Last month my church held a series of discussions on reparations. It’s our penultimate session of an 11-month discussion series we’ve been completing together. We’ve explored the history of slavery, indigenous history, racism in housing and education in the Boston metro area, and we’ve read masterful works together including Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. And now we’re nearing the end of the series and the part where we figure out what we’re called to next.
From the start, our planning group knew that toward the end of the series we wanted to devote a session solely to reparations as we oriented parishioners toward concrete steps they could take to be antiracist. There’s nothing new about the topic of reparations–reparations were first proposed shortly after slavery ended. But in recent years there’s been growing, though still modest, support for reparations and a resurgent debate in Congress and in various institutions about the need for reparations.
So for the month of May, we read and watched materials introducing us to various arguments for and against reparations. Much of the discussion was very personal. One of my friends shared the moving story of the reparations paid to her mother by the Austrian government–reparations made after the family was forced to flee before the Holocaust and lost their business and possessions. And we talked extensively about the history of our own parish and how our own diocese here in Massachusetts was exploring reparations.
The question of the Church’s responsibility really animated our discussion. We were guided in this part of our discussion by the brilliant Kelly Brown Douglas and her piece from last year, “A Christian Call for Reparations.” There are a few things she highlights that I think are vital for churches asking questions about reparations.
The first is our Christian responsibility for “truth-telling.” Here, Douglas invokes Jesus’ words, “Do this in memory of me,” to argue that churches are called to confront “the ways in which ecclesial and institutional systems, structures, and cultural norms reflect white supremacist narratives, ideologies, and constructs—then intentionally working to dismantle and transform them.”
Douglas argues that Christians enter into Jesus’ sacrificial work and partner together to tell the truth about the past and free the present from the evils of the past. But churches can’t stop at truth-telling. This truth-telling work is only the first step in paving the way to a just present and future, and Douglas argues Christians must also work to foster a strong moral identity in our racist culture and act as if God’s just future is now.
This resurgent discussion of reparations comes after a number of religious institutions have been discussing and enacting reparations of their own. These groups include seminaries, universities, churches and others, reckoning with their own histories and involvement in slavery and finding ways to rectify and atone for these wrongs.
But as Douglas argues, even more is required. Reparations solely to right past wrongs are not enough; they must help us on our way to building a just future. The question is: what is our commitment to building a moral identity and a just future? And are we willing to put in the work to undo systems of oppressions and stop benefiting from white supremacy?
I am compelled by the reparations movement and argument, and by your presentation of it here. I am compelled by its morality and necessity. That it’s scary and costly is sort of proof how necessary it is. That so many of us have a great debt to pay is a moral obligation we can’t keep putting off. One caveat, however: the motivation of “building a just future.’ Not that we should want to build an “unjust future,” but “building a just future” is a secular eschatology that I think is beyond us and so sufficiently beyond our control and our capacity as to frustrate us and even mislead us. I confess that I haven’t got a better substitute for it right now. I recognize that to leave it simply as “bearing witness for the present” seems insufficient, and that there should be goals and visions even for our secular participation, but something about “building a just future” seems misguided to me. Sort of like Ellul’s distinction between optimism and hope.
I agree Daniel, and yet our inability to reach a just future doesn’t seem to be a reason to not aim for it. Aim for the stars and land on the moon is a trite proverb, but as long as we recognize our inability to succeed in our own strength, it seems important to try.
As one of my favorite fictional characters says, (Dumbledore from Harry Potter), you fight and fight and fight against evil to hold it at bay, though never quite eradicated (paraphrasing).
I agree with the author and with Daniel and Rodney, we need to compensate in some way for the terrible things we white people have done to Blacks and Native Americans. Yes, it will cost us something but justice should prevail after so many years of sin done by individuals but also by our government.
Thank you so much for this, Allison……….I resonate profoundly with all you say about the need for reparations going forward. And I’m persuaded that it will take tons of grace for us to make progress. With John Newton, our history “makes my heart shudder” at what it will take to have justice prevail in the years ahead. Judy Collin’s rendition of Amazing Grace with the Harlem Boy’s Choir makes me weep, but gives me hope. I believe that grace must lead us to increasing action and continuing reparations. (If you’ve missed it, the Collin’s rendition is on You Tube) Please keep up your good work!
Thanks, Allison, for your insight into racism and reparations. I’m wondering how many individuals were with you in this study group? I think you will have a hard time motivating our society, or even the church, in such a direction, especially since such conclusions that you came to, are far from the most popular. And the question that haunts me, is where do we stop or how far do we go, as to disenfranchised groups of people that deserve reparation? There are countless different groups and individuals that have been the victims of unfair prejudice, whether in the past or present. The city of Evanston (north of Chicago) made reparations with the black community who were victims of unfair housing rulings in the past to the tune of $25,000 each. You know who complained the most? The black community. Do you really think any reparation that is offered will satisfy? Don’t Christians (and the Bible) talk about the soon return of Christ when he will make all things right. Maybe Christians should pray that it really will be soon.
I keep a quote handy because it is true: “Progressive thinking is rooted in ideas about how the world should work, while conservatives content themselves with trying to understand how the world does work.”
It’s not clear to me whether this essay is calling for reparations to be made by the US government in some sort of massive program of payments or if it’s referring to action taken by individual institutions, churches, and people. I could see myself supporting the second option in some form. If the first option had an even infinitesimally small chance of healing the racial divide in this country, I could see myself supporting it, but there is no such infinitesimal chance.