A reflection on dismantling structural racism in South African context
By The Rev. Noble Scheepers
Racism distorts all parts of a system. It is a systemic and structural scourge gnawing at the very core of society. In seeking to dismantle racism, it is imperative to first acknowledge that the manifestations of racism don't just happen because of a few social, political or business miscreants. They occur because the environment of racism nurtured and still promoted by a culture rooted in apartheid did not end at the ballot box.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu taught us that the legacy of apartheid--the well of bitterness--seemed too deep and current to be obliterated by the mere embracing of partnership. The contrasts remain too stark; yet there is resolve, because truth-telling and reconciliation can turn into something lasting and fruitful. I have seen church leaders in South Africa confess and beg forgiveness. I have experienced church leaders here in Massachusetts confess and beg forgiveness. BIPOC persons have wonderful capacity to forgive. We believe in our interdependence, for we say a person is a person through other persons and humanity is bound up with one another.
People that have suffered the injustice of racism themselves should be the primary actors to define what justice means and how they would see that justice could be achieved. Victims and/or their descendants should define identity and guide appropriate responses from the communities of transformative justice. A victim-centered approach is intrinsic to our notion of justice.
For churches in the struggle for racial justice, acknowledging that racism violates people's and creation's integrity, as well as interpersonal relationships, is a requirement. Where racism is or has been present, victims and the church community have been harmed and need healing and wholeness. That implies that the members of the community who committed the offense and sin of racism or their descendants should be helped by the community to understand the harm that racism has caused to the victims--peoples and environment, historically and at the present--and to take responsibility. An element of that responsibility is confession, apology and asking for forgiveness.
Truth, however, is healing to both the victims and the offenders. Truth is healing of the individual members as well as of the community and their institutional life. Truth-telling, individual and institutional, belongs to our notion of justice.
In addressing racism and historical wrongs, it is essential to hold together acknowledgement, truth-telling, confession of complicity, omission or commission, apology, asking for forgiveness, restitution, "putting things right" in relationships, reconciliation, healing and wholeness. That is the great challenge of which we are aware. Let's celebrate with the pluralism of our cultures and ethnicities, because God intends us to succeed, for the sake of the world.
The Rev. Noble Scheepers is the rector of Trinity Church in Marshfield and co-chair of the diocesan Racial Justice Commission.