Georgetown's apology for slavery is light on moral argument and even lighter on theology

University campuses across America and in Britain have long debated racial inequality, but in recent months the emerging race issue has been black slavery. Many universities have had their slave origins “outed”, including Brown, Columbia, Harvard and the University of Virginia.

The latest to seek reparation is the Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington DC. In 1838 the University sold 272 slaves working on Jesuit plantations in southern Maryland, and used the proceeds to pay off the university’s debts, receiving $115,000 in the sale, the equivalent of about $3.3 million today.

In offering an apology and seeking reparation, the University has decided that the descendants of those 272 slaves will now receive admission to the university on the same basis as other legacy applicants whose parents or siblings are alumni.

The policy, which does not include financial aid, reportedly will apply to descendants of all the slaves whose labour benefited Georgetown, not just the 272 slaves. This policy is a slightly curious – not to say privileged – solution which assumes these descendants actually want to apply for the university and can afford the $70,000 it costs to go there.

The university was cautioned “against a utopian pursuit of reconciliation”, so Georgetown President John DeGioia said they had to use what Edmund Burke called “moral imagination”.

He explained: “In particular, we have been troubled by how the lack of moral imagination – the inability to see black human beings as deserving of equal dignity – could lead to institutionalised trade in their bodies and labour. By extension, we have asked ourselves how our society and its business practices might lack moral imagination today. In what ways does our economy and its institutionalised trade make us blind to injustices?”

Interesting that he should use Burke’s phrase from Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke described the destruction of civilising manners by the revolutionaries, stating: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

Burke then wrote: “On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.”

Instead, Burke believed that the spirit of religion sustains moral imagination, along with a whole system of manners. Lacking such imagination, he says, means that we are cast forth “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow”.

The discord and confusion of the antagonistic student protest and identity politics, promoted with great media success, is a call for all and sundry to apologise for slavery in the United States, bolstered by a populist notion – only in true in part – that America was built by oppressing African Americans, for which reparations are now demanded.

In the groves of academe, and indeed elsewhere, the revolutionary cry is to tear down statues, rename buildings, get rid of emblems of this past, change the language, all the while paving a way to the gallows to judge the past. These are the calls for penitence.

Today’s leaders cannot apologise, or take responsibility, for what their predecessors or other society leaders did, but Georgetown has forged a version of the three-step process of apology. The first step is the acceptance one has wronged another. The second step: this is communicated as an acknowledgement. This taking of ownership is the means of taking a third step, which is the attempt towards reparation or reconciliation, which may or may not be accepted or achieved.

Georgetown has acknowledged and accepted the sins of the past, and communicated this with steps of reparation, but can it achieve reconciliation? Forgiveness of those sins has long since been in the hands of God, for both the victims and the perpetrators. This theological point is not offered in the report.

Slavery is clearly a wrong, but there is still an awful lot of it about. It is a wrong that goes back to the earliest days of human organisation, and it is a mark of progress in the capitalist and democratic organisation of society that it was gradually phased out normatively, along with appalling conditions experienced by many other workers.

Despite this, there are still, according to International Labour Organisation estimates, roughly 21 million people worldwide who are victims of forced labour, while the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation estimates there is over 45 million in slavery today. Modern slavery takes many forms, such as forced labourers, forced prostitutes, child soldiers, child brides in forced marriages and other expressions of property and chattel in the servitude of absolute ownership. The United States, per capita, has a very low rate of slavery of a mere 0.02 per cent, or one in every 5,000 people, which still adds up to a lot, namely an estimated 60,000 slaves in America today.

The Georgetown report, spanning some 100 pages, is surprisingly light on moral argument, and even lighter on theological reflection. It gives an impression, in short, of being a morality tale forged in haste by committee. The main task of the report is to record – dare I say, confess – the history of the acts of slavery at the university. The main objective is then to outline as many different swords to fall upon as possible.

What can be better achieved is the learning of past events and avoiding the repetition of history, though sadly humanity is all too adept at doing so in different ways. Protesting students, rightly horrified by the past, would do well to turn from prosecuting those whom God alone can judge and reconcile, and turn their energies to modern slavery.

One theological approach to highlight as the university continues to consider its history is that offered by St Ambrose of Milan, who explained in a letter that it is not nature that makes a person a slave, but folly, and it is not emancipation that makes someone free but learning.