“Caribbean people today, whether at home in the region or abroad in the diaspora, are still in search of the ‘emancipation’ that was signed into law as early as 1834. It is still both a socio-political struggle as well as a deep religious quest.” These words of Anglican theologian, Kortright Davis, are a bellyful. They are not only instructive as we commemorate the 175th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the English speaking Caribbean, but can be a starting point for a conversation on the important work of the reparations committees across the region. For indeed, reparation is only one aspect of the process of reconciliation.
In our context, emancipation must involve confession by the former slave holding nations of Western Europe; that they intentionally and systematically used slavery to exploit, plunder and profit from the peoples and resources of the African continent through the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, plantation economy and societies, which resulted in the complex referred to today as the Caribbean. But, confession is not enough. Inherent in any practice of reconciliation is remembering, truth telling, and repentance by the beneficiaries and forgiveness, self-affirmation and recovery by the victims. How does one begin to deal with these complex problems that are associated with slavery in the Caribbean? Can the situation be reversed? If so, how? And what are the costs involved? If on one hand they are irreversible, what are the implications for the wholesome development of the Caribbean personality and the development of the people of the region as a whole?
What then does this healing process entail? Is it simply a matter of forgiving and forgetting the past as if it has nothing to do with the present? What about the position advocated for years by the Rastafarian Community that reparations must be paid to the victims of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade — nations and people alike, so that they can develop their institutional and economic capabilities to enhance the standard of living for their citizens? But what about issues of justice, dignity, equality, fair trade and human rights? Where do they fit in? Are these issues part of the mix of reconciliation that Caribbean people seek? These are some of the crucial questions that we need to ask ourselves and begin to find answers to if we are going to realistically pursue the task of reconciliation in a context where even to mention the word slavery evoke on one hand painful memories and resurrect deep scars and hatreds of the past. On the other hand, they bring to mind the deafening silence of most former slave holding nations of Western Europe who continue to perpetuate along with their Trans Atlantic alliances, the violence of the past in many new and different ways.
But, it is precisely in such a context that the need for reconciliation becomes necessary and is vital for the ennoblement of our societies. As one German theologian notes,” any serious reflection on forgiveness must take into account the historical impact of guilt and hurt: the intergenerational dimension which shows that the question of forgiveness and reconciliation concern not only those directly involved but also those on whom the impact is “only indirect”. It must also take into account the proceeds enjoyed by the violator(s). This brings me to several important aspects of reconciliation which Caribbean people must take seriously if the process of healing ought to take place at an acceptable and accelerated pace.
First of all, our people must engage in a process of personal and collective excavation. This should not be done out of self-pity or to reinforce negative stereotypes of the past, but rather, it ought to be done in order to create understanding, ancestry, solidarity and hope. “It is owning the past and learning from it. It is ridding one’s memories that perpetuate pain deriving from the feelings of rancour and revenge.” It is a conscious revision of toxic prejudices against each other that we may have accumulated because of our separation.” In the end, it is our quest to be a part of, to share and shape the New Heaven and the New Earth why we must pursue this liberating challenge of remembering.
The victim is not the only one who is charged with the responsibility for remembering. Though the ultimate desire of reconciliation is the healing of both victim and perpetrator, the reasons for remembering are different. The perpetrator must remember so that he/she can free themselves from the burden of guilt. He must remember so that the probability of the atrocity occurring again may diminish. But more importantly, he must remember, even when in distant lands, so as to own the enormity of the crime committed against his fellow human beings and to learn to tell the truth about it. The truth must be told otherwise its distortion will continue to blur the paths to peace.
The second aspect of reconciliation that I wish to consider is repentance. In the Hebrew Bible, repentance seems to be a precondition for the forgiveness of sins and at the same time, a step towards entering the Kingdom of God (Matt 3:2, Mk 1:4 & Lk 3:8). I believe that although repentance and forgiveness are intimately woven together, it may be possible to forgive without having the former as a necessary first step. Commenting on the story of the Prodigal Son, Emilio Castro notes, “The Prodigal Son had his own salvation plan, his own strategy. It did not involve repentance (see Luke 15:18,21)… he was not concerned about the pain he had inflicted on his father. He only wanted to eat… But the father came running to him and embraced him”. In the father’s forgiveness the son realized the magnitude of his sin. I believe Caribbean people have long begun to heal the pathologies of the slave society even in the face of its reinforcements! I believe it is easier for Caribbean people to embrace and show the humanness that Castro talks about, but I also believe that reconciliation remains obscure without the acknowledgement and ownership of the inhumanity of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to black people.
Ronnie Daniel(Extracts from paper prepared for Bossey Ecumenical Institute, 2003. Revised 2013)
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