The subject of possible "reparations" to African-American descendants of slaves is so controversial as to seem simply to be a non-starter in our era of political Manichaeism, when we're 100 percent right and our enemies are 100 percent wrong.
There seems to be no place for nuance, for complexity, for ambiguity or paradox or mystery.
And yet reparations (though that word is problematic) are worth discussing, as I wrote here earlier this year.
And if such conversations are to be reflective and meaningful as opposed to talk-radio bomb throwing, it helps to know what informs your own opinion about this matter and how, therefore, you are intellectually and spiritually shaped.
American Jews who belong to the Reform Movement (it's the largest branch of Judaism in the U.S.) have been thinking recently about how their own tradition, theology and practice might lead them to adopt this or that position on reparations.
As this opinion column by a prominent Reform rabbi, Jonah Pesner, notes, "African slaves and their descendants had their freedom, self-determination, bodies, communities, ability to inherit and pass down wealth to their loved ones, possessions and, most important, their humanity, systematically stolen from them; reparations are an attempt to offer a restoration of their rightful blessings."
Members of the Union for Reform Judaism have been meeting in Chicago for the last several days and wrap up on Sunday. You can follow that gathering on the web here. But on Friday, they voted to support the call for reparations, as this story reports. The story says that the resolution the group approved declared that reparations "can take the form of anything from an expression of remorse to education to monetary compensation."
As Pesner writes, this whole issue is "complex. But our tradition teaches us that we can — and often must — hold in our hands two opposing truths in order to understand the complexity of the world. It is not only atonement that we seek, but also justice."
All of which raises the question of what resources are available to us as we think through the issue of reparations -- which means much more than money, if it means money at all. As I wrote in the blog post to which I've linked you above, "using the term "reparations" must be done with great caution and clarity.
"Might reparations involve financial payments, similar to the ones given to Japanese-Americans who were unjustly incarcerated in internment camps in World War II, including one of my brothers-in-law? It might. But what is also profoundly in play here is a necessary acknowledgment that the U.S. was founded on white supremacist values, that those values were challenged in the Civil War but that they prevailed in the South in the badly botched Reconstruction era. And elements of those values, of course, also could be (and can still be) found in the North in non-slave states both before and after the Civil War and before and after the Jim Crow era. . .
"Monetary reparations for racial injustice might help and be welcomed in some circles but such payments without a confession of our racist roots and a societal determination to create what Martin Luther King Jr. called the 'Beloved Community' would be morally inadequate."
To come to some resolution of what we think about this issue, we must do what the Reform Jews are doing, and that is to find those sources in our faith traditions that teach us how to approach matters of justice.
Which means this will not be a brief conversation. It cannot and must not be. But it is far past time for it to begin. And I'm glad to see the Union for Reform Judaism showing leadership in this way.
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SO LONG, MILLENNIALS
It's been known for some years now that the number of adult Americans who identify as religiously unaffiliated is growing. What has been unclear is whether any of those who have left institutional religion might, as they grow older, return to it. As this story reports, the chances of such a return now appear to be growing slimmer for millennials. They may be gone for good, according to new research. So now what we don't know is how they will meet the needs that faith communities traditionally fill. Stay tuned.
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THE BOOK CORNER
If your family, like ours, includes at least one special needs child or adult, you almost certainly know at least the name of the late Jean Vanier and the organization he founded, L'Arche. An engaging new book tells his story. It's Jean Vanier: Portrait of a Free Man, by Anne-Sophie Constant. Vanier (1928-2019) was born into an important Canadian family and had many advantages of status growing up. But at age 36, searching for some deeper meaning in life, he bought a small house in a French village and began to be the caregiver for two mentally disabled men. From that beginning, L'Arche was born to provide home, care and love for mentally disabled people. It now has more than 150 sites on five continents. But there is, as you might imagine, much more to the story, and Constant tells that fuller story, describing how, even from the start of L'Arche, Vanier "took on the role of spiritual guide in addition to that of founder and organizer." Indeed, Vanier became an inspiration and guide to people across the globe. Vanier was dying as Constant was finishing the book, and, indeed, died just as the book was going to press. But the book is a worthy monument to the considerable good this fascinating man did for the world.