This liturgy was written for the 5th anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson And was co-lead and created by Benjamin Mertz and Lynn Gottlieb
Kavanah - Intention: The transAtlantic slave trade and its legacy of ongoing harm negatively impacts black experience with all public & private institution in American life. Racism is an oppressive and deadly force in health care, housing, education, voting rights, policing, systems of justice from court to prison, transportation, reproductive rights, distribution of resources, employment, and cultural & historical representation. Tonight it is our intention to lament these crimes against black America, acknowledge their genocidal impact and offer reparative acts.
Although tonight is dedicated to lamentations and reparations for the transAtlantic slave trade and its ongoing legacy of harm, we acknowledge that Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, now known as The United States of America, have suffered hundreds of years of genocidal policies of conquest, forced assimilation and mass incarceration by non-native peoples who came to this continent as participants and beneficiaries of colonial imperialism. Ohlone elder, Corrina Gould, teaches us: “I believe that no matter where you come from, you have a responsibility to know where you stand. People need to know that there was a people who lived there before they did. They need to consider, then, what’s their responsibility to the land, to each other, and to the First Nations people who come from there.” Tonight we honor Ohlone Chochenyo people by remembering that we are guests upon their land.
In addition, we acknowledge the brutal harms perpetrated upon immigrants and refugees fleeing their countries of origin. The United States is deeply complicit in root causes of mass forced migration that include climate disaster, corporate exploitation, Western overconsumption, militarism and disregard of human rights.
While acknowledging these harms deserve our ongoing activism, tonight Chochmat Halev, Kehilla and IM4HI lift up the special circumstance of descendants of the transAtlantic slave trade and “stand in solidarity with the black community, as shared members of ancestral slavery, to talk about the steps we can take to truly acknowledge the ongoing damage of American slavery and how we can move towards healing and reconciliation.”*
Ta Nehisi Coates’ testimony in support of HB40 - read out loud to someone nearby
“Yesterday, when asked about reparations, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell offered a familiar reply: America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible. This rebuttal proffers a strange theory of governance, that American accounts are somehow bound by the lifetime of its generations. But well into this century, the United States was still paying out pensions to the heirs of Civil War soldiers. We honor treaties that date back some 200 years, despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach. It would seem ridiculous to dispute invocations of the Founders, or the Greatest Generation, on the basis of a lack of membership in either group. We recognize our lineage as a generational trust, as inheritance, and the real dilemma posed by reparations is just that: a dilemma of inheritance. It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery.
As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement “shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics” of America, so that by 1836 more than $600 million, almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America. Three billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined.
The method of cultivating this asset was neither gentle cajoling nor persuasion, but torture, rape, and child trafficking. Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.
It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders and the guard of bondage was lustful and begat many heirs. Coup d’états and convict leasing. Vagrancy laws and debt peonage. Redlining and racist G.I. bills. Poll taxes and state-sponsored terrorism. We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard. He was alive to witness kleptocracy in his native Alabama and a regime premised on electoral theft. Majority Leader McConnell cited civil-rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them. He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they’d love a word with the majority leader.
What they know, what this committee must know, is that while emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open. And that is the thing about Senator McConnell’s “something”: It was 150 years ago. And it was right now.
The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share. The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow.* Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them. Thank you.”
A Brief Summary of the history of Reparations in the US
Reparations has a long history in the United States, but one you might not expect. Former slave holders were paid reparations for the loss of their slaves! On the other hand, black people have asked for reparations throughout their history in acknowledgement of ongoing theft of bodies, property, culture and land. In May 1969, Jim Forman. former director of SNCC, disrupted the regular service at Riverside Church to deliver a Black Manifesto, a call for Reparations demanding that white churches and synagogues pay reparations for Black enslavement and continuing discrimination and oppression.
Recently, in the wake of Ferguson and Black Lives Matter manifesto and movement, the call for reparations has been re-invigorated. HB40 is being discussed around the country. There are reparations hearings in Congress. A group of organizations that include the Fellowship of Reconciliation, N’Cobra, Rjoy, Coming to the Table, and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity are calling on faith based organizations to observe a season of reparations. These groups are encouraging non-descendants of the transAtlantic slave trade on Turtle Island (USA) to dedicate themselves and their faith based communities to a process of reparations that becomes part of their everyday lives, and develop relationships with black led organizations as a way of fulfilling this ask, and look to dismantling racism within their own communities.
Reparations includes resistance to white supremacy. Like Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and Tree of Life Synagogue members, most North American Jews understand our proximity to white supremacy’s deadly history. Even though non-black Jews were never systemically targeted for enslavement, lynching, red lining, legal segregation or mass incarceration, we understand the vile and genocidal consequences of persecution born of white supremacy. That is why this evening of lamentations and reparations is dedicated to strengthening acts of solidarity with Jewish and non-Jewish African Americans living in the United States. The struggle against white supremacy is an intersectional struggle.
What is Tisha B’Av? Tisha B’Av is a day of fasting and lament for catastrophic events in Jewish history, including the Neo-Babylonia and Roman conquests of Eretz Yisrael, the Crusades, forced exile from Spain in 1492 and the Holocaust.
Lament is undertaken by the entirety of the community not just to mourn, but as a generative act that leads to teshuvah, acts of restorative justice. Teshuvah is a healing process in response to systemic transgressions within a framework of collective accountability for the sacred work of healing and rehabilitation for both victims of harm and those who benefit from systems of harm. Teshuvah requires public acknowledgment of harms as well as restitution or return of what was stolen. Teshuvah requires a process of rehabilitation, compensation, satisfaction by victims of harm and guarantees of non-repeat of the harm. The Jewish teshuvah process is aligned with the spirit and practice of the process of reparations called for by descendants of the transAtlantic slave trade and its legacy. Let us begin. Please sit in meditation while we await the first song.
LAMENTATIONS AND REPARATIONS
Part One: Let us lament the bitter history of slavery Song led by Benjamin Mertz: Is Anybody Here? Book of Lamentations Chapter One 1:1 אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃ (ס) בָּכ֨וֹ תִבְכֶּ֜ה בַּלַּ֗יְלָה וְדִמְעָתָהּ֙ עַ֣ל לֶֽחֱיָ֔הּ אֵֽין־לָ֥הּ מְנַחֵ֖ם She sits in wretched solitude torn from her family forced into slavery everything gone. She cries through the night. Her tears burn her cheeks. None come to comfort her
Frederick Douglas, July 5, 1852: What to the Slave is the fourth of July read by Saabir Lockett
The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked more horrible to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America! “I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;” I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.
Part 2: Let us lament the brutality of white supremacy
Work Song/Spiritual led by Benjamin Mertz: Every Time I think About Freedom Book of Lamentations Chapter 2:13 What shall I bring to bare witness for your suffering? To what shall I compare your experience? מָֽה־אֲעִידֵ֞ךְ מָ֣ה אֲדַמֶּה־לָּ֗ךְ הַבַּת֙ יְר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם מָ֤ה אַשְׁוֶה־לָּך וַאֲנַֽחֲמֵ֔ךְ בְּתוּלַ֖ת בַּת־צִיּ֑וֹן כִּֽי־גָד֥וֹל כַּיָּ֛ם שִׁבְרֵ֖ךְ מִ֥י יִרְפָּא־לָֽךְ׃
Text from prison: Etheridge Knight’s poem “The Idea of Ancestry”: Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style, they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me; they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee..
Part 3: The sins of racism trouble our souls, how shall we be accountable?
Book of Lamentations Chapter 3: 5 - 7 He has piled troubles up against me until my head is covered over He makes me dwell in dark places like those long dead Walled me up in cages I cannot leave. He loaded me up with chains And when I cry for help He stops my prayer.
Abolition Song/Spiritual led by Benjamin Mertz: No More Auction Block for Me
Small group sharing: What are the harms of racism that impact you on a daily basis? Or, if you are white, what are the harms of racism you see on a daily basis. What could reparations look like for you? Protocols for small group sharing: 1. People of color speak first. 2. No one interrupts - we just go around and listen. 3. After each person speaks, the person says: Dibarti - I have spoken. The group responds: Shamati - we have heard. 4. Each person takes a minute to share their thoughts/feelings. This sharing is only a drop in an ocean of experience.
Part 4 Healing the wound
Kinah, a lament from Sephardic tradition: Avroles lloran por lluvia - trees cry for rain. Arvoles lloran por lluvia y montañas por aire Ansí lloran mis ojos por ti querido amante Lloro y digo qué va a ser de mí En tierras ajenas me vo murir
Deshojar quero una roza y hacerme un vestido Para irme a pasear con ti mi querido Lloro y digo ...
Enfrente de mi hay un angelo con tus ojos me mira llorar quero y no puedo mi corazón suspira Lloro y digo ...
Spiritual led by Benjamin Mertz: There is a Balm in Gilead
Reflections - Why I am taking the pledge
A REPARATIONS PLEDGE read aloud communally if you choose to do so
I pledge to approach reparations as a healing journey
I pledge to acknowledge and work to heal the legacies of moral and material harm that originated with the transatlantic slave trade and continues to manifest harm in Black communities.
I pledge to learn more about America’s history of racism and its foundation of chattel slavery.
I pledge to learn more about how structures and institutions built on slave labor continue to disenfranchise people in the African diaspora as well as devalue Black lives.
I pledge to act in ways that limit institutional complicity in violence against Black People. This may mean divesting from investments that harm Black People.
I pledge to be sensitive to the intersectionalities of the harms of racism.
I pledge to participate in reparations in my local community and encourage my networks to do the same, guided by the analysis and leadership of black led organizations and individuals.
