Reparations and The Church

I was recently asked to speak at a forum for racial diversity in the church in Athens, GA. I was given the following topic to address within a strict 15-min timeframe: “What is your opinion concerning reparations for African Americans as a starting point to reconciliation between the races?” Following the forum, a number of people have asked for my presentation notes. I have been hesitant to make them public due to the sensitive nature of the topic–and because my notes are not fleshed out or cited properly. I also know that I can barely outline the topic in 15 minutes…. I have made an effort to go back and cite some of the sources from which I quoted more directly and I apologize if I have missed anything.  nj

[Definition]

Let us start by reminding ourselves what reparations are in various contexts. Two classic definitions preside:

  1. The making of amends for wrong or injury done: reparation for an injustice.
  1. Usually, reparations. Compensation in money, material, labor, etc., payable by a defeated country to another country or to an individual for loss suffered during or as a result of war. (dictionary.com)

Reparations are typically made by a political entity–not just individuals. Specific individual situation is not taken into account so much as that individual’s being a part of the offending political entity.

[Reparations in society/history]

As we enter into the conversation in the church, it is helpful to gather context from the society at large—(and, if we had time, we could explore some global circumstances in which reparations have been requested/made.)

I encourage you to read Ta-Nehisi Coates recent essay, “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic this past summer (and it’s successor “The Case for American History”). One of the key points that many will miss in this discussion is that the African-American population has suffered much more than the 250 years of chattel slavery. Many forget the “Ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal, [and] thirty-five years of racist housing policy.”

Coates describes a racism that is not just directed at those who are most impoverished or uneducated—but a racism that actually targets those who, by hard work and intelligence, were best poised to succeed in post-civil war America. He presents a solid case that ending poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same thing.

A year ago, I sat with my 6 year old on the couch, reading our history textbook. She pointed out a picture of an African-American infant being torn from the arms of his sobbing mother as she stood on the block for sale. As I explained the context of the illustration, she wept. And rightly so.

Do you still weep?

To my white brothers and sisters—Have you ever wept?

And, to all of us, I ask: For what do we weep? For Whom do we fight? To what end do we labor?

Do you weep for the Native Americans as they were forced west and decimated by disease? Or for the Palestinian Christians who are being persecuted? Have you wept for the lives ravaged by Boko Haram? To my African-American brothers and sisters—Do you weep because that child and that mother have dark skin like yours? Or do you weep because that child and that mother are made in the image of the living God?

Few argue with the condemnation of such racist practices, but those of us who most resemble the oppressive party are quick to dispute any involvement, benefit, or responsibility. After all, I didn’t buy or sell slaves. I wasn’t there when Charlayne Hunter Gault and Hamilton Holmes stepped onto the UGA campus. My family had no connection at all to Georgia at that time (My mom is from Chicago and my dad is South African. Wait—that’s a whole new discussion isn’t it? Chicago being notorious for its model racist housing policies and South Africa for the apartheid regime). But don’t associate me with those practices just because I was born with light skin.

Right?

I ran across an Old Testament passage (2 Sam 21) in which a famine had come upon Israel in the days of David for three years. As David was seeking God’s face, he was told that there was bloodguilt on “Saul and on his house” because he had put a group of people to death that Israel had sworn to spare. David went to this people group (who were not Israelites) and asked, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” After some conversation, it was decided that 7 of Saul’s sons should be hanged. It was done—and the famine was lifted.

The Lord seems to hold a future generation responsible for the sins of their fathers. He curses the land until reparations have been made. Then he blesses the land again. I am not sure what, exactly, to do with this. I do know that Christ has died—and risen—to atone for the sins of all generations. Is this a principle He wants us to learn from?

Even for those who agree there have been lasting effects for which we are at least partly responsible—and desire to improve upon the current state—there are vast differences in the suggested approaches. NDB Connely (AA history professor at Johns Hopkins) applauds Coates articulation of the injustices, but seems to disagree with the final conclusion. He advocates more for political action.

Some of the common arguments against financial reparations:

–too many groups have suffered (native americans, Mexicans, women, etc)

–improper distribution of reparation funds

–reparations perpetuate poverty

–logistics—how much? To whom? By whom?

–too much time has passed—slaves have passed away

(these are just a few)

Many of the objections seem to see poverty as the primary issue. But I would agree with Coates that ending poverty and ending white supremacy are different issues.

Regardless, this isn’t just a “black problem.” Even if you don’t see yourself as having “white privilege” and feel you shouldn’t have to address the wrongs of your nation, we must realize that we have together become impoverished—both perpetrators and recipients. (Life at the Bottom; Dalrymple)

This is more than just a financial poverty. And it is not just African-Americans who are in need. It is a poverty of relationship, culture, dignity, character, and (yes) economic opportunity and circumstance as well.

