By Hugh R. Page, Jr.
As I prepare this article, two prominent seminaries—Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) and Princeton Theological Seminary—have recently announced plans to pay reparations in recognition of their historical involvement in the institution of American slavery. The former has set aside 1.7 million dollars for an endowment to address the needs of descendants of enslaved persons that labored at the seminary; to develop programming that enhances justice, inclusivity, and equity; and to support the endeavors of the school’s Black alumni/ae and Episcopal clergy, in particular those working in historically Black congregational settings. The latter has allocated 27.6 million dollars of its existing endowment to support implementation of a reparations plan that includes scholarships for the descendants of those once enslaved; funding for a full-time director’s position in the seminary’s Center for Black Church Studies; and changes to the names of buildings on campus to recognize the historical contributions of significant Black women and men.
Both institutions provide detailed rationales for their actions, focused on acknowledgment of prior wrongs, repentance, and redress aimed at transforming the lingering effects of systemic injustices to which slavery and racial segregation have contributed in our country. Another effort akin to those at VTS and Princeton is taking place at Georgetown. Efforts of this kind are fueled, at least in part, by acknowledgment of the impact that the transatlantic slave trade had in shaping the contours of the American experience and on the troubling implications of our history for 21st-century life.
Wider efforts focused on acknowledgment of ways that our own church and its allied institutions were complicit in and benefitted from the transatlantic slave trade are intensifying. General Convention Resolutions 2006-A123 and 2009-A143 compelled ongoing investigation at the diocesan level of our church’s complicity in, resistance to, and benefit from the slave trade; as well as a probing look at the historical injustices emerging therefrom. In 2016, the University of the South, Sewanee, TN launched the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation to examine the implications of that school’s connections to slavery. The Diocese of Maryland, where I was ordained both deacon and priest many years ago, has been particularly forthright in this effort. In 2014, it launched The Trail of Souls: Truth and Reconciliation Pilgrimage, to mark the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Maryland and to explore the history and legacies of slavery in that diocese. This effort has an ongoing web presence. It took the additional step of unanimously approving a resolution at its most recent diocesan convention (May 2019) to explore the use of reparations as part of its larger efforts aimed at social reconciliation and justice.
The aforementioned efforts emerge from critical engagement of a complex set of contextual issues and a process that seeks to be restorative. Consideration of the extent to which the control and trafficking of Black bodies were made possible by the creation of hierarchies of difference forces one to confront the ways in which a socially constructed black–white racial binary in North America was justified, in part, by appeals to Scripture; and authoritative pronouncements by ecclesial bodies, clerics, and theologians.
Conversations about reparations in the U.S. have to begin with work of this kind. They must also wrestle with the many ways in which our economy; health care system; national, state, and local systems of government; and religious institutions have destabilized Black communities and acted in ways inimical to people of African descent. The contributions of public intellectuals like Ta–Nehisi Coates; theologians such as the Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas and others; and initiatives such as the New York Times’ 1619 Project; and the United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent (2015–2024) urge us to look honestly at the role that race has played in shaping our country and to think critically about steps that can be taken to counteract its corrosive impact nationally and globally.
One could argue, therefore, that the starting point for a fully transformational and theological approach to the issue of reparations — one that is at once multi-disciplinary, corrective, intersectional, and forthright — is, in fact, acknowledgment of the peril faced by people of African descent in the 21st century and the factors contributing to it. Such an approach requires, for example, looking squarely at the challenges confronting African Americans along the entire socio-economic spectrum and considering how racism and segregation have impacted access to education; job accessibility; the accumulation and passing on of wealth; access to housing and medical care; general well-being and life expectancy; policing; and public safety.
Often, those who engage these issues are accused of being racist themselves or raising concerns that will separate people into warring encampments rather than unifying us as a populace. This is lamentable. An Anglican theology grounded in the belief that “the Word was enfleshed and lived with us” (John 1:14), that takes seriously the implications of “God’s presence with us” (Isaiah 7:14) and the mandates to “foster justice” (Micah 6:8) and “love” (John 13:34), cannot thrive without honesty and “truth telling.”
For those of us who are Episcopalians, it is also important that we take a probing look at the history of Black involvement in our own Church (as have VTS and the Diocese of Maryland as well as Brandt Montgomery here on Covenant) and to wrestle with the ways discrimination and segregation have impacted congregational demographics, involvement in diocesan decision making, the care of historically Black congregations, the treatment of black laity, career advancement for Black clergy, and the formation of Black seminarians over the years. This process will be, without doubt, intellectually and emotionally jarring. Nonetheless, this information has to be gathered and the stories of those whose voices have often been silenced, heard.
As this process evolves, it will also be important to make room for the voices and experiences of Africana (i.e., African and African–Diasporan) people to be heard; and for the traditional matrices within which their lives are given meaning and the lenses through which they read Scripture and reason theologically to be honored. Any conversation about restorative justice and the Black community must make room for the presence of a heterogeneous chorus of Black voices expressing a broad cross-section of opinions.
The steps just outlined diverge considerably from the theological methodology many of us were taught at Episcopal seminaries in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Issues of race were rarely engaged. Contemporary problems fell within the realm of “Church and Society.” Cultural and contextual approaches to biblical hermeneutics were not yet fully embraced. The trans-disciplinary dimensions of theology were not leveraged to the extent that they are today. In retrospect, many of our seminary conversations about addressing racism and systemic injustice within the church and in the larger world did not deal sufficiently with the socio-political, economic, and other implications of race, colonialism, or the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its aftermath. Larger scale approaches to social redress — such as reparations — were absent.
Thankfully, this is not the case today. Recognition of the factors that have created the breach preventing people of African descent from participating fully in American life and enjoying the full benefits of citizenship is at its core — especially for Episcopalians — a theological issue. Our approaches to addressing that rift and the role of reparations (broadly construed) in so doing are issues fully deserving of critical reflection. They also require strategic thought and planning. Our General Convention might consider establishing a national standing committee or task force to examine various paradigms for reparations within and outside of our province and the Anglican Communion on the whole. Perhaps the Anglican Consultative Council or a future Lambeth Conference could take up the issue of how proactively to address the vestiges of colonialism in the Atlantic World and ways in which economic and other de-colonial interventions might enhance coalition building between African nation–states.
These larger institutional steps must be complemented by efforts at the local level. A robust, nuanced, and ongoing conversation about race, privilege, and the nurturing of Black Lives should be high on the list of priorities for every parish and mission in the U.S. Those conversations should involve scholars from a range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences; artists; activists; and political leaders. Local congregations, particularly those situated in areas where economic deprivation disproportionately impacts people of African descent, should become incubators for pilot initiatives aimed at stimulating social change. The issue of reparations should be a topic for theological engagement in every seminary or diocesan training program for lay or ordained leadership, with appropriate resources offered to ensure breadth and depth in coverage.
We’ve reached a point in the history of our nation, our Church, and our Communion when we need to balance celebration of gains made in reconciliation and community building with ongoing and disciplined excavations of the “stony road” people of African descent have traversed. This is also the kind of intellectual and moral heavy lifting needed to recognize where the twists and turns of our fraught American story provide insights into how we might in fact expand our notions of what it means to “form a more perfect union” and work toward the goal of obtaining “liberty and justice for all.” One hopes that we are up to these tasks. Our future depends on it.
The Rev. Canon Dr. Hugh R. Page, Jr. is vice president and associate provost and professor of Theology and Africana Studies at the University of Notre Dame