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English review - Slavery, our original Sin?

Review - Slavery, our original sin?

On Monday evening the room at LUX was filled with people, but the buzz they created seemed adjusted to the seriousness of the topic at hand. Cultural historian Coen van Galen from the Radboud University and theologian Erik Borgman from Tilburg University were invited on this evening organised by Radboud Reflects, to offer their views on the history of slavery and the relation of this history to the Christian notion of original sin.

History and the present moment

In his lecture, Coen van Galen provided a historical overview of the relation between slavery and the Netherlands and offered insights in the way this historical reality persists in today’s society. Before doing so, he offered a definition that emphasizes that slavery is an exploitative socio-economic relationship that dishonors and alienates slaves as humans, seeing them instead as tools or property. Slavery is also not restricted to a particular period in history, but still exists in varying forms today. It is noteworthy that women always have been, and still are, the majority of people in slavery.

After this explanation of slavery, van Galen turned to the Dutch involvement with slavery and slave trade. The most well-known case is the WIC (Dutch West India Company). In fact, slavery in the VOC was less visible but of greater proportion. Around 1700, the Netherlands even had the greatest part in the worldwide slave trade. Van Galen made use of numbers and graphs, which allowed the extremity of historical reality to sink in.

The violent domination in slavery results in slaves adopting certain coping mechanisms, such as not appearing too bright or too hardworking. However, these coping mechanisms were seen as characteristics of slaves by the slaveowners and perpetuated via stereotypes in society as well. Almost inevitably, slaves themselves internalized to a certain extent the inferiority to which they were subjected. This split in society that is created by slavery is persisting to this day. In the Netherlands, it came to the fore in particular in 1975, with the independence of the Republic of Suriname. Many people returned to the Netherlands, expecting to find a warm welcome in their ‘home country’ but instead met with varying forms of racism and hostility.

Our original sin

In the second part of the event, theologian Erik Borgman directly addressed the question: ‘what has the history of slavery to do with us, or what do we have to do with it?’. Borgman noted that this question might be particularly difficult to address in a Dutch context, given the pernicious Dutch bias of not being racist and of being a tolerant society.

According to Borgman, the theological concept of original sin provides a fruitful way to engage with the painful history of slavery. Original sin has three essential aspects: first, evil precedes and can influence the human being. Secondly, evil is an active force and not restricted to the activity of the human will that results in evil. Thirdly, original sin results in an inability to will good and see evil. This last point was stressed by Borgman, since it implies that the other takes on an important position: we can only see so much, and greater insight into our own wrongdoing is the result of being addressed by the other. Thus, e.g. the idea that the Dutch are not racist can only be undermined by the perspective of the victims of racial injustice.

This ‘other’ that addresses us, is also the other that was subjected to slavery. The current focus on apologies and financial compensation misses this essential aspect, according to Borgman. The apology needs to be accepted by – and thus shows our dependence on – this other. The idea of original sin also helps us to see that evil always exists and that apologizing does nothing to change the past. However, Borgman noted, the permanence of evil cannot be used as an excuse not to try to deal with the consequences of the past. Instead, it brings with it a great shared responsibility.

Discussion

The final discussion was structured around the Christian tripartite of (historical) sin, repentance and salvation. The complex relationship of Christianity with slavery was discussed in more depth by van Galen and Borgman. Christianity and its foundational text, the Bible, were used both to justify and abolish slavery. But, Christianity also allowed slaves to obtain a better bargaining position. Borgman was quick to stress that slaves were active agents and thus shaped their Christianity in a particular way. As for repentance, the role of the king as head of the state in offering an apology was discussed. Since the Kingdom of the Netherlands took over from the corporate slaveowners in the 19th century, Van Galen thought it reasonable to demand that the king offers the apology, and not the prime minister. The evening ended on a positive note, namely salvation. Salvation in this case is exemplified by the festival of Keti Koti. Both Van Galen and Borgman agreed that in order to make this day a National Holiday, explicit reflection on what freedom and being a Dutch citizen means, is needed. In this way, a more inclusive society can be established without losing sight of the perniciousness of its history.

By Corniek le Poole