I pledge to take this message to my family, friends and community with love rather than through guilt or shaming. I pledge to undo racism within my own faith based community according to the principles articulated in this pledge.
I affirm this pledge in my name: (recite your name)
Part 5 Turn Lament into Reparative Action with a Guarantee of not repeating the harms of racism
Book of Lamentations: 5: 1, 2, 21 Remember what happened to us? Look and see how we were abused and shamed. Our inheritance was stolen by strangers. Our houses were given away to colonial settlers. Our children were orphaned , we had to pay to drink our own water. Turn our spirits toward healing. Reinvigorate our days with blessed hope. Restore our faith in the future. We rise up and shine like the fierce colors of dawn
Reflections with Reverend Dorsey Blake: What do reparations mean to me. Service of Lamentation and Reparations “O my Ancestors, what was it like to be stripped of all supports of life save the beating of the heart and the ebb and flow of fetid air in the lungs? In a strange moment, when you suddenly caught your breath, did some intimation from the future give to your spirits a wink of promise? In the darkness did you hear the silent feel of your children beating a melody of freedom to words which you would never know, in a land in which your bones would be warmed again in the depths of the cold earth in which you will sleep unknown, unrealized and alone? Those words were from the writings of Dr. Howard Thurman. An ex-slave said: “Slavery time was tough, boss. You just don’t know how tough it was.”
Yet, within all of the misery of slavery, there came forth from our ancestors ways forward. They sang, saved, worked, hoped and trusted that there was a better day ahead. They believed that life was more than the brutality, the harm done to them, the denial of their humanity. And, nowhere was determination to go on, to move forward stronger than in the songs they created that we call the Negro/African American Spirituals.
The ancestors were not only survivors but, creators, artists, musicians, ministers, crafting a way of living in the present as a harbinger for the future.
What is the meaning of reparations to me? They don’t mean much to me at all personally. They could mean something of great significance to the descendants of African peoples collectively and to the soul of the nation. Reparations could mean that the nation is asking for forgiveness for its sin of slavery -- a sin that Thomas Paine warned the founding fathers not to incorporate into the body, heart, bloodstream, the soul of the coming nation; but, his admonition was rejected.
There is no way to repair what has happened! Just as Omar Khayyam wrote:“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” Neither can the nation take back it’s original sin and crime against humanity.
Reparations cannot repair the bodies, minds, hearts brutally raped, dissected, and murdered during slavery and what has proceeded since.
Reparations must not be merely an attempt to mend in the present sins and exploitation of the past. It must be about the future.
Reparations could have meaning as an invitation to forgiveness.
Reparations could mean recognizing that the “new nation” that Lincoln declared in his Gettysburg address – a nation of the people, by the people and for the people – never became manifested in this nation. It could mean that Rabbi Heschel was right when he said: “Not all are guilty; but, all are responsible.” If we could incarnate respect for all and the cosmos itself into the corporate body of the nation, how liberating and sustaining that would be!
In this invitation to being forgiven, there must be the recognition that the financial compensation itself comes from extraction from communities on the edges, extraction that continues to haunt and harass those communities even today. This asking for forgiveness could be an asking for a new relationship, one that does not continue to demean, dominate, destroy. For whatever amount the financial compensation might be, it could not put the descendants of the enslaved on the same footing -- it would not create a level playing field – with the descendants of the owners of those enslaved bodies.
My hope would then be that reparations would be an opening for all of the children of the cosmos to begin a new walk together truly as sisters and brothers. Brother Benjamin, isn’t there a spiritual that says: “Walk together children. Don’t you get weary” -- with the current machinations of the nation and its leadership. “There‘s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land’ – in the new consciousness of freedom that we must claim. I would hope that it would be commitment to working with the Eternal building the new house, the World House as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned, where we would all dwell. Does not Psalm 127 reminds us: “Unless the Eternal builds the house, workers build in vain; unless the Eternal guards the town, sentries (and border guards) are on guard in vain.
Reparations to me could signal that perhaps this nation is seeking its soul, to have integrity, to be authentic. It could mean a commitment to live differently, with an economic order not based on profit and division -- the capitalistic model, but one that would incarnate the idea of beloved community, where there “is plenty of good room” for all, where the nation would be a vine and fig tree and everyone could live beneath the vine and fig tree without being crushed, and live in peace and unafraid.
Dorsey Odell Blake
Final poem: Still I Rise Maya Angelou with special rendition by Benjamin Mertz You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may trod me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you? Why are you beset with gloom? ’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells Pumping in my living room. Just like moons and like suns, With the certainty of tides, Just like hopes springing high, Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken? Bowed head and lowered eyes? Shoulders falling down like teardrops, Weakened by my soulful cries? Does my haughtiness offend you? Don't you take it awful hard ’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise That I dance like I've got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame I rise Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise I rise I rise.
Benjamin Mertz’s music is available here: https://www.benjaminmertz.com