Two Visits to the House of Slaves

Pope John Paul II visited the Maison des Esclaves, the “House of Slaves,” on the island of Gorée off the coast of Senegal in 1992. And President Obama visited it as well in 2013, over thirty years later.  What did each say, and what does the difference tell us?

Gorée Island, designated a World Heritage site in 1978, was a locus for the slave trade from the 15th to the 19th centuries under four different European governments – Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French.   Marked by a contrast between lovely colonial homes and dark dungeons for processing slaves, UNESCO refers to it as “memory island” and intends that it remain “a symbol of human exploitation and a sanctuary for reconciliation.”

The “House of Slaves”, with its ominous “Door of No Return,” said to be the last sight of Africa for slaves being loaded on boats for the New World, was made a museum in 1962 and is now a major tourist destination.

In the 1990s, after John Paul II’s visit, a controversy broke out among historians, as to whether the House of Slaves ever processed chattel slaves – it most likely didn’t – and whether Gorée was really a major slave trade port – it surely wasn’t. In the vast system of exploitation, which was the slave trade, it seems that “only” 30,000 slaves passed through the island.  For all that, UNESCO has wisely not second-guessed its decision about the importance of the island.

President Obama’s brief remarks (here) focused on empathy and vigilance.  Accompanied by the First Lady, his daughter Malia, and his mother-in-law, he said his visit was important because it gave him “a sense in a very intimate way of the incredible inhumanity and hardship that people faced before they made the Middle Passage and that crossing.”  But the visit also reminded him “that we have to remain vigilant when it comes to the defense of people’s human rights — because I’m a firm believer that humanity is fundamentally good, but it’s only good when good people stand up for what’s right.  And this is a testament to when we’re not vigilant in defense of what’s right, what can happen.” According to the Obama archives, the president concluded his remarks, to an audience that included the President of Senegal and the Mayor of Gorée, with, “Thanks, you guys.”

St. John Paul II at the threshold of a former slave-trade depot, Gorée Island, Senegal.

One appreciates his good intentions, but he doesn’t make a lot of sense.  If humanity is fundamentally good, why are only a few of us “good people,” and why do these good people typically “stand up for what’s right” fairly selectively?  And what kind of nature do we have if, unless we are constantly very “vigilant,” we will relapse into killing and enslaving one another?  It’s absurd in any case that the system of slavery was a consequence simply of people not being vigilant in defense of what’s right.

John Paul II began his address (here), in French, with C’est un cri! –“It’s a cry that I hear!”

He continued:  “I came here to listen to the cry of centuries and of generations, of generations of blacks, of slaves.  And I am led to consider at the same time that Jesus Christ himself became a slave, one might say, a bondsman: but he has also brought light into this setting of slavery.  That light is called the presence of God, liberation in God.”

Then he says something extraordinary:  Gorée is a place where one is well-positioned to think about injustice.  Injustice is “a tragic drama within the civilization which called itself Christian.  The great ancient philosopher, Socrates, said that those who suffer injustice find themselves in a better condition than those who are the cause of injustice.”

Like so many statements of John Paul II, this one requires a lot of reflection and unpacking.  Is the saint deriding the notion of Christian civilization, calling our predecessors hypocrites?  No, he takes their professions to be generally real, as real as they can be for creatures such as ourselves.  After all, that same Christian civilization which carried out slavery also preserved that teaching of Socrates.  But we are caught in something larger than ourselves – hence the drama.  It is not so easy after all to live as though we truly believe that it is better to be unjustly treated than to do injustice.

When we accept Socrates’ teaching, we begin to reach out to “the other side of the reality of injustice,” which is unseen and beyond empathy. Empathy only senses feelings, and pleasures and pains, and therefore it must take the suffering of injustice to be the worse evil, not the doing of it.  But when we see that, when we act unjustly, we choose what is worse for ourselves not better, we begin to realize that “the roots of this tragic drama are in us, in human nature, in sin.”

To bring home the point, John Paul II brings slavery up to date: “I came here to give homage to all these victims, unknown victims. . . .Sadly, our civilization, which called itself, which calls itself Christian, returned in our own century as well to this situation of anonymous slaves.  We know what was done in the concentration camps.  Here is their model.”  Of course, elsewhere John Paul II analogized the contemporary holocaust of abortion as well to slavery.

In the two addresses, two world-views are presented: in the one, the “good people” among us, empathy their only motive, must be in a constant state of mobilization, to compel everyone else to be the good persons they are; in the other, all of us are caught in a drama, as sin is within each of us, threatening to defeat us, for which we need God’s help.

Mercy and forgiveness? They have a role only in the second.  “We cannot wallow in the tragedy of our civilization, our weakness, and sin,” John Paul II said in conclusion, “We must stay always faithful to another cry: ‘Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more,’ [Rom 5:20].”

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.