Black Lives Matter

Martin Leiner

Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena

Martin Leiner is Professor for Protestant Theology and Ethics at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena. He has previously held positions at the University of Mainz and the University of Neuchâtel. Since 2008, he has focused on transdisciplinary research on reconciliation processes worldwide. This includes historical examples such as German-French reconciliation after World War II to current challenges such as reparations for human rights violations and injustices in former colonies, reconciliation and refugees, or reconciliation in conflicts about heritage. Reconciliation Studies are a new, creative academic field where definitions, research methods, and ground-breaking theories still are very much in the making. After a series of summer schools, Dr. Leiner won a Deutsch Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) grant for the research on “Encountering the suffering of the other” in Israeli and Palestinian contexts. This grant also established the Jena Center for Reconciliation Studies (JCRS) with two PhD programs and twenty PhD students. Dr. Leiner is the founding president of the International Association for Reconciliation Studies (IARS), which was established in 2020. Dr. Leiner has published on reconciliation theory and on practical experiences in countries such as Colombia, Congo, East Asia, Germany, Israel/Palestinian Territories, Rwanda, and South Africa. He is the editor of the series Research in Peace and Reconciliation (RIPAR) and published books and articles in various fields of theology.

At AICGS, Dr. Leiner will research the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenges of reconciliation between African Americans and white Americans. He will conduct a series of expert interviews and focus on confessions of guilt and acts of forgiveness in religious and political contexts. He will compare U.S. approaches to confessions of guilt and forgiveness to approaches in Germany. His hypothesis is that in the United States, the initiative for a process of reconciliation is much more on the side of the victims than in Germany, where confessions of guilt have a certain tradition since the end of World War II. Dr. Leiner expects to find a potential for mutual inspiration and to deliver one of the first scientific descriptions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) organized by Black Americans across the country.

The DAAD/AICGS Research Fellowship is supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office.

Activism for Reconciliation in a Divided Country

Since a policeman killed Michael Brown on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, the United States has experienced a new phase of dealing with the legacy of slavery, police violence, mass incarceration, and other forms of violence and discrimination against African Americans.[1] “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) became the general term for the social movement which created, supported, and inspired manifold activities that are all advocating for different forms of justice for people of color. Parts of the Republican party are building legal cases and making statements during electoral campaigns to stop the changes BLM is struggling for. Such strategies have resonated with voters, most recently in the Virginia gubernatorial election on November 3, 2021. The result of those struggles is that due to a lack of racial reconciliation, in 2021, America is a deeply divided society.

Around and within BLM, “reconciliation” has become one of the key words in dealing with racial injustices. It is printed on the bags sold in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) with a quote from its founding director Lonnie Bunch: “What is NMAAHC? It is a place for healing and reconciliation, a place where everyone can explore the lens of African American experience.” The BLM movement raised much attention to the issues of racial injustice and pushed many people to activism for reconciliation, which made the creation of many American Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) possible. The New England Law School in Boston in cooperation with the Carter School at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, reports and maps thirty-six locally organized TRCs across the country and mentions one national initiative, the Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The inspiration is clearly from South Africa. “Why aren’t we modeling our TRCs after the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission?” has been a subject of many discussions and articles in newspapers.[2] Through connection with Native Americans, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008-2014) has also inspired the commissions in the United States. However, there is an important difference between the U.S. TRCs and the South African and Canadian TRCs. The commissions in the United States were not established by a law like in South Africa or by federal government decision but are often local initiatives, which in some cases have been endorsed by municipalities or states like the Maryland Lynching Truth and Reconciliation Commission (MLTRC). Like BLM they work bottom-up and not top-down.

BLM: History and Shape of a New Social Movement

According to interviews conducted during my research stay at AGI, BLM is a new social movement, not just a follow up of the tradition created by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s with the goals of abolishing police violence and hyper-incarceration, creating a different memory culture, and teaching a comprehensive history of slavery and racial segregation in schools. It has a different theoretical approach than the Civil Rights movement, which was and is more focused on systemic problems, not so much on creating opportunities and equal rights for people of color. This systemic approach is shared not only by academics, but also by the founders of BLM. Patrissa Khan-Cullors, cofounder of #BlackLivesMatter, writes: “When our political activism isn’t rooted in a theory about transforming the world, it becomes narrow; when it is focused only on individual actors instead of larger systemic problems, it becomes short-sighted.”[3] Racism and poverty are considered not only as individual realities, but as consequences of systematic violence and of capitalism.[4] One reason for this systemic focus is economic; even if Black people have succeeded in professional life in many ways, the majority of poor Black people experienced decreasing income during several years, including during the Obama presidency.[5]

Around and within BLM, “reconciliation” has become one of the key words in dealing with racial injustices.

