I first heard the word “reparations” in the late 1980s. Calling for reparations was the typical stock and trade of Afrocentric speakers visiting college campuses in those days. In the 1980s, no one actually thought reparations would ever be taken seriously. The word was hardly ever used beyond those heady revisionist and romantic lectures.
Fast forward 30 years and things have changed dramatically. Democratic presidential hopefuls now speak largely as if reparations are an obvious policy response to the country’s “original sin” of slavery and exploitation of African Americans. The subject has suddenly rushed into primetime national discourse from the “deep six” of unpopular House bills.
Over the past couple years, some Christian writers and speakers have cited reparations as one of the tell-tale signs of “cultural Marxism” and other “godless ideologies” wreaking havoc on the society and entering the church. These opponents declare in sweeping terms that reparations itself is an “injustice” and “unbliblical.”
Today I want to continue my series on justice with a defense of reparations.
For Clarity’s Sake
Before laying out a case for reparations, let me try to state what I mean and what I do not mean.
In this post, when I refer to “reparations” I am arguing for a principle rather than a specific policy or program. There are many ways reparations might be enacted, from baby bonds to cash transfers. I am not here addressing those policies or programs. Debating the pros and cons of any proposal is certainly necessary, and I assume any policy or program will have both positives and negatives, some of which we would only discover later as the policy is implemented. Weighing all those issues is beyond my knowledge and ability. So I am limiting my concern to the principle.
How might we define “reparations” in principle? I would define reparations as “material and social repayment made as acknowledgement and restitution by an offending party to an aggrieved party for wrong(s) done in order to repair the injuries, losses and/or disadvantages caused by the wrong.” Though these are my own words, I have in mind the work of William “Sandy” Darity at Duke University, who argues that reparations should have three aims: (a) acknowledgement of the wrongs done, (b) payment for the wrongs done, and (c) closure for both parties.
In any discussion of reparations, it’s necessary to identify the wrongs being addressed. In other words, one has to answer the question, “Reparations for what?” Usually people think immediately of slavery, but as Ta-Nehisi Coates has shown, we could update the case to focus on 20th-century housing discrimination and predatory practices. Merely for the purpose of illustration, I will limit my concern here to slavery as practiced from 1619 to 1865. Were this an actual proposal for a program of reparations, I would add much more to the record and request. But I am simply to defend the principle, so a commonly accepted period should suffice.
One last comment for clarity’s sake. In this post, I’m focusing on the state as the actor owing reparations to African Americans as a class of injured persons. I do that because the state enacted, expanded, and protected laws that empowered citizens to exploit African Americans. The state derived inestimable benefit from those laws both economically and socially. So the state, in my view, is an appropriate target for reparations advocacy.
It’s also important to state some basic areas of agreement among people on all sides of the issue. In general most people agree:
- Restitution is biblical. There’s disagreement about whether to emphasize the individual or groups, and whether repayment for the estimated cost in today’s dollars is feasible, but no one I know rejects restitution in principle (Exod. 21-22; Lev. 5; Luke 19:1-10).
- A grievous wrong was done in the American practice of slavery. There are some fringe perspectives that deny slavery was “all that bad” or attempt to argue slavery was “for the African’s good.” But in general, most people think slavery was wrong and a grievous wrong done to African Americans.
- Reparations was owed at some point. Even many of the opponents of reparations in today’s context will allow that reparations should have been paid to that generation of freed persons following the Civil War. Some would even cite Special Field Order 15 and argue that had it been followed then we would not be in the predicament we are in today. However, after that generation of African American freedmen, agreement on reparations breaks down.
As I’ve listened to the discussions and debates, it seems to me that a couple of objections recur. Opponents of reparations argue it would be an injustice today to:
- Make one person/group who committed no crime pay for the crimes of others. Let’s call this the “innocence objection.”
- Pay to one person/group who were not directly injured by the crime restitution owed to those who “actually suffered.” Let’s cause this the “unharmed objection.”
- Tax today’s citizens in order to pay for atrocities committed by earlier generations. Let’s call this the “generational tax objection.”
