Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair
Theft is one of the central works of the enemy of the human soul. Scripture states in John 10:10 that the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. This progression from taking to snuffing out life always read as abrupt to me. It would seem that stealing is a steep slippery slope leading to destruction. The business of stealing, land, labor, liberty, and life is at the epicenter of the story of the Transatlantic Slave Trade up until the fight to dignify and protect Black lives today. Christians of all people should appreciate the weightiness of theft and live with gratitude for the one, Jesus the redeemer, who has come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Reparations by Kwon and Thompson enter the polarizing fray of the newest edition of American culture wars with a sobered and reasoned advancement of the idea and calling to symbolic, economic, and positional redress for anti-Black systemic racism. The robbery of Black culture, family, and life at the hands and mental devices of White Christian leaders is not simply a small regrettable chapter in United States history but a legacy that informs life today.
Since the church in what became America is at the center of advancing the evil notion of Black inferiority and dismissing the work of rebuking its white supremacist members to the point of repair or disempowerment, it owes as an act of love and credibility due to communion with Christ, ecclesiastical repentance. Kwon and Thompson steadily advance this in their book. Repentance, acknowledging, and turning away from anti-black theology, practice, and politic require tangible expressions of restoration even if ultimately salvifically insufficient.
The devastating and lingering economic, biological, and ideological effects of the White American Church’s complicity with slavery, anti-black militia development, lynching, Jim Crow, missionized bigotry, and the political and economic suppression of African Americans is staggering and often produces outright dismissal or stagnating shame. Both responses are theologically and psychologically expected but nevertheless are faithless and self-centered responses to injustice.
Kwon and Thompson’s work reminded me that the white, white as defined by a caste system dominant identity and not just simply eurocentric ancestry, American church suffers from an entitled blind spot to the well-documented and present-day research about racism. Largely, it will not see what it does not want to see and has the social power to keep looking away as long as it can. We all struggle with our attraction to seemingly self-serving lies. However, it is as if a parasitic Christianity exists for the chief purpose of allowing one to feel and claim piety and theological superiority while dehumanizing its neighbor or benefitting across generations from the spoils of such victimization. What implicit and concretized practices of malformation must be employed in order for the conscience to grow so hard and cold that the cries of children sold on slave blocks to esteemed theologians like Jonathan Edwards elicