July 1st, 2013, it was 150 years since slavery was abolished in the Netherlands. Klaas van der Kamp, General Secretary of Council of Churches in the Netherlands acknowledges the guilt of the church in relation to their role during the time of slavery. We as GIDSnetwerk Rotterdam organized an event to facilitate a heart-to-heart discussion with white and black how the slaverypast is still effecting lives and relationships today. The audience in the Scotisch Church was very quiet while Klaas shared reasons for being guilty. His speech touched hearts.
Klaas van der Kamp: “I will start with two Bible quotes. First from Genesis. 9:25: ‘There will now be a curse which will rest on the Canaanites (the descendants of Ham), they will be the slaves of the descendants of Shem and Japheth.’
And a second Bible quote from Philemon 1:16 and 17: ‘You haven been lost for a while, but now he will always be yours, not only as your slave, but also as your beloved brother. He will be now much more for you, because he is not only your slave, but also your brother in Christ.’
“We as churches never expressed our guilt about slavery,” continued Klaas. “But we are as guilty, as Dutch government and as churches. We as churches have played a supportive role with our theology and our predecessors. On the numerous boats that sailed the oceans, clergymen were present. They had a blind eye when we got the slaves. We presently, today, stand in their tradition.
We acknowledge, that:
– We served traders Holy Communion, traders who sold half a million slaves in the West;
– We closed our eyes as 90,000 slaves died under awful travel conditions;
- We have accepted that people were sold in Suriname for the price of 5,000 kilograms of sugar; you can still read the payment rate in the Historical Museum in Amsterdam. So we were able to upgrade the human flesh of blacks from 100 pounds to 5000 pounds; fifty times multiplied – and we accept that;
- We have ignored the sins and blessed the people involved at their funerals, while we knew their earned money through slavery. Fr. Dineke Hondius lists the names of people who were Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Jewish. They lived among us on the Singel 465, Reguliersgracht 80 Kerkstraat 61. Most lived in the better neighborhoods, it was busy on the Herengracht, but also in the Jordaan neighborhood people made money on the backs of the slaves;
- We have spoken against the English in 1806 when they were already asking for the abolition of slavery and when they prohibited that slaves were still introduced in English territory. In 1833 the British abolished slavery totally;
- We, Catholic missionaries, didn’t allow slaves to marry; despite the fact that the prefect on Curacao, mr Brewers pointed to the consequence that it was unfair for ‘men and women to live in adultery’;
- We were cautious regarding the education of slaves because that way we were running the risk that emancipation might leads to liberation. ‘Slaves received no training and education,’ writes Hendrik Algra, ‘because the slave had to stay stupid and ‘kept in reign’ like an animal, because the development of his intellect and his reason would make him stubborn and disobedient, which also could be seen among those who thought themselves wise among the soldiers and the sailors’;
- We have set up services in 1863 – the year of the abolition – to preserve and channel the peace and joy so that slaves could still remain ten years long in service as contract workers; more than 33,000 of the slaves had to continue as contract workers and it helps if you preach in church in Suriname for example John 8, 36, “If you are liberated by the Son of God, you will be free indeed.” In other words, you are this way disconnecting spiritual freedom from physical conditions;
- We have been lazy in applying the prophetic message to our own situation and have used theology as a tool to justify the conditions within our society;
- We kept silence for the past 150 years and sang songs about the exodus without acknowledging that we ourselves should drown with Pharaoh in the Red Sea; we even have taken the songs of the slaves, the Negro spirituals. But when we sing “Go down Moses” we do not think of our own injustice, but think about innocent spiritual experiences which are limited to the interaction in our own individual hearts;
- We see that the parishes in large cities are still rich and maintain agencies where parishes in the middle of the country, like Drenthe, only can dream of. How did they get that much money?
What do we hope to achieve?
We want churches to be honest about our past. We want as churches in the Netherlands to remember and think about this issue, between now and July 1, 2013 and hold a critical mirror to ourselves.
We ask local churches to put something of their experiences on paper and send this to us, so it can get a place in the remembrance and the celebration of the abolition of slavery in the Koningskerk in Amsterdam on July 1, 2013.
Why did the Council of Churches put the abolition of slavery on the agenda?
The decision has been taken five years ago. Bas Plaisier, the former General Secretary, has insisted. He realized that there was injustice close to home. As so often, we tend to hang out the white Dutch pastor, the priest abroad. The further away, the better we know. But closer to home, the more we condone. How long did it take until we recognized some form of debt around Srebrenica? How long did it take before we acknowledge guilt about the police actions in Indonesia? How long are just not been reformed theologians who defended apartheid in South Africa? That must have an end when it comes to abolish slavery.
Why is this recognition important?
– To give space to repressed guilt;
– To give relatives of victims the right of a fair history;
– To look more honest at ourselves here and now;
– To understand how theology can work;
– To not hang out with a wrongly applied ‘mantle of love’ an iron curtain to the future.
How far do you go? How guilty do we want to make the story?
I guess we will not go too far. We will restrict ourselves to posthumously recognize guilt about allowing slavery. This is actually already a lot, because this enables us to build together. There are limitations, I suspect. Because when you make theology totally guilty, you run the risk that people walk away. And most of us desire to work towards the memorial July 1st, 2013, in unity. It be so.
I want to challenge you by giving three examples how we can go a step further by showing how mechanisms that played a role in slavery are still at work today. The easiest way for us is to recognize the mechanism when it comes to exposing people with criminal behavior. After all, that is a group where we do not belong to. I think we quickly can agree that criminals who hold women as slaves in brothels, that such injustice should not be tolerated.
It becomes more difficult when we look at theology and ask questions like: When is theology misused to justify an existing situation? As churches we are against violence towards gay people. But at what point is theology misused, when is it exploited by malicious people, as an excuse to use it an excuse for bad behavior towards? Should we take this into account? I confess guilt.
It becomes even more complicated when it comes to the economy. I haven been interviewed beforehand by Gea Gort. We talked about my other work, as publisher. We operate internationally. Gea asked by how that goes. I was told that there are parts of typesetting or printing that can be done in India, Poland or China, for sometimes ten or twenty percent of the costs in the Netherlands. The question is: what do you do with the money you save this way? Do you deduct that and reduce the price for consumers? Do you that extra to producers in countries with low wages? Or do you use it to maximize profits? I’m afraid that I have to give the same answer as the people who were once active in the slave trade. Do I efficiently manage the chain and enterprise? Is that just common sense, or am I using the same mechanisms that were used during the slave trade, namely monetizing efforts made by others? If the latter is the case, the memorial will be very exciting, because we are also talking about the excesses of Western society, neo-liberalism and the money fever that disrupted Europe and the world at this time. I confess guilt.
Translation of speech by Klaas van der Kamp, 18-9-2012
Photo’s of the meeting by Sjaak Boat here on Flikr