Repairing, part 1

Shavuot, which begins at sundown today, marks the end of a seven-week period called the Omer, or Counting of the Omer, which began at Passover. The first day of Passover commemorates the escape from Egypt. The last day of Passover, a week later, commemorates the crossing of the Red Sea, and Shavuot commemorates the receiving of the Torah from God on Mt. Sinai.

On this Shavuot, we look at repairing, and draw on the Jewish concept Tikkun Olam, to repair the world. In Jewish social thought, Tikkun Olam has come to mean we share a partnership with God to improve the world and help others.

The Torah -- consisting of the five books Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy – has enslavement at the center of the story. The Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, and became free. That’s something for which to be grateful. One might be grateful for that in the sort of way that one is grateful for antibiotics: we use to be subject to a lot of diseases that now we aren’t, thank goodness. But the Torah makes clear that this episode of enslavement isn’t just a horrible thing in the past which we can be grateful is over. It’s an ongoing instruction in how to live now.

For instance, because of that past experience in Egypt, there’s a requirement of care for immigrants. Leviticus 19 commands:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Also based on that experience in Egypt, there’s an injunction about slavery. Deuteronomy 15 commands:
“If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. And when you send him out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today.”
This is in the section of Deuteronomy known as the Deuteronomic Code. It is presented as sermons by Moses. Scholars say it was probably composed around the time of King Josiah, near the end of the 7th century BCE – so, about 2700 years ago. It is “essentially the work not of a jurist or statesman, but of a prophet” – which is to say, its primary impetus is to call out and correct injustice.

The Deutoronomic Code provides protections for women, children, widows, foreigners, and the poor. It methodically provides legal compensation for those victimized by the inequities and brutalities that may otherwise inhere in the social system.

Healing is our theme for May. Healing and wholeness come from the same root. In law, a tort remedy’s purpose is to make an injured party whole. That’s the legal term: “make whole” -- make whole – heal – repair the injury, the wound. The Deuteronomic Code from 2700 years ago was about making whole the victim’s of that society’s inequities and brutalities.

The wholeness sought was not just for the victim, but for the society. If I do something that hurts you, there is not one injury, but two. It hurts you, and it also rends our relationship – and there’s a need for repair at both those levels. I, the perpetrator, also need to heal from the wound it does to me to know that I have done harm – and from the wound it does me that I have done harm even if I don’t know it. If I go blundering about oblivious to the damage I’m causing, that damage nevertheless cuts me off from the possibility of flourishing relationships and from the fulness for which human life yearns. It constricts me in ways of which I might not be consciously aware.

The principle applies to nations as well as to people. When, in the years after World War II, Germany considered reparations for the Jewish people, at first only 29 percent of West Germans believed that Jews were owed restitution from the German people. Forty percent thought that only people ‘who really committed something’ were responsible and should pay. Twenty-one percent thought that the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what had happened. Over the next year, Germany’s intentional process of reckoning with itself shifted those numbers, and Germany ultimately paid to Israel more than $7 billion in today’s dollars. On top of that, Germany paid individual reparations claims. By 1961, reparations money had paid for two-thirds of the Israeli merchant fleet, and reparations money funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system, which tripled its capacity, and nearly half the total investment in railways.

Nothing, of course, could make up for the Nazi murders, but reparations “did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.” Germany didn’t just repair Israel. Germany repaired Germany.

It took a little longer after World War II for the US to reckon with Japanese internment camps, but in 1988, Congress authorized payments of $20,000 in reparations to most living internees. Sam and Sumi Koide, long-time vibrant members of this congregation, both of whom died this year, were active in the campaign to make that happen. Was it enough? Probably not. But it was significant repair – of those harmed, and of the nation’s wounds that it recognized, at last, it had, in fact, inflicted upon itself.

The possibility of repairing damage done by centuries of white supremacy is alive today in ways that it has not been for 156 years – not since Lincoln’s assassination was followed by the Andrew Johnson administration which overturned Special Field Order Number 15 – a.k.a., General Sherman’s “40 acres and a mule” plan.

Of course we have questions about reparations. How would it work? Should the money go to individuals or into community investments and programs? How do we trace lineage? Are we talking about Black people, or all people color, or indigenous peoples? Would reparations bankrupt the Federal Government? Or the questions that sprang to David Brooks’ mind:
“What about the recent African immigrants? What about the poor whites who have nothing of what you would call privilege? Do we pay Oprah and LeBron?”
I don’t know the answer to those questions. I don’t think we need to know the answer right now. All we need to know right now is that these questions are not unanswerable. There are various proposals for how to answer them. Put all proposals on the table and let’s work out something.

We might start with Boris Bittker’s proposal (cited in a Jonathan Rauch's article) that we offer reparations for official school segregation.
“A program to compensate children who were required to go to segregated schools would not raise any conceptual difficulties in identifying the beneficiaries. Entitlement would depend exclusively on the fact that the student was assigned to a black school, regardless of his actual racial origin.”
As Jonathan Rauch adds:
“They are easy to identify. Many of them are very much alive. It cannot be seriously disputed that they were wronged, not only educationally but morally, by being forced into separate and hardly equal schools. Moreover, the perpetrator of the injustice is not a race, a “society,” or slave owner who are all long dead. The perpetrator, like the victims is identifiable and very much alive: government.”
That would be at least a start – clear and do-able.

The reparations conversation was significantly revived by a long article in Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2014. Coates concluded:
“And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely....What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

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