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Monday, June 2, 2014

Reparations and the Church?

The Case for Reparations
Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent article, 'The Case for Reparations' opens with scripture:
"And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him."
If you haven't yet, read Coates's treatise--much of what appears here builds on the groundwork he lays there. Coates argues for the importance of reparations in the United States, not just for the enslavement of millions of individuals, but for the legacy of profit from disparity that has been with us ever since.

These are not issues of the past. Coates lays out our history: post-Reconstruction era labor, the Industrial Revolution, the New Deal, the rise of middle class home ownership, the War on Drugs. All fraught not only with discrimination, but with broad financial profits for a nation, made at the expense of black people and other oppressed groups of color.

Only *some* veterans
And it isn't just secular institutions. In very tangible ways, Christian churches have benefited from a history of racism. Hundreds of congregations worship in churches built by enslaved people. Coates notes that certain laws mandated any property previously owned by enslaved persons "be seized and sold off by the local church, the profits used to support 'the poor of the said parish.'” Entire denominations owe their beginnings to splits resulting from their desire to maintain slave labor.

In 1969, James Forman in his Black Manifesto delivered to Christian churches states that the "white Christian church with its hypocritical declarations and doctrines of brotherhood has abused our trust and faith." Though some churches combated both slavery and Jim Crow racism, Christian institutions far too commonly upheld repressive practices and viciously fought to maintain the oppressive status-quo (additional history can be found here and other examples from Twitter voices). White Christianity remains very much a part of the legacy that Coates deliniates for the rest of the country.

Coates does give examples of several attempts from Christians to restore justice:
“A heavy account lies against us as a civil society for oppressions committed against people who did not injure us,” wrote the Quaker John Woolman in 1769, “and that if the particular case of many individuals were fairly stated, it would appear that there was considerable due to them...
Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make “membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves.” In 1782, the Quaker Robert Pleasants emancipated his 78 slaves, granted them 350 acres, and later built a school on their property and provided for their education. “The doing of this justice to the injured Africans,” wrote Pleasants, “would be an acceptable offering to him who ‘Rules in the kingdom of men.’”
I don't know how we as a nation resolve the unjust gains that our society has continued to make since that time. It will require an honest look and both our past and our present. It will take intentionality and humble study of the situation. And the Church should be leading the conversation.

But to this point, we haven't even really tried to acknowledge our debt, let alone repay it. We haven't been willing to begin to see the situation for what it is. Coates notes "it is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us." We as a Church can barely talk about race, let alone offer any sort of restitution on the way to reconciliation.

Included among Coates's reasons for promoting reparations is that it would require us to take an honest look at ourselves, to move from suppressing our history to a productive and healing restoration: "more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal."

As Christians, we realize that to become more Christ-like, we must first understand ourselves as broken. We know that when it comes to our sin, there is no statute of limitations. We must acknowledge where we have fallen short if we want to see our lives and communities changed. To allow Christ's power to move, we must look our communal, historic, systemic, and individual sins square in the face.

Instead, we behave like those who deny their need for a Savior. We loudly declare our basic goodness, a prideful rejection of any need for redemption. We choose to believe we are doing fine on our own, and then wonder why the world is full of such division and pain. How much better off would we be if we would simply acknowledge our past and continuing failures, so that we could begin our journey of renewal?

Christians also understand that on some level, we will never really be able to repay our debts. Christ's death and resurrection demonstrate our profound incapacity to redeem ourselves by our own power.  But that doesn't mean we live unchanged lives. We recognize our inability to repay God's work for us, but we also strive to approximate it as best we can each day we are on this earth.

And what is the role of forgiveness? Of grace? Aren't these the Christian way when it come to the racial debts of a nation? Maybe. But, I'm not in a position to decide. I am neither the injured party nor the Higher Authority. My role is to humbly offer whatever restitution I can, in the name of reconciling with those that have been injured. Indeed, without repentance and a healthy acknowledgement of our wrongs, words of forgiveness are cheap.

'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.

 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift." (Matthew 5:23-24)


  1. More key quotes from Coates:

    "Won’t reparations divide us? Not any more than we are already divided. The wealth gap merely puts a number on something we feel but cannot say—that American prosperity was ill-gotten and selective in its distribution. What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt."

    "The popular mocking of reparations as a harebrained scheme authored by wild-eyed lefties and intellectually unserious black nationalists is fear masquerading as laughter."

    "Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie."

    "We were not there when Washington crossed the Delaware, but Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s rendering has meaning to us. We were not there when Woodrow Wilson took us into World War I, but we are still paying out the pensions. "

  2. See also, Daniel José Camacho on Ta-Nehisi Coates as the American Exorcist:


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