A week ago Saturday, Virginia took a bold step to apologize for their role in slavery. Was this an unnecessary step? I don’t think so. This courageous act went beyond the traditional legislative function of state government. The expression of regret for the damage of slavery may very well begin a process of emotional and spiritual healing long overdue for both Virginia and the nation.
How can an apology do what government programs have been unable to do during the 142 years since the Civil War? Before I answer that question, it is important for us to think about the damage of slavery.
Although there were numerous problems created by slavery, the black family endured the greatest trauma from the 246 year experience. The current problems these families face would have been unimaginable to ancient African tribal leaders.
The family was at the center of African life in the seventeenth century. Africans committed to more than lip service or verbal platitudes about their connection with kin. Their allegiance was to an extended family concept that went far beyond the nuclear family. The tribe was a major source of identity. If tragedy hit an individual, there was an unbreakable lifeline that stretched to the family and tribe.
Two major traumas of slavery continue to affect black families today. First, the spirit of the black male was broken. In his native setting, he lived as a dominant leader in a patriarchal world. His authority was often unassailable. Once in America the responsibilities of family direction, provision, and protection were totally stripped from him. America was the antithesis of Nigeria, Ghana or the male slave’s land of origin. A male slave had no authority over anyone including himself. He was reduced to a piece of “intelligent” breeding stock that could be used at the will of his owner.
The other major trauma of slavery was that there was no protection for the children. Fatherless families under matriarchal leadership had no stability. The children were at risk both physically and emotionally. Black children had to grow up quickly and learn to fend for themselves in an abusive world.
In response to the damage of slavery, our national government has tried many different legislative approaches to make up for the injustices experienced by blacks. Black leaders themselves have also used a range of approaches to attempt to bring healing to America’s racial wounds. Unfortunately, neither the non- violence of King or the rage of urban riots have fully healed the American soul.
Overcoming an institutionalized system of racial oppression is a very difficult task; yet I am thrilled about Virginia’s apology because of the moral, emotional, and spiritual implications of this simple act. First, let’s look at the moral and emotion impact of forgiveness. My friends from South Africa tell me that their nation decided to create an organized way of walking their country out of the pain of their past into the promise of their future.
After much deliberation, their nation created the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” This organization sponsored public meetings in which individuals, who had been involved in torture and discrimination of blacks during the dark days of apartheid, were allowed to make public statements and ask forgiveness for their negative attitudes and heinous acts.
The individuals involved in the process made confessions with the knowledge that they would be completely pardoned for their actions. Therefore, extreme honesty was the order of the day. Mr. Dullah Omar, former South African Minister of Justice, explained their thought process this way, "a commission [was] a necessary exercise to enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation."
Surprisingly, the absence of punishment did not anger the families of black South Africans. On the contrary, blacks were thankful that the truth had finally been brought to light. Entire communities wept, rejoiced, and used this process as a therapeutic rite of passage.
Long before South Africa’s insightful approach to national healing, the nation of Israel also experienced a wrenching experience with injustice. Their approach to healing had a more overtly spiritual approach. The Old Testament records atrocities committed against a group of people called the Gibeonites, who served Israel in a slave-like capacity (2 Sam. 23). During King David’s reign, the nation of Israel experienced a three year drought, which produced a national famine.
Although there was no scientific proof of the cause of this economic depression, the scriptures suggest that God allowed a famine to consume the resources of Israel until the nation repented for its sin against this abused minority group. When David repented to God and apologized to these people, God reversed His judgment upon their land by sending rain and fertility to their nation.
I believe that Virginia’s apology will eventually produce both the emotional freedom which South Africa experienced and the spiritual freedom that Israel enjoyed as well. I am not suggesting that state apologies are a panacea for racism and hatred. I am simply saying that this resolution is a very important first step to national racial reconciliation. It’s about time!