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?