By Mark Azzara
I read Bernd Reiter’s recent Spokane FāVS article about reparations for African-Americans with great interest. But also great sorrow.
I began thinking about reparations when David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, wrote a moving essay about being swayed by author Ta-Nehisi Coates to endorse the idea of reparations for the great evil perpetrated against African-Americans via slavery, which continues today in all sorts of ways.
But for decades I have had an at-times dormant but still steady concern for a group that we cannot see – the Indigenous people.
Concern for Indigenous People
I hate to use the word “oppression” because it has been so overused but the record of European-immigrant oppression toward native peoples is indelible. I’m not just talking about American “Indians,” but about the estimated 200 million native people in the Americas who were slaughtered so that Europeans could take over their lands and their extraordinary resources from gold to oil and timber to foods.
The land your house sits on, the land where your workplace is located, the property occupied by your favorite shopping center and adjoining parking lot, could very well have been stolen from Indigenous people centuries ago because our ancestors had no respect whatsoever for the original owners.
The government stole the Black Hills and it took 57 years before courts ruled that the Sioux nation had been ripped off. Even now the case is unresolved because the tribes want the land rather than the money they were awarded.
The original award was set aside in a trust fund while the debate wore on. The fund now has more than $1 billion in it, but it’s not enough to satisfy those who feel ripped off because more than land is at stake. To the Indigenous, this is sacred, holy land. That’s the part the government doesn’t get – and doesn’t want to get.
Arthur Lazarus Jr., the attorney who represented the tribe, died recently, thus not living long enough to see the dispute resolved. His story is worth reading as an indicator of how difficult it is to gain reparations that are meaningful to those who have been abused.
A Personal Story
Several years ago I went on vacation to what I discovered via statistics was the second poorest county in New England (so poor that I wound up volunteering there). I won’t identify that county because I don’t want to embarrass the people who live there, one couple in particular – the owners of the B&B where I stayed.
As I paid my bill the wife said her husband worked as an on-call contractor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. His job was to coordinate repairs to electronic infrastructure after a major natural disaster, and while I was there he had been sent to a midwestern “Indian” reservation that had been devastated by a major storm.
In a phone call to his wife he said he had never seen anything close to the kind of poverty he saw on that reservation, even though he was surrounded by poverty every day where he lived. He couldn’t get over it.
Two New York Times articles (here and here) will give you a glimpse into the life that most Indigenous people live today. It is not pleasant, easy reading. But it is essential if we are to have a serious conversation about reparations. (Note: After these articles appeared the U.S. Education Department promised to conduct a full investigation.)
We Owe Reparations
We owe reparations to all the nations and peoples from whom we have stolen what we now take for granted as “ours.” As I think about the staggering number of refugees that are streaming toward our borders, fleeing the poverty that we Americans largely created, I see them as people who are pounding on our door and demanding that we return what we have stolen from them – not just their resources but their ability to have the kind of good life that we now have at their expense.
Reparations? If we were to “repair” the damage caused not only to African-Americans but to the Indigenous peoples and the native peoples of every country in this hemisphere and world from whom we have taken materials without proper remuneration, we would go broke as a nation. To make reparations that would be truly meaningful we would be required to reorganize our values, our economy, our educational system (especially history) and more.
We already borrow to fund government programs (a practice I find unconscionable and inconceivably stupid). How much more would we have to borrow to fix the damage we have caused? What do we really owe to all those victims of our greed? And are we willing to pony up, no matter what the cost?
Before you dismiss this as unaffordable, remember that our ancestors didn’t bother to ask their victims if they could afford what was about to be done to them. They just did it.
Brooks writes, in part, “The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life.”
It’s Not Enough
I believe in that goal but I also know that the goal is not enough. Even more, it is a goal we simply cannot achieve on our own.
As Peter J. Leithart wrote in First Things magazine, the belief in a liberal moral order, which is born out of the erroneously named Enlightenment, suggests that humanity can, by its own efforts, make everything right.
But, he writes, “liberalism tries to tinker its way to utopia, adjusting a valve here and pulling a lever there.” But such liberalism fails because sacrifice is not part of the process. In his words it offers “resurrection without the cross.”
The simple truth is that we Americans are flat-out unwilling to make the sacrifices that are the necessary foundation for the kind of reparations that Brooks and Coates (and you and I) believe will heal this nation’s wounds. We are all, to some extent, unwilling to go to the cross.
Go To The Cross
There is only one way we can go to the cross, and it has nothing to do with trying, one more time, to obey Jesus’ command to “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow after me.” Oh, how often we have proven to ourselves that we are incapable of such obedience.
We must therefore, in a step that is profoundly insulting to many people, ask Jesus himself to transform us inwardly so that we can do what he commands – love others as he loved us.
That isn’t just a tall order. It’s an impossible order without Jesus. If I have learned anything in my 76 years on Earth it’s that I – and you, I daresay – utterly lack the long-term resolve, mercy and resources that make such a pursuit possible.
Yes, I want to see things made right with those whom we have dismissed, devalued and derogated. But Jesus wants us to do that more than I want it, more than you want it, more than all of us want it.
We all would make a mockery of such an effort if we undertook it on our own. The enormity of this task is just one more reason, on top of so many reasons over the years, why we need a savior – someone to save us from our own weak, unloving, gutless selves.
The Real Sacrafice
The real sacrifice we must make is not a one-off show of false humility. It is the ongoing sacrifice of our egos to God so that whatever reparations we make will be made from our hearts, not our heads. Jesus went to the cross out of love for us. And only his loving grace can empower us to do likewise.
Without that, nothing we will ever say or do can make up for the sins we have all committed against our fellow human beings. And the longer we refuse to atone for our sins, the greater the pain for those who must continue to endure the consequences of our sins.
All God’s blessings – Mark
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Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, “And So Are You.” He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut.