act out our interdependence? To share our power, and to engage in partnership and mutuality? Are our investments endangering the powerless? When we give through domestic and international giving, are we thinking of these as gifts, given on our own terms, and according to our own criteria of what is worthy? Or do we think of them as returning what has been taken, with no right on our part to determine how they will be used in the future?  I hope that one outcome of our Lenten Liturgy season is that as a community we can continue to wrestle with these questions.

Knowing that reparations are important or right for us to do is just the first step. We cannot change by knowing things. It is our actions that change us. Taking the first step toward reparations – of allowing ourselves to fall into the earth, not knowing whether we will grow – is a step of faith, in which we are bolstered and inspired by God’s word, by each other as the Body of Christ and by all of Creation. But once we take that first step, the miracle happens – the miracle of entanglement is that the more that we care for others, the more we come to love them and want to care for them. The more we share with others, the more others share with us, and the safer and more secure we all become.  In his difficult words, in his call for reparations, Jesus is calling us to let go of the fear of insecurity, to die to holding on to ourselves, and allow ourselves to turn outwards, to entangle with those we have harmed and been harmed by, so that together we may bear much fruit.

May it be so.

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