We are all familiar with the Biblical account of the young rich man who approached Jesus and asked what he must do to achieve salvation. Equally, we know Jesus’ response was that he must give his riches to the poor and follow Him. Similarly, we recall the pleading of the man in hell who wished to return to let his family know his agony and change their ways and do good to avoid his plight. He, too, was made to realize it was too late to help those who were wayward. It is in this context that we present the theme of this essay – Reparations for African American citizens.
A debt incurred should be paid. A pain inflicted should be healed. With an apology extended, is that enough? Should the calendar be used to determine the validity of claims against the perpetrators? How should reparations be determined – public policy, volunteer engagement, payouts via insurance to the descendants of those damaged? Lastly, what process should be used to determine the amount due the aggrieved legacies?
These questions, and many more, are put to advocates of reparations for former slaves in our nation. The concept and application of reparations is not foreign to the public policy of the United States. A form of reparations was provided First Nation people (Native Americans) in the context of land, called reservations. These reparations, by treaty, were shamefully mean spirited and misguided. Nearly a century later Japanese Americans were allotted modest monetary reparations for property taken from them during the Second World War. Of course, the property of these citizens was not returned. Clearly, the government and private sector know how to address past wrongs against those who were harmed in the selfish interest of the powerful.
That the nation understands the concept of reparations and has applied reparations in the past may explain the strong resistance to extending reparations to those who are descendants of former slaves. The reason for the resistance is simple and powerfully clear. White racism in our nation continues to be a powerful force that makes it impossible for decision makers (public and private) to provide reparations to blacks. Each of the three great Western religions demands atonement to address historical wrongs. Thus, in our belief system, award of reparations would be an act of faith that does justice. To hold otherwise would require that we modify our prayers to justify inducing suffering and pain upon others without care of Godly consequences.
Many in the secular sector have called for reparations for blacks. President Lincoln urged sending Africans back to the continent of their original home. Some eighteenth-century abolitionists often felt some form of restitution was in order for the enslaved Africans. Following the end of the Civil War, the notion of freed blacks being given ‘forty acres and a mule’ was presented. Malcom X called for a substantial land set-aside. A few universities, in their own way, have created a response to the demand for reparations with tuition reductions, renaming of buildings, and extending apology for their roles in the institution of slavery. Even today in the US Congress, there are a few advocates who seek formal (legal) means for the establishment and execution of reparations.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, put it best: “To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying. The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same. The lie ignores the fact that closing the “achievement gap” will do nothing to close the “injury gap,” in which black college graduates still suffer higher unemployment rates than white college graduates, and black job applicants without criminal records enjoy roughly the same chance of getting hired as white applicants with criminal records.” In the main, these are secular, often non-Christian renderings on the subject.
Now, consider the historical context of the Christian church in the United States and Western Hemisphere on the point of reparations. The [white] church has always struggled with what position to take relative to the African forcefully displaced to the North American shores. We do not wish to engage a biblical battle, chapter and verse, about the rationalization and justification of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, etc. However, since the mid-19th century, it has been the African American church that has spoken most strongly for social change, including reparations. That involvement came in part as a response to racial segregation as well as perceptional differences about what God intended as the value of being human made in His image.
It is important to present the postures taken by white Christians relative to reparations for African Americans. Perhaps a view may consider the instruction of Jesus to pay onto Caesar his due. This orientation seems to permit government actions as legitimate, no matter their consequences, to people. As such, if it were the decision of government not to provide reparations to the descendants of those so terribly injured in chattel slavery, then the case is closed. However, life’s realities are not so discrete. Those in power, whether in the public or private sector, are infused with ideas of ethical right and wrong. In the American pledge, coinage, and auto license, etc. reference to God is frequent. Clearly the two (religious and secular) are not easily separated. The white church, in the main, continues to offer that doing the right thing by African Americans that may encompass transfer of money, influence, and power is not justified.
Then, whose task is it to take the banner and move for justice and fairness in this matter of reparations for African American descendants of former slaves? We offer that it is the role of the church communities to challenge resistance and to advocate for education and public policy for acceptance and support of reparations. As religious followers of God, we must permit ourselves to share Jesus’ pain on the cross and dare to love our neighbors (without care of color or other artificial matters) as God loves us. The church must be on the ground, not simply on a rock, and risk the challenges as did Jesus in His efforts to teach and change. For taking such actions, God will bless us.