JO - Reparation - at what price?
Reparation - at what price?
BY BISHOP HOWARD GREGORY
Sunday, March 18, 2007
In recent weeks, the buzzword has become 'reparation'. Mr Mike Henry who has been for some time a voice calling on the Parliament to place this issue on the agenda, but without finding willing takers, has now seized the moment which the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade offers, to place the issue on the table once more.
BISHOP HOWARD GREGORY
Now the subject is being picked up by representatives of both sides of the House and, unlike most other issues, there seems to be an emerging consensus on the need to pursue the issue.
There are certain aspects of the conversation so far which will need much greater reflection if we are to do justice to generations past who endured slavery and the current generation who are not free of the impact of slavery on our lives.
The first is the preoccupation with money and the determination of what should constitute an appropriate figure for compensation. The second is the identification of reparation as settlement for labour and the exploitation of the same.
From my perspective, reparation is and ought to be about much more than arriving at an appropriate monetary figure and the compensation for labour. It has to do with many intangibles including areas of human life, identity, and worth which can never be adequately addressed by a fixed monetary compensation. In this article reparation will be used in its singular form and will be used to mean "the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury".
Before proceeding to explore some of these intangible dimensions to any consideration of reparation, I think it necessary for us to be reminded that the first group of persons to make reparation an issue among their membership was the Rastafarians.
It is true that there has been a lot of confusion surrounding reparation as it has been confused with 'repatriation', but whether it has been the Rastafarian community or the society in general who have confused the issue is a matter for further consideration. I am inclined to support the Rastafarians as the ones who had clarity on the issue on the grounds that they have always had an appreciation of black self-worth and black identity.
HENRY. has been for some time a voice calling on the Parliament to place the issue of reparation on the agenda, but without finding willing takers
The Rastafarians regarded these as a resilient aspect of the race in the face of the oppressive structures and legacy of slavery, even when they were treated as a fringe group in the society, and when many of us saw their philosophical reflections as nothing short of laughable. The demand for reparation was one way in which they asserted worth and violation of that inherent value.
In the latter part of 2006, I was privileged to be a part of a group of scholars in residence at a seminary in the United States, which had as its focus 'The Mission of the Church in an Age of Uprooted and Displaced Peoples'. One of the things that surfaced in our reflections is the way in which current international relations continue to reflect some of the features of chattel slavery, and the forces which are creating some of the displacement and uprooting of peoples are not newcomers to the scene of human exploitation and oppression.
Inasmuch as chattel slavery as experienced in the Caribbean and the Americas was based on the uprooting of the peoples of Africa, it is an expression of violence, not unlike the forces of uprooting and displacement in our world today.
There was one text which I read and which has come to mean a lot to me as one who is grounded in a theological background, and which I believe has a lot to say to us in our reflection on reparation as a way to bring a sense of justice and closure to a very oppressive and dehumanising experience. It is the text Reconciliation: Mission and Ministry in a Changing Social Order by Robert J Schreiter.
Violence may take various expressions, such as war, civil conflict, human rights violation, slavery, colonial domination, and persecution for political, religious, ethnic, or social reasons. It may take many forms such as the direct physical form and indirect physical violence. There is also psychic violence, which is directed at a person's self-concept or self-esteem.
Slavery with its messages of inferiority and superiority is one example of this. Violence in its various manifestations is damaging to the webs of meaning which individuals weave as a way of defining self. While violence may be experienced as irrational, Schreiter suggests that violence is not irrational.
The violence of oppressive systems as expressed in slavery has a rationality which is intended to bring about the destruction of existent and opposing rationalities, that is, opposing ways of understanding self and reality.
Part of the way in which individuals are able to create a web of meaning is using narratives. Narratives help with defining the individual as a self and as a self in relation to other selves, and are part of how individuals define themselves in their separateness but also in terms of their identity as part of community.
The African retentions, which persisted among our people even through the most oppressive experience of slavery, were intended to combat efforts by the slave owners to convey to the slaves that they were not human or a people of civilisation. Violence is an attack on our sense of selfhood and of safety. Schreiter argues in a very convincing way that physical violence while being an attack on the body is designed to undermine the sense of self of the victim and the narrative, which holds it together and gives it meaning.
