As Caribbean community nations move to maintain the pressure on Europe to atone for the sins of slavery and pay reparations for the wealth they have accumulated on the back of free African labour, the role churches played appears to be coming into focus as the next area of contention, according to a Caribbean Life news report.
It reported that Bishop Karel Choennie of Paramaribo addressed the issue front-on in his Christmas message, predicting that churches will have to face up to their own role during the more than 300 years of European enslavement in Suriname.
The bishop was commenting on Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s apology on behalf of the Netherlands, December 19, 2022 while King Willem-Alexander did likewise in his Christmas message. Both said the Dutch cannot escape its past links to slavery.
The Dutch apology followed recent fact-finding visits by PM Rutte and a multiparty Dutch parliamentary delegation to Suriname, a former Dutch colony, to gauge the effects of slavery on Caribbean societies.
The apologies, Bishop Choennie said, should not remain empty words. “We will have to take concrete actions in a world where everything is connected to everything and everyone to everyone. If the Netherlands does not help us eradicate structural poverty, we will continue to succumb to multinationals that drag our raw materials away for next to nothing and leave behind a polluted environment,” the Bishop said.
He believed it is possible that the doctrine of original sin can explain why people do not feel guilty or responsible for the institutional evils that fester in all kinds of unjust structures, systems and treaties, not only from the past but even more so in the present.
Slavery, Bishop Choennie underscored, is the fruit of original sin. He said although the Catholic Church has taken care of the enslaved and cared about the fate of the lepers, “we remained trapped in the system of master and slave.”
He said historian Mildred Caprino summed it up for him this way: “The physical horrors of the slave masters can be compared to an ant bite, and the spiritual anguish that the churches have contributed to a scorpion bite.”
An ant bite hurts but it passes, while the scorpion’s venom is deadly if you don’t find an antidote to it. “We have taught the people through our schools that it is God’s will to be submissive to the masters. We taught them that there was nothing good in their religion and culture. That civilisation meant to despise all one’s own and to imitate the whites in everything.”
Bishop Choennie pinpointed that in the “apparently hasty” apologies of the Dutch Prime Minister, he “completely ignores” the suffering inflicted on the indigenous population, not only by conquering their land, but also by systematically exterminating them through punitive expeditions, by burning down their villages and agricultural lands, by bludgeoning captured warriors to death, by pitting the Natives against the Maroons, by silencing them at independence and disregarding their just claims for land rights.
“What a joy it will be when the Netherlands and Suriname together ensure that it will once again be a life-giving creek with reparation to the indigenous population,” he said.
The scars of slavery are legion, and nations struggle with them every day, but the worst form of slavery is mental slavery, said Bishop Choennie. No apologies made by anyone and no repair, though necessary, “will free us from this mental bondage,” he said.
Bishop Choennie then urged Surinamese, through the power of Christ, to set themselves free, forgive the oppressor, and open the way to reconciliation.
This, he said, is a long, arduous road that begins with recognising the power of sin and that all need deliverance from God.