So, as best I understand the objections raised by some Christians, a “biblical case” for reparations would not only have to make claim to restitution (an agreed-upon principle) but also demonstrate the fairness or justness of having later generations at the coercion of the state transfer payment from a group of people who did not commit the injustice to another group of people who did not suffer the injustice.
My Brief Case Drawn from an Historical Incident
I might put my brief case in one sentence: If the Lord God himself caused a state head through taxation to require later generations of people who committed no crime to pay monies to their contemporaries who did not suffer the original crime, then it cannot be unjust (quite the opposite!) for state actors to do the same today.
Where do we see the Lord do this in the scripture?
Consider the book of Ezra. The action begins “in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1). That places us at 539 B.C. when Cyrus the Great came to power. It is 70 years after Babylon captured Israel and took them into captivity. Already we’re talking about roughly two generations. Please note that everything that happens is so “that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled” (Ezra 1:1). What had God spoken through Jeremiah? Essentially that after 70 years the Lord would return Israel from captivity back to the land (Jer. 29:10-14). One hundred years prior, Isaiah also prophesied that the return would happen at the hand of a pagan ruler named Cyrus (Isa. 45:1). Ezra really records the fulfilling of God’s promise.
So two generations (70 years) after the Babylonian defeat by Nebuchadnezzar, an entirely new empire has emerged, and a pagan king uninvolved in the sacking of Israel initiates the repatriation and the reparation of Israel. That reparation began with returning the items taken from the house of the Lord when Nebuchadnezzar defeated them (Ezra 1:7-11). This was the first act of reparation. This was all by God’s hand.
But the story does not end there, of course.
Fast forward to Ezra 6. Another 20 years or so have passed since the opening of Ezra 1. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah speak God’s Word to Israel. Some Israelites have returned to the land, but other waves have yet to arrive. Now King Darius rules the empire. In one historical recounting, the temple is rebuilt in 515 B.C. (an alternative but improbable dating would put it much later during the reign of Darius II between 423-404 B.C.). So we’re now about 100 years after the first exiles went into Babylon, about three generations later.
What do we see relevant to our discussion of reparations? We see exactly what we’re told would be injustices in any modern program of reparations. In Ezra 6:6-12, King Darius—a king who wasn’t even born when Israel was conquered ruling over an empire that wasn’t even in existence when the exile began—passed a law decreeing that taxes be paid by people who did not conquer or abuse Israel in order to restore Israelites who themselves were not alive during the Babylonian conquest of Israel.
Darius decreed, “The cost [of rebuilding the house of God] is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River” (Ezra 6:8). In fact, those citizens “from Beyond the River” were themselves a people who were at some point conquered and swallowed up by the empire. In other words, Darius, as head of state, compels his citizens through taxes to pay a reparation to Israel even though those citizens did not commit the offense and those Israelites did not directly suffer the offense. What had been stolen was returned and then some as the province was commanded to give “whatever is needed” to restore temple worship and offerings “day by day without fail” (v. 9).
So it seems to me that the “innocence,” “unharmed” and “generational tax” objections all fail in this historical example. If God, who is just and only does justice, has acted in this way then it cannot be unjust for nation-states to voluntarily repay its own citizens for crimes suffered at its hands—no matter when the crimes occurred.
Now, I do not think this historical example requires reparations. I am not here drawing a dark line between the Book of Ezra and current U.S. debates about reparations. I am simply contending for the principle of reparations as just—so just, in fact, that God himself enacted it in this historical example.
I simply think the historical case of Israel during the days of Ezra proves that reparations in the case of African American descendants of slaves in the United States is no injustice at all and therefore is quite biblical. If reparations of this sort is an injustice based on the objections above, then those who hold those objections have the unenviable responsibility of showing that God himself is unjust, since all that happens in Ezra happens according to God’s premeditated plan.
If you allow that reparations or restitution is biblical in principle, and if these objections are overcome in Ezra 1-6, then there should be no principled objection to reparations in current discussions—certainly no principled biblical objections. Reparations are simply the biblical principle of restitution taught throughout Scripture applied to the specific history of slavery and the descendants of slaves in America.
The principle is solid. The programs and policies require debate.