Another consequence of the systemic approach is that new spaces for critical communication have been opened: Black faces in high places are not an argument against the systemic racial discrimination. Whites and even Black people who are not intentionally racist can cooperate with and benefit from structural racism. Intersectionality is important, but for BLM, racial discrimination is the fundamental term, which cannot be replaced by seemingly deeper analyses of power-relationships and class injustices.[6] In the BLM movement, Black feminism and Black LGBTI+ activism play a much bigger role than in the classical Civil Rights movement.[7] In return, in most places and initiatives, Black religious leaders still play a role, but they are not as dominant as in the times of Martin Luther King, Jr. BLM is organized locally and through social media campaign specialists. There are no nation-wide leaders. This has been deplored by senior leaders of the Civil Rights movement such as Jesse Jackson. The new generation of BLM, however, does not want the older leaders to tell them what to do. To quote one of the interviews in the research project: “They can join if they want, but they do not have to tell us what to do.” From this basis, BLM could find new forms of cooperation. The acronym BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or People of Color) indicates the new close alliance with Native Americans.[8] Cooperation with other people of color such as Latin Americans or Asian Americans is not strong; however, BLM receives much more support from White Americans than the original Civil Rights movement. In majority white neighborhoods in cities such as Washington, DC, you find BLM signs in about one third of the gardens in front of the houses. This is astonishing, because many activists in BLM are quite critical of Whites taking part in the movement or even researching on BLM topics. Inclusion of white people is only one of the different debates which could threaten BLM to fall apart into different antagonistic groups.

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are one initiative made possible by and in many ways related to BLM. As experienced in South Africa, TRCs are one instrument for deeper social and cultural change. They have their impact and their limitations. Working across the United States, the TRCs are one of the uniting elements for the issues BLM mobilizes against such as police violence and historical injustices including lynching and hyper-incarceration. U.S. TRCs are a social innovation, replacing the tribunal-like style of some TRCs around the world through truth-telling approaches. TRCs start from the victims, and not from the state which took the responsibility for the perpetrators, as it was in Germany after World War II. For Germans this is already something that requires deeper understanding. How is it possible that victims can develop such agency? Maybe religious backgrounds can help to understand.

A Weberian Hypothesis

In most reconciliation processes around the world, different actors have different scripts of reconciliation in mind. Consequently, legal and political roadmaps often clash with the expectations of others. This can be formulated as a comparative hypothesis considering reconciliation in the United States and in Germany.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber claimed that religious and confessional patterns can still structure our approaches to parts of our lives even if we are not religious. What he developed for an economic context can be true for reconciliation as well. This would mean that:

  1. For the confessions which dominate(d) Germany (Roman Catholics and Lutherans), the Sacrament of Penance is so important that it determines the script for Reconciliation (Script A).
  2. In the United States, the confessional situation is more diverse. Even more prevalent than Catholics and Lutherans are Baptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Reformed Churches, Episcopalians, communities marked by the revivals in the nineteenth century, and Jews. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), which partly corresponds to Mishnah Jonah 6 and wide-spread Jewish views today, is the model for all those groups: As a victim you forgive actively and seek reconciliation (Script B).

Script A, penance as a model, means that reconciliation should include:

  1. Regret and personal acknowledgement of moral failure (contritio cordis),
  2. Confession of guilt before the priest or the community (confessio oris),
  3. Forgiveness by the priest or the victim (absolutio), and
  4. Reparations showing the serious wish to make things good as much as possible and transforming the perpetrator (satisfactio operum).

This script has many strong elements. It is good for the healing of the perpetrator; if confession is with a public audience, it promotes the truth and includes reparations. But there are also two typical problems if the model is used in social processes of reconciliation. The victims can feel as though they do not have an active enough role, and they might be unwilling to forgive before the reparations have materialized.

Script B, the model of absolute forgiveness, gives all initiative to the victim. Victims might first work through their trauma before moving toward a unilateral decision to forgive. The advantages of this model are that victims can fulfil their need for agency. It can free the victim from anger and resentment if those feelings are left behind or overcome by empathy. Another advantage of this model is that it can lead to further steps toward reconciliation. It can open a road to new trust, but it does also not exclude legal procedures against the perpetrator. One possible weakness of this model is that those further steps, especially building a bridge to the perpetrator, often is not thought of as a major problem by both victims and perpetrators.

The confirmation of this hypothesis would be if we:

  • Predominantly find the “Victims start forgiveness Script” in the United States, especially in Baptist, Methodist, Reformed, and Jewish groups and
  • Find fewer examples of the penance script in the United States and find them mainly in Roman Catholic and Lutheran environments.

As most TRCs are in the middle of their work, a direct investigation of TRCs in the United States can only be achieved with a sufficient basis of sources when reports are published. But, as a pilot study, it is possible to look into well-documented examples for apologies and forgiveness and to document expert interviews.

Georgetown University: An Example for Apology

Two famous recent examples for reconciliation fit very well in that hypothesis. In 2017, Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington, DC, searched for reconciliation, acknowledging that the university owned slaves and sold 272 slaves in 1838 to prevent the university from going bankrupt.

