If you are an American who embraces the spirituality of Jesus, supporting reparations, especially for indigenous Americans and descendants of slaves, is a given. It is simply an essential act to demonstrate dignity to millions of people. Reparations declare that these lives matter.
While there is no way to address this topic in full in a single post (or a single book), here I will touch on four key points to back this claim:
- the harm done
- what reparations might look like
- the question of cost
Preparing White Ears
Before addressing the topic, I need to guide my predominantly White readers on how to engage with this writing.
Our political environment, which focuses more on the culture war than good policy makes this conversation difficult. The impulse is to hear any discussion of reparations as an attack on White people. That is not what I am promoting. I am White and do not feel bad about my European ancestry. But I do acknowledge how people of European descent treated the rest of the world over the last 500 years. As a matter of faith, I recognize and reject the culture of Whiteness that shapes the history of America.
Theology, as I understand it today, is helpful here. I grew up in a theological environment that amplified shame while dismissing guilt. Any theology that centers on God’s offense at human sin does this. Such theologies invites two responses to a discussion of the systemic oppression that undergirds the need for reparations.
A Faith that Fails Us
First, there is a shame response that prompts White people to defend, excuse, explain, and rationalize history. Rather than engaging with the reality of what is, there is an attempt to avoid the harm done. If we can make it not as evil or decrease culpability, we can feel better about ourselves. This is why it is common to present slavery as less vile. Others point to our northern or immigrant ancestry. Many emphasize the obvious reality that they have never owned slaves. All of these are techniques for coping with shame.
The second response is to dismiss the issue. After all, sin was confessed and is now forgiven so, in theory, the past no longer matters. The problem, as I heard one former White Supremacist say, “Restoration without accountability is privilege.” Even if Jesus’ death brings forgiveness to the perpetrator of violence, it does nothing to heal those harmed.
A Faith that Gives Life
A better expression of Christianity disempowers shame and invites us to reflect on and learn from guilt. This learning allows us to bring heaven to earth.
This means that when a topic like reparations comes up, we can remind ourselves that whatever our ancestors might have done and however we might benefit from a culture of Whiteness, it does not make us any less beloved to God. Yes, this history grieves the heart of God. It undoes the divine creative work. It assaults the belonging of Black people and has White people doing evil. But the divine response is not one of punishing, but again calling the creation towards love.
Because God responds this way, we now look at what happened and learn from history. We can begin to make amends for the past. Our focus becomes restoration and repair. That is what reparations are all about.
So take a deep breath, remind yourself that you are beloved, and explore the harm done.
The Harm Done
Note: I am in the process of learning more about Indigenous Americans and the harms committed against them. I am already familiar with the harms committed against Americans of African descent. Therefore, in this post, I will focus on that harm.
At one level, reparations seek to address the sin of slavery. It is the distribution of generations worth of unpaid wages and a recognition of slavery’s assault on human dignity.
Reparations and Reconstruction
If there was dignity in the United States in years following the Civil War Southern Reconciliation would have included reparations. The idea was not foreign at the time, rather freed slaves made direct requests for land that they would own. These requests birthed the phrase, “forty acres and a mule.” Unfortunately, this hope died with Lincoln. At this level, reparations today would be atoning for the failure to do this 156 years ago.
But rather than pursuing dignity then, for the last 156 years, the assault has continued, just in new forms. Post-Civil War governmental policy ultimately created the same system with new labels. Freed slaves largely became sharecroppers on their former master’s land. Laws were essentially rewritten with the word Negro replacing the word slave. Black Americans were no longer slaves, but they were not free.
Jim Crow and More
But it does not stop there. Schools were segregated and nowhere near equal in the education offered. Voting rights were suppressed. The Tuskegee Experiments used Black men as guinea pigs and never administered an actual cure. The disparity in medical outcomes for Black Americans is gut-wrenching. The vast majority of New Deal programs, including housing assistance and the GI Bill, went to White Americans. These federal benefits are the foundation of middle class wealth today.
The War on (Black) Drugs
More recently, the war on drugs explicitly targeted drugs common amongst Black communities. Sentences for crack are one hundred times more severe than sentences for cocaine. Never mind that they are different forms of the same drug. When crack ravaged Black communities, our government responded to it as a criminality issue. Today’s predominantly White opioid epidemic is a public health crisis.
In the end, we can directly attribute 65% of today’s racial wealth gap, where the median White family is worth $152,000 more than the median Black family, to governmental policy. Reparations are not just about slavery, they are also about everything done since slavery.
What Might Reparations Look Like
So how does the spirituality of Jesus invite us to respond to this brutal reality? With an act of dignity demonstrating creation. That is what reparations are all about. It asks how we can, as a nation, declare to Black citizens, that they belong.
Specifically, it should seek to make amends in the areas of offense. Therefore a program of reparations should address:
- enhanced educational opportunity for Black Americans including student debt reduction
- assuring the opportunity for a dignified income
- Black homeownership
- ending the war on drugs and suspending prison sentences
- the expansion of voting rights
- denied generational wealth (cash payments)
As a side effect, student debt reduction, the assurance of a dignified income and universal healthcare would largely address neoliberalisms 40-year assault on the dignity of all workers. Enhanced educational opportunities would also serve traditionally underserved indigenous and Latin populations.
The Question of Cost
At this point, it is obvious that an adequate reparations package will cost trillions of dollars. The automatic question is how do we pay for it. But this is the wrong question.
When all is said and done, the twenty-year war on terror has an estimated cost of $8 trillion. Never mind that days after the Afghanistan invasion began, the Taliban offered to hand over Osama bin Laden. Moreover, Saddam Hussein never had weapons of mass destruction. It is now undeniable that it took manipulated intelligence to convince the world otherwise. The majority of this money, which never had to be spent, ended up in the pockets of defense contractors.
The Trump Tax cuts cost $2.3 trillion. The majority of the money went to executive bonuses, stock buybacks, and dividends. This means it had no effective impact on economic growth. On top of that, 82% of the $2 trillion CARES Act went to those making over a million dollars a year.
That is almost $12 trillion in the past twenty years ultimately spent to benefit the wealthiest among us. Given that, are we going to say money is why we cannot make things right with Black Americans? The truth is, money is not the issue, we as a nation are simply unwilling to do what is right.
This is why White Americans who follow the spirituality of Jesus must become vocal advocates for reparations. It is our prophetic responsibility to the most ostracized among us. It is the only way to bring heaven to America.
I typically use this space to offer additional resources. While there are many more I could share, I will simply encourage you to go back through the piece and check out the links and videos embedded there.
A huge thank you to my friends at the Obsydian Collective who helped me find these resources.
Make your voice heard. Share this post or another piece on bringing healing the descendants of chattel slavery.
Are we going to finally get to that post on caring for the creation?