Tuesday, February 16, 2021

What Can Hamlet Tell Us About Reparations?


Great literature can teach us a lot about life. Take for example, Hamlet. There is a scene in it where Claudius contends with his guilt for killing his brother, Hamlet’s father. There is honest regret in his words and a desire to pray to God for forgiveness. He states his moral dilemma thus:

 Then I’ll look up, my fault is past.

But, O, what form of prayer can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder?”

That cannot be for I am still possessed

of those effects for which I did the murder.

My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.

May one be pardoned and retain the offense?

In other words, he realizes it is useless to pray for forgiveness when he is unable to let go of what he has gained by his brother’s death. He then goes on to say that perhaps man’s justice might let him get away with it, but God surely sees through his lack of repentance.

 Actually, Claudius sees God as the sterner judge, but He is far more merciful than man can be. For as Claudius speaks, Hamlet looks on, planning to kill him where he kneels. Hamlet is now convinced that his uncle has killed his father. He sees Claudius seemingly at prayer, seemingly contrite, and pauses. He does so not out of pity but with the thought that if he kills him as he is praying for forgiveness, he will be forgiven and go to Heaven. Hamlet does not simply want to kill his Uncle, he wants to make sure his Uncle spends eternity in Hell for his crime.

 No, it is far wiser to depend on God’s mercy than man’s. But Claudius realizes even God will not extend mercy to one who yet retains the rewards gained by his crime. Even someone so horrible as to engage in regicide and fratricide can yet see this clearly.

 Let’s for a moment extend the story into the hypothetical. What if both Claudius and Hamlet survived to have descendants? Would the children of Claudius be without sin if they too held possession of the crown and the castle that by rights belonged to Hamlet and only came to them through murder? I was never fond of the Biblical passage that talks about God “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons to the third and fourth generation” but it seems appropriate in this circumstance. What was unjustly taken will be a source of contention until the crime no longer rewards the guilty.

 I think about this when hearing people so lightly dismiss the past injustices suffered by others. “African Americans were slaves,” they say, “but that was a long time ago. No one alive now experienced that.”

 But an injustice must not merely be undone but rectified. Atonement must be made or it will hang over even generations that had no part in it. For if they are still possessed of the effects of their ancestors’ crimes, can they be forgiven by God let alone man?

 But perhaps your family came to America after slavery was outlawed. You possess no land that was farmed by slaves. Surely you owe no debt.

 Yet the land you now own was once the land where others lived. They did not leave voluntarily. Because of the sins of others, you now have what you have. So long as you participate in the spoils of a sin, you share in the guilt.

 Even if you are a poor white person with no land and little wealth, you share in the guilt of those who have unjustly taken from others. The phone you use contains minerals mined by children in Africa. The food you eat was farmed by itinerant labor. The beans that make the coffee you drink were picked by exploited peasants. Much of the clothes you wear were made by children or by those whose ability to earn a living will be used up at an early age.

 But let us put aside the question of what we owe to our fellow man and to man’s justice. Let us ask what debt we owe to our very planet. How can we claim to own what we have obtained by her rape? The crimes we are committing now will be paid for by all our children, who will never share in the wealth we created by our planet’s destruction. What possession is worth retaining in the light of the punishment we will pass on to our children’s children? How can we hope to gains God's forgiveness, let alone theirs? 

 Our choice, as it was for Claudius and as it would have been for his descendants if he had had any, is a choice between seeking God’s forgiveness and keeping all we have acquired through theft and murder. As Claudius realized, it is not an easy choice. In his case, it would have meant abandoning his crown, his wife, his wealth, his renown. In our own case...well, that is what we must decide. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, there is no cheap grace, no easy path to God’s love.

 It is surely the easiest path to say we need not account for sins of the past, sins committed by those long dead. But until those who continue to benefit from such crimes make an earnest attempt to redress them, an earnest attempt to foreswear all that we possess through those crimes, even if they were not committed by us, we will of necessity continue to participate in those sins. As with Claudius’ and Hamlet’s hypothetical descendants, that which was taken by the father must be defended by the son, one generation to the next. Until the day that God’s or man’s judgment is exacted.

The choices are stark. Claudius’ choice was between repentance or continued killing. If Claudius had passed his ill-gotten gains to his children, he would have passed along with them the need for generations of subjugation of those who were dispossessed. Our choice is not so different. The path forward will not be easy—as it has not been easy for generations of those who sought forgiveness while possessing the offense—but it is not obscure.

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