The university held a “Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope” during which university leadership confessed slavery as a sin and expressed remorse for that history. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States said, “Today the Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned, in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done, and what we have failed to do.” In his speech, Kesicki addressed possible problems of the penance model when he said that Georgetown University cannot move on alone but needs forgiveness from the descendants of the victims. Georgetown University president John DeGioia added that the expression of contrition is just a beginning to move on with justice. Georgetown announced three main activities for justice: renaming buildings for those they enslaved, studying history of slavery, and, as an innovative element, that all descendants of those enslaved by Georgetown have been given the same conditions for admission to Georgetown as the families of alumni and donors. The spokeswomen for the victims have criticized exactly those points which can be a problem in Script A: descendants have not been integrated enough into the process from the beginning and it was strange that reparations followed the forgiveness; only after the liturgy was the reparation fund accepted.

Charleston Church Massacre: An Example for Unilateral Forgiveness and Victim Agency

Another example is the massacre in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, when nine African Americans were killed by a young white man with clearly racist motives. The victims decided to forgive the perpetrator, arguing that it is part of their identity as Christians to forgive and not to seek revenge. Forgiveness could not reach the perpetrator, who continued to affirm that he had no regret for what he did.

In Germany, political activism for victims of discrimination and other injustices could learn from BLM and regain agency by focusing on absolute forgiveness and confront the population and the perpetrators with truth, justice, and claims for reparations in order to move on towards reconciliation.

A similar example for forgiveness and opposition to the death penalty also occurred in the Pittsburgh Or L’Simcha synagogue massacre in October 2018, where eleven people were murdered.

With those two prominent Methodist and Jewish examples we can find a confirmation of our hypothesis.

After Eleven Interviews

To further test the hypothesis, eleven interviews have been conducted with religious and political actors. Five were Roman Catholic (one Black), two Presbyterian (one Black), two Baptist, one Episcopalian (revivalist, Black), and one Methodist (Black). The sample is far from representative but at least showed that all five Roman Catholics and both Presbyterians underlined the necessity of a confession of guilt in the reconciliation process. One Roman Catholic, one Baptist, one Presbyterian, and one Episcopalian rather framed their views from forgiveness and the agency of victims. The results of these interviews also provide a confirmation of the hypothesis. All interview partners acknowledged the importance of justice and of reconciliation as a goal.

Conclusion: A Case for Transatlantic Learning

If societies have both scripts available, the task is only to harmonize the different steps between victims willing to forgive and perpetrators confessing guilt. If only one script is at hand, reconciliation processes can easily get stuck because the bridge to the victims or the perpetrators cannot be built and people do not know what to do if the other side is not playing their role in the script. In the United States, it is favorable for reconciliation that both models are present. However, the penance model could be stronger. Political apologies for slavery are still rare. Therefore, leading politicians and elites should consider an apology and a confession of guilt for slavery, racism, structural violence, hyper-incarceration, discrimination, and police violence in order to strengthen the reconciliation process and, through public confessions, change public option in a virtually irreversible way. This is what happened in Germany. Together with new generations learning the complete history with all its dark sides, public apologies have created social learning. Social psychological studies, for example made by Tel Aviv-based researcher Arie Nadler, show that a circle of reconciliation can be established when victims’ needs of recognition are met and when perpetrators show a morality which can become the basis for future collaboration.

But Germans can also learn from the United States. Still very much focused on the penance model, German victims often feel unable to move on without the apology from the perpetrator. After injustices committed by the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR), there were very few apologies made by the communist elites. This led to a situation where victims feel stuck and unable to go on with reconciliation. The result is a socially divided society. In Germany, political activism for victims of discrimination and other injustices could learn from BLM and regain agency by focusing on absolute forgiveness and confront the population and the perpetrators with truth, justice, and claims for reparations in order to move on towards reconciliation.

[1] Before the 2014 events in Ferguson, in Sanford, Florida, in winter of 2012, an unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin was shot to death by a community patrol volunteer. According to several authors, such as Barbara Ransby, BLM started in the protests that followed and let to the creation of organizations such as Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. B.Ransby, Making all Black Lives Matter. Reimaging Freedom in the 21st Century )University of California Press 2018), p.29: “If […] Ferguson […] was the fire.”

[2] For example: on December 11, 2020, New York Times Magazine published a conversation between David Marchese and South African scholar Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, “What Can America Learn From South Africa About Healing?”.

[3] Quotes from B.Randby, op.cit. note 1, as motto of the book.

[4] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books 2016), and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (ed.), How we get Free. Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Haymarket Books 2017).

[5] K-Y Taylor writes: “Since Obama came into office Black median income has fallen by 10.9 percent to $33,500, compared to a 3.6 percent drop for whites” (From #BlackLives Matter, op.cit. note 4, p.11.

[6] This explains also the distance between #BLM and #Metoo movements.

[7] CF. K-Y Taylor (ed.), How we get free, note 6 describes that Black feminism is born from difficulties to cooperate with White women-dominated feminism and with black men-lead Civil rights movement.

[8]  For the history of that cooperation see Kyle Mays, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States (Boston: Deacon Press 2021).

This paper presents research done during October and November 2021. The author thanks Jeffrey Rathke, Eric Langenbacher, and all the researchers and fellows at AGI for their very helpful assistance. He also thanks all the interview partners who took their time to share their insights and colleagues who helped him to come into contact with the people he talked to.

Supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FF).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.