By Peter Armstrong 9-02-2016

On Sept. 1, Georgetown president John J. DeGioia announced the university would begin offering preferential admissions to descendants of the 272 slaves the school sold in 1838 to keep the institution financially afloat.

This marks the beginning of a process of atonement for the institution’s past sins of slavery and racism. And while many white people still shy away from the language of atonement – many prefer to call the process one of “reconciliation,” including those at the university who called for a “Mass of Reconciliation” – in fact, atoning for our sins is exactly what white Americans need to do at this time.

When I graduated from Georgetown in May 2015, the campus had not yet become a hotbed of discussion over renaming Mulledy and McSherry Halls, named for school leaders who directly participated in the sale of slaves. Nor had I yet come to realize the extent of America’s “original sin” of racism. I only knew McSherry Hall, the oldest building on campus, as a spiritual home for me, where I gathered to meditate and pray with my closest Georgetown friends. My religious devotion was focused on finding spiritual peace.

I had not yet come to see that seeking God’s kingdom necessitates working for both peace and justice.

I gradually awakened to Jesus’ spiritual call to justice in my year since graduating. I went to live in the north side of St. Louis, near Ferguson, and had the privilege of learning from many religious leaders who had been actively engaged in the Ferguson uprising. These Christian leaders, including Rev. Starsky Wilson, Rev. Traci Blackmon, and Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, spoke to us about the need for Christians of all races to join together in dismantling the sins of racism.

In one moment that particularly stuck out in my mind, Rev. Wilson spoke of why we should talk about "atonement" for racial injustice rather than "reconciliation:"

[The language of] Old Testament atonement is much preferential for me to New Testament reconciliation. Old Testament atonement, when you did something wrong, you made an offering such that the relationship was made right between you and the person you wronged. New Testament reconciliation, God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self. The person who had been wronged, who is God, actually makes the sacrifice for the sake of the relationship being right again.

In the Old Testament, the people of Israel damage their relationship with God through numerous counts of idolatry, and they atone for their sins by making sacrifices until their relationship with God has been restored. In the New Testament, we are offered a new route to restored relationship with God, when Jesus took up the burden of our faults and allowed himself to be placed on a cross for our sake. In the first example, those who did the initial wrong must pay for their wrongdoing; in the latter, the wrongdoers are absolved of their sins before they even know they are at fault, because the person whom they wronged took it upon himself to bring them back to right relationship.

After hearing Rev. Wilson speak, my first response was something akin to, “But wait, if Jesus is perfect, shouldn’t the fact that he chose reconciliation and sacrifice, rather than atonement, prove once and for all which way is superior?”

It is true that Jesus’ perfect sacrifice is necessary and superior to anything that we may accomplish — as long as we will never in this world reach perfection, we will always be in need of restoring our relationship with God. Yet that does not mean we have the right to demand reconciliation from others we have wronged, or to speak of it as if it were somehow owed to us.

Imagine, for a moment, how the book of Exodus would have played out if Moses and the people of Israel demanded reconciliation rather than offering atonement. Rather than confessing their sins and asking for mercy from the Lord God (whom they had wronged by worshipping the golden calf), Moses could have gone up to the top of Mount Sinai and self-righteously demanded that God take on the fault of the Israelites’ sin.

Consciously or unconsciously, white people often want people of color to take up the cross of reconciliation. White people may tell themselves that “race relations have nothing to do with me.” Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, we thank God that we’re not like those who are overtly racist, and wash our hands of the issue in a show of piety.

And yet we are often perfectly content, when a person of color does take on the work of reconciliation and begins speaking out about race, to let crowds of internet trolls gather and defame that person, shouting “Crucify him! Crucify her!,” as in the recent cases of Colin Kaepernick and BeyoncĂ©.

When white people watch and idly stand by as people of color speak out about injustice, and yet do nothing to stand in solidarity with them, we allow Jesus to be crucified all over again.

In an interview released Sept. 1, Fr. David Collins, S.J., chairman of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation, said that it was the Working Group’s “clear consensus” that “Georgetown, or the Society of Jesus, owes something to the descendants of the slaves owned by the Jesuit community.”

The steps Georgetown has pledged to take include giving the former Mulledy and McSherry Halls the new names of Isaac Hall and Anne Marie Becraft Hall, respectively — named Isaac for one of the 272 enslaved persons sold in 1838, and Anne Marie Becraft for the free black woman who, in 1827, founded a school for black girls in the Georgetown neighborhood.

The message from President DeGioia begins a process of atonement, giving descendants of the 272 slaves the same level of preference in the admissions process as they give members of the Georgetown community. The New York Times wrote that Georgetown’s decision to grant this kind of “preferential status … may be unprecedented” in its creative determination to take responsibility for the sins of slavery and racism.

But the continued use of the language of reconciliation around this news obfuscates the need for real, full-fledged atonement.

At a moment like this, while the nation watches Georgetown takes this opportunity to correct the sins of its past, white Americans must not demand reconciliation. We must take the work of atonement upon our own shoulders. To do otherwise is to live as if Jesus’ life were not a gift, but something God owed to us from the beginning.

Peter Armstrong is the Executive Assistant for Sojourners.

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