I’ve been ordained in a predominantly white Christian denomination for a decade. And over the course of this time I’ve been asked by white colleagues to participate in more than a few conversations about race, race relations and racial reconciliation etc. Initially I saw being a representative truth-telling black voice in these conversations as an opportunity, maybe even a duty. But after years of engaging in these church-based race talks, I’ve decided I can’t do it anymore.
My reason for this is simple. I’ve lost all faith in these conversations. Mostly because my experience has shown that they serve little purpose other than to provide an occasion for well-meaning white Christian folks to assuage their racial guilt without actually having to do the hard work of repairing the damage done by the system of white supremacy.
Though I made this decision recently I’ve been thinking about this since Ta-Nehisi Coates almost singlehandedly reignited the reparations conversation back in 2014 with his The Case for Reparations: An Intellectual Autopsy essay. By making the case that black social peril and inequality in the United States of America is mostly the result of the legacy of white supremacy and African enslavement, Coates effectively initiated a new debate in public discourse about the virtues and vices of reparations.
Among the many insightful aspects of Coates’ argument is his assertion that African enslavement and white supremacy were in part substantiated and justified on Christian theological grounds. For many of us, this is not new news; but it did get my mind to thinking again about the role Christian theology has played in advancing black social inequality.
It is a historical fact that one of the primary supporting institutions of African enslavement was the Christian churches. Many of the churches provided the theological and ideological basis on which enslavement functioned and thrived. For this reason I argue that the Christian church was as complicit in the atrocity of enslavement and the advance of white supremacy as any other party; and as result the contemporary Christian church must take responsibility for helping right the wrongs that it helped perpetuate in US society and culture.
And this brings us to the issue of reparations.
Given the shameful legacy of church supported black oppression (in the form of racist theologies and ecclesiastical apartheid) I contend that the most vocal contemporary advocates of reparations should be Christians. This seems only right to me. But unfortunately this is currently not our reality.
Though there have been many Christian reparations advocates over the years, there has been no significant Christian movement for reparations in the US. I find this sad; especially given the fact that there is a well-established movement among evangelical churches focused on promoting “racial reconciliation.” This movement has a cadre of speakers and writers who peddle their message of gospel centered racial unity all across the country to audiences great and small. To be sure, many of these individuals are doing good work and they should be commended. But I also think they should be critiqued.
Too often evangelicals are quick to talk about reconciliation but have next to nothing to say about racial reparations or repair. I view this as a tell-tale sign of the disingenuous thinking of the modern evangelical movement. On the one hand, evangelicals love to preach the cross as the symbol of Christ repairing the relationship between God and humanity, but yet, they refuse to recognize the need for social repair in human relationships (racial or otherwise). If evangelicals truly believe that Christ had to die as payment for sin before humanity could be fully reconciled to God, how can they not understand, that in like manner, some form of payment is due those who have been socially wronged before true reconciliation can occur?
Again, this seems only right to me and I certainly hope more evangelicals will come to understand this critical point.
On the brighter side there are a growing number of progressive Christians, like myself, who understand the responsibility that the American church has to advance the cause of reparations. As progressive Christians we place a strong emphasis on social justice and care for the poor and the oppressed which leads us to view reparations as a significant issue of contemporary faith and life. We believe that justice is a basic theological tenant and as such it demands that communal damage be answered with communal repair. This means that any serious conversation about racial reconciliation must include ideas about corrective justice that seeks to remedy injustices of past. Therefore, it follows we view all discussions of racial reconciliation that are devoid of reparations to be inadequate at best and at worse unjust.
Moreover, as a progressive Christian I also support reparations because it has the power to move our country from historical shame to honor. In the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament) early Hebraic law required restitution and imprisonment as punishment for theft and damage. This punishment was seen as necessary for the restoration of the guilty party so that they might be communally reinstated with some sense of honor after having paid for their crimes.
Without question, US enslavement was a theft of labor and human life which resulted in profound damage to black communal life and I contend that the biblical witness affirms that some form of restitution and/or imprisonment is due. And obviously, since an entire nation cannot be imprisoned then restitution is our only option. Without this restitution our country can never truly move past its racial shame to a place of honor.
Lastly, as a progressive Christian I support reparations because it’s the right thing to do. The fact is Black Americans have paid a huge price to help make the US what it is but have never been adequately compensated for it. When you consider the amount of blacks who died during the middle passage, the systematic disintegration of the black family, the economic exploitation and oppression of black enslaved persons and the degree to which free black labor helped build the capitalistic empire of the United States of America, how can one not be an advocate for reparations?
Furthermore, how can I be a Christian in good conscience and deny the need for repentance? And what more are reparations than a social form of repentance? Therefore I say, it’s time to collectively repent America, for the very integrity of our union is at stake!
And I won’t participate in any more conversations about racial reconciliation until more white Christians join this reparations cause.