Some good out of past evil

By  Fr. Luke Mbefo, C.S.Sp, Catholic Register Special
  • April 17, 2007
As Britain remembers the 200th anniversary of the legislation abolishing the slave trade this year, calls for reparation have gone forth from Africans on both sides of the Atlantic.
Already on the eve of the third millennium, John Paul II had called for a “purification of consciences” and took the initiative by apologizing for the past sins of the church, including its role in the slave trade. Now the Church of England is pondering whether it should pay reparations for its part in the slave trade, especially given the fact that it received monetary compensation from the government for the loss of slave labour. French President Jacques Chirac has promoted a revision of history to expunge references to the role of France in slavery that would damage her nostalgia for la goire. The French Revolution had, after all, fought for liberty, equality and fraternity.

It is difficult to improve on the damning critique by the humanitarian crusader William Wilberforce. Its effect has been compared to the speech of Winston Churchill in 1940 when Britain “stood alone against Hitler.” More horrendous than the Nazi Holocaust, the slave trade is more than just a crime against humanity. But how far do we go?

Historians speak about the “unintended consequences” of historical decisions. Shakespeare in Henry V theorized on the “soul of goodness in things evil.” Hegel, in his Philosophy of History, actually tried to justify slavery by arguing that it was the means that introduced Africans to civilization. Unfortunately, this philosopher closed his eyes to the evils of the trade and did not live long enough to see where that civilization landed the Western World.

While joining forces with the unanimous condemnation of slavery, perhaps it is important to point out that the dynamism of the human spirit for creativity and innovation was by no means eradicated among the victims of the slave trade. Many of them thrived where they were planted. Many of them have enlarged our imagination and enriched our human heritage. They have demonstrated the capabilities of human inventiveness in situations of stress and oppression that would have been impossible without their slavery experience. One striking example was the subversive effects of their discovery of the freedom promised by the Hebrew Bible given them by their slave masters. Bible reading was originally calculated to keep them submissive.

Alan D. Callahan’s The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible reconfirms the power for good hidden in Scripture for oppressed people. The slaves encountered the Word of God in the strange English letters. Its message of hope, though carried by an alienating language and culture, nonetheless enabled them to dream again. God, they happily discovered, made them for something nobler than the situation of injustice they were undergoing in their land of bondage. The story of the Exodus fired their imagination.

The same book which the whites used to promote and justify slavery was the very book the blacks used to sustain their hope for freedom and the lever with which they built up their self-confidence. The so-called Negro spirituals remain a lasting legacy of the source of their heroic endurance. With the aid of the Bible the slaves and their descendants were convinced that the world order was different from what the Creator intended. What was, was not what ought to be. Under considerable resistance and opposition, they undertook to be vehicles for bringing about the “what ought to be,” that kingdom of God announced by the Bible.

Their efforts have yielded abundant fruit. The world has become a better place through their contribution. Equano, an Igbo slave in Britain but bought from Nigeria, has left us an early account of the part of the world he came from. Trans-Atlantic slavery was only one of many slavery engagements. African natives traded slaves among themselves. Arab trans-Saharan slavery supplied eunuchs to the Ottoman Empire. These have played roles in world literature and arts: from Shakespeare’s Othello to Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Think of the Nobel Prize winner, Martin Luther King Jr., whose dream should structure racial and religious relations in his country. There is Rosa Parks whose courage in standing up for her rights has inspired movements for the empowerment of women worldwide. Colourful figures like Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods have raised the bar on the possibilities of the sportive potentials of our race.

Instead of clamouring for reparation for a disgraceful and irrevocable episode of history, present energies should be directed to offsetting its future re-occurrence. Catholic social teaching, for example, should emerge from its being the “church’s best kept secret” to enter the core curriculum of all educational programs. Its emphasis on human dignity and equality would equally eradicate the sources of slavery, namely, exploitative racial arrogance and the uninhibited, economic greed that still thrives among contemporaries.

(Fr. Luke Mbefo, C.S.Sp, of Nigeria is associate pastor at St. Bernadette’s parish, Ajax, Ont.)

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