By addressing injustices from dominant to sub-dominant culture, we will all become richer.

[Reparations and the Church]

What does that look like in the church? “Reparation is, quite literally, the act of repairing what has been broken. It is restoring a loss, healing wounds, righting wrongs. And this is precisely the business of the Church. Or at least is should be.” (bytheirstrangefruit.blogspot.com)  

In Christ, we have been reconciled unto the Father. And, in Him, we are compelled to reconcile with one another.

1.  I believe the first step is education.

We need to acknowledge the truths:

-we are affected by the actions of our fathers

-we are responsible for our response

-we are connected

-we are actually incapable of “repairing” the damage. (humility)

Education is key, but I have worked long enough in addiction medicine to know that education alone does not change behavior. We need more than just education to address this issue.

2.  We need relationship.

I have been taught that we don’t like people because we don’t know their stories. We need to hear one another’s stories. Not just the larger racial/cultural history—but the world seen through another unique lens.

We argue that we don’t “fit in” with one another. Yet we too often use this phrase as a mask for the more truthful version: “I don’t want to fit in.” or “I am afraid I won’t fit it.” Are you willing to know and be known?

We often move on a spectrum from “I don’t want to know you” to “I want to know you, but I don’t want to admit that I don’t know you” and hopefully land closer to “I want to know you and I am willing to learn.” (ref?)

Yet we need more than relationship—relationship is hard and we mess up.

3.  We need grace—the unmerited favor of God. (and one another)

We need to ask God to show us the beauty in culture, in race, in gender. He delights in these differences—and in the unity of His people.

David Anderson is an African-American who leads a vibrant multi-cultural church in Columbia, Maryland. In his book Gracism, he draws our attention to I Corinthians 12:12-26. After speaking of spiritual gifting in the early verse of chapter 12, Paul turns the discussion in verse 13. It reads: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Verse 13 addresses unity across race, culture, and class. Anderson leads us to interpret verses 14-26 (where he describes the parts of the body) in light of verse 13. In these latter verses, we are taught not only that we need one another, but that (1) the weaker parts are indispensable, (2) we are to bestow greater honor on those parts we think less honorable, and (3) we are to give greater modesty to those parts which are more unpresentable—the more presentable parts do not need special treatment.

Anderson calls it gracism. He says: “Gracism, unlike racism, doesn’t focus on race for negative purposes such as discrimination. Gracism focuses on race for the purpose of positive ministry and service. When the grace of God is communicated through the beauty of race, then you have gracism.”

We are to use our cultural privilege to lift up those who do not share it. This certainly applies to white privilege in the US, but doesn’t stop there. Almost everyone has a sphere in which you are part of a dominant culture. How can you use your privilege on behalf of others?  

[To what end?]

In our discussion of reparations, we must keep in mind our goal—reconciliation.

When Israel signed the reparation agreement with Germany in 1952, the Jewish prime minister stated: “If I could take German property without sitting down with them for even a minute but go in with jeeps and machine guns, I would do that.” (Coates)

Can you, my African-American brothers and sisters, echo the sentiment of this Jewish leader? Then perhaps your goal is punishment and retribution. And your anger, while in need of grace, is not unwarranted.

Are we, white brothers and sisters, so intoxicated with our own culture, possessions, and prestige, that we will not entertain the thought of using our privilege on behalf of others? How can we—if we refuse to acknowledge its existence?

Perhaps our goal is self-protection.

Our goal must remain reconciliation in Christ.

[What do I really think?]

I think overt financial reparation made within the church would not accomplish or aid the said purpose of reconciliation.

I believe there is a place for reparations on a national level. The specifics of that bill would be important—and difficult.

I am in favor of churches stepping more fully into the political discussion and participating in peaceful activism for civil rights.

I am in support of legislative changes to better protect the rights of the citizens. Though I believe that, as President Johnson stated in 1965, “No law that we now have on the books…can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.”

We cannot change our own hearts—how can we legislate changes in the hearts of others?

More than anything, I believe in integrating our churches. Half of us may be clapping on 1 and 3, and half on 2 and 4—but that’s all right. And we may have to learn to worship in some other languages (because there are more than black and white in Athens).

It should not be an anomaly to have a church with more than one race or culture represented any more than it is an anomaly to have men and women worshipping together.

If we want to see change—if we want to be changed—we must practice gracism in the context of true relationship. We must be willing to know and be known.

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