A panel of Harvard Divinity School faculty reflected on the school’s ties to slavery and its responsibility to educate the next generation of religious scholars and leaders in a webinar Monday evening.
The virtual talk was the sixth and final installment of the Divinity School’s “Religion and the Legacies of Slavery” lecture series, which sought to extend the findings from the landmark 2022 Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery report and apply them to the Divinity School’s history, mission, and curriculum.
Associate Dean of the HDS Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Melissa Wood Bartholomew, who co-moderated the event alongside Diane L. Moore, asked panelists to reflect on the core questions of the webinar series.
“What does the academic study of religion teach us about the complex histories and legacies of slavery?” Bartholomew asked. “And how can a deeper understanding of the roles of religion enhance our commitment to a period of action in our contemporary times?”
Karen L. King, whose lecture in February focused on the role of slavery in the formation of Christianity, noted that the Bible has been cited both to justify and condemn slavery.
“The Bible does not have a single coherent or consistent message about enslavement,” King said. “The Bible has been used also to nurture a theology of a god who shares in pain and suffering requires justice and kindness, and who opposes enslavement and its legacies.”
David F. Holland, an HDS professor who studies New England church history, said it is important for Divinity School students to study and deconstruct white supremacy as a “belief system” with rituals and symbols.
Moore, the HDS faculty director of Religion and Public Life, asked panelists how classrooms should go beyond deconstructing “complicated histories” in teaching about the legacy of slavery and how professors can help chart a path forward.
“It is wrong for us to only deconstruct, to take apart, to challenge,” Moore said. “What does it mean to rebuild or reimagine or engage with complexity in different ways?”
Holland said as a historian, he views complexity in academia as “empowering,” enabling students to consider the different paths that could have been taken and how they might “shift the arc of history” today.
Tracey Hucks, a professor of Africana Religious Studies who moderated a discussion on reckoning with and redressing the harms of slavery earlier this month, stressed the importance of “listening with an open heart and an open mind” when discussing the legacies of slavery.
In the last half-hour of discussion, panelists reflected on audience submissions to a questionnaire that had been sent out in advance of the webinar. The questionnaire asked attendees to discuss what they learned and connect it to their own lives.
Divinity School professor Terrence L. Johnson said one audience response challenged him to think differently about reparations as a tenet of “political liberalism.”
“Just as we talk about equality of opportunity and equal rights, we need to talk about this idea of reparation for those who have been harmed and wronged by our society,” he said.
Reflecting on the lecture series as a whole, panelists said they were optimistic about the conversations around the legacy of slavery sparked by the webinars.
Divinity School senior lecturer Dan McKanan, whose lecture discussed the role slavery played in the school’s founding, said the responses to the series gave him hope.
“I’m really hoping that we will be on a seedbed of creative thinking about reparation for Harvard as a whole,” McKanan said of the Divinity School, referencing the school’s dependence on “endowed wealth” and ties to religious groups with prior work on reparations.
“I hope that we have created an atmosphere for an honest reckoning within ourselves,” Bartholomew said.