One of the problems inherent in the focus on reparation for labour is that it misses the deeper psychic impact that the experience is intended to inflict upon the sense of identity and selfhood of the slave, what Schreiter calls the level of meaning making. So looking at things at the two levels of the physical and that of meaning making/narrative, it is not surprising that a distinction can be made between pain and suffering. Of pain, Schreiter says:"Pain ensues from acts of violence, but the pain that is registered psychically as our symbols are ripped apart is suffering."
Suffering is the human struggle with and against pain. It is the experience of the breakdown of our systems of meaning and our stories about ourselves, and the struggle to restore those senses of safety and selfhood. Suffering is essentially an erosion of meaning. It is an interruption and destruction of those fundamental senses of safety and selfhood without which we cannot survive as individuals and as societies.
This dimension of suffering must be an important area of concern in the exploration of the issue of reparation, and the healing and restoration of selfhood cannot come from the oppressor even with monetary payment, but must be something we do for ourselves and in relation to the oppressor.
Those who inflict violence on others in its various forms, far from being irrational, are usually quite intentional and rational in the outcome, which they seek to produce in the lives of their victims. The intent is to produce in persons what Schreiter calls "the narrative of the lie." Thus, he writes: "Violence tries to destroy the narratives that sustain people's identities and substitute narratives of its own. These might be call narratives of the lie. The negation is intended not only to destroy the narrative of the victim, but to pave the way for the oppressor's narrative."
Now I must recognise that there are persons in our society who will find the notion of reparation a matter for ridicule or will suggest that slavery has long gone and we must forget about it and move on.
At another level one must recognise that the European powers who were involved in the transatlantic slave trade and whose economic development and industrialisation were made possible by slave labour, have distanced themselves from any serious acknowledgement of the wrong done to the people who were enslaved in the Caribbean.
They even have the nerve to claim moral authority in calling for peoples of other hues and religions who have been subjected to any form of forced labour and oppression to receive reparation.
Indeed, any serious reading of non-governmental reports of the exile of President Aristide will reveal that his call for reparation from France, and with a specific figure being quoted, was a central aspect of his demise at the hands of beneficent and morally upright Western nations who could not countenance such a notion.
When we begin to talk about reparation, we must understand also that the response of those who perpetrated slavery and had their nations develop on the blood, sweat, and tears of our forebears, will not be welcoming and accommodating of such arguments. The old oppressive arm may show itself to be still very strong and active. This will be the real test of our nerve and mettle along the road to reparation.
One paradigm for thinking about the issue of reparation and what it seeks to achieve from a Christian perspective is reconciliation. Reconciliation cannot be understood without coming to terms with violence and suffering. There are, however, those who would seek to circumvent the process of working toward reconciliation by suppressing its memory. As Schreiter states:
"To trivialise and ignore memory is to trivialise and ignore human identity, and to trivialise and ignore human identity is to trivialise and ignore human dignity. By forgetting the suffering, the victim is forgotten and the causes of suffering are never uncovered and confronted. If the causes of suffering are not addressed, suffering is likely to continue; the wheel of violence keeps turning, and more and more people get crushed."
Reparation then, from my perspective, involves a monetary transaction, but it is about much more than that. It has to do with the acknowledgement of wrong, the healing of the one who has been wronged, and the initiative of the one who has been wronged to restore the fractured and distorted relationship which has developed. Only certain people have the moral authority to issue the call for reconciliation, namely the victims of oppression.
Repentance can originate from the side of those who have perpetrated violence, but reconciliation and forgiveness must come from the side of those who have suffered violence. Reparation will only be meaningful if it is recognised that payment does not restore the broken relationship.
It is merely a part of the process by which the enslaved and oppressed can experience healing and come to extend forgiveness to the oppressor, and to seek reconciliation where estrangement has prevailed.
With reparation must also come the petition for forgiveness of those who have been wronged if reconciliation is to take place.
Howard Gregory is the Suffrgan Bishop of Montego Bay