by Daniel Fan
I was looking forward to attending “The Justice Conference 2011” in Bend (here’s the trailer: http://vimeo.com/16400014) over the February 11th-12th weekend. As far as conferences go, it seemed logistically and technically very well planned and the location was beautiful.
I had hopes that conference speakers would address such issues as racism, colonialism, imperialism, indigenous land rights, and gender hierarchy. In retrospect, there were a lot of signs that they wouldn’t:
- The solo speakers were all white men, except for one man from Africa. The four female speakers (all but one were white) only appeared as panelists or in Q&A formats.
- The ratio of speakers was 9:4 in favor of men, whereas the ratio of attendees was about 5:3 in favor of women.
- The total conference attendance was 1,050; about 95% of whom were white.
- Eight out of sixteen pages of the Justice Conference program contained photos that were clearly taken in Africa. If you ignore advertising placements, 100% of the decorative photos featured scenes from Africa or easily attributable to Africans or dark-skinned peoples.
- Discounting a few seminaries and colleges, 91% of non-profits represented were entirely foreign focused.
- Nearly all the speakers obtained their “street cred” by going overseas (primarily Uganda or Rwanda).
I was still hopeful of a positive outcome until the exactly-one-question-long Q&A session following Adam Hochschild’s lecture on the historic African slave trade. Celestin Musekura, president of African Leadership And Reconciliation Ministries asked Hochschild about the need for reparations for Africans harmed by the slave trade. Hochschild ended a lengthy defense by saying something to the effect of “I find it morally questionable to hold people today accountable for what happened hundreds of years ago; we need instead to work towards a more just world today.”
Alone, it would have been a bitter irony to hear an expert on the institution of slavery so quickly dismiss the legacies of institutional evil. But then 1,000 white people in the audience started clapping.
I would have run up to the mic and subsequently been escorted from the conference grounds, if had not moderators closed the session and dismissed everybody on that high note. I spoke with Celestin afterward and he told me that if he could have asked a second question, it would have been about reparations for Native Americans.
The simple truth is that no meaningful American Evangelical social justice movement can exist without a committed discussion of reparations for the displaced indigenous peoples under American hegemony (Native Americans, Alaskans, Hawaiians, et al.).
The majority of white church goers don’t want to acknowledge this for at least two reasons. First, it happened a long time ago and when you’ve gotten away with something like murdering, displacing, and destroying the culture of millions of people for 200+ years, you somehow get to feeling like you deserve to get away with it. Or at least, your descendants, who are the direct beneficiaries of those sins, deserve not only to continue benefiting, but also the right to blissfully ignore the origin of their pilfered gains. It’s a pretty twisted “logic.”
Second, white people are reluctant to issue a blank check in terms of reparations because they are terrified of being taken to the cleaners by their victims. But the offer of restitution has to happen, not the least reason for which is that white people already took Native Americans to the ethnic cleaners, and they didn’t go easy on the bleach.
If your neighbor stole your riding lawnmower, then rode it up on your property line and wanted to be friends again, would you ask for your lawnmower back? What if he stole your lawnmower and your children? Now would you ask for them back? An entire generation of Native American children were forcibly taken from their homes and subjected, not only to re-education, but rampant mental, physical, and sexual abuse within the walls of government funded residential schools run mainly by ordained clergy. This is in addition the the deprivation of lands and the massacres performed under the church-endorsed concept of “manifest destiny.” If that’s not a debt the church owes to Native America in the name of social justice, then the concept of social justice is irreparably morally bankrupt.
Reconciliation on this scale is expensive, but only because the original sin that started it all has always been a bad deal for both parties (one just managed to force the transaction, then deferred payment). But there’s more to the act of issuing a blank check than any sum the victim might fill in. It’s been long recognized that such a powerful device could be used either as an instrument of mass destruction or mass reconciliation. Part of the requirement of this healing ceremony is that the offender give up the power to control which of the two, and place trust in the victim to chose wisely for both. The faith necessary to issue such an instrument is more than symbolic. The church must recognize that the choice to cash the check, and for what amount, has to be made by Native America–and then honor that choice. Restitution at this level has always been about trust first, and repayment second. Without that trust, reconciliation is simply an exercise in self-delusion.
Once the discussion of reparations was wiped off the table, the conference stopped being about justice of any sort. How could it be? The very wealth the American church seeks to “generously” share with the world in condescending and not-so-condescending ways was stolen from Native America, Africa, and Asia. Ironically, Africa and Asia are the same places we’re now trying to foist our questionable model of social justice upon.
To the American church, “Social Justice” is a domestically produced commodity, strictly intended for foreign consumption, with Africa being the current target of choice. There’s a reason for it being Africa and not somewhere else: Africa isn’t our fault, or at least that’s the perception. Africans caused Africa’s problems, we’re just here to make things a little better. Put simply: American churches don’t feel morally responsible for Africa. That provides three outstanding benefits. First, whoever goes can feel good about themselves because they’re not obligated to be there, rather they are choosing to serve altruistically. Second, whatever “good” is done is not negated by any perception of debt to Africa (unlike it would be with Native America) so “every little bit counts” towards a net positive figure. Finally, since we don’t feel morally indebted to Africans, we can disengage from them at any time and still feel good about whatever we’ve already done.
In the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells us to leave our gifts at the altar and make right with our brothers and sisters before offering to God. I don’t see how we can go overseas and talk about bringing social justice to foreign lands when we have such a moral deficit at home, and one that the church is doing so little to address (or even discuss as in the case of the “Justice Conference”). To go overseas in the name of “Social Justice” under these conditions would amount to nothing less than a new crusade of comically hypocritical proportions (probably with more than a little colonial flair mixed in).
The conference trailer advertised itself as “the largest, most meaningful justice conference taking place this year” Yet it failed to address social justice in America, preferring instead, to focus on easier, less embarrassing, less expensive problems overseas. If this was the most meaningful justice conference this year, then truly, justice has little meaning.
You can’t rob Crazy Horse to pay Bishop Tutu and call it “Social Justice.”
P.S. (From RWoodley) For an additional “front view” in Native America please view: http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,2048598_2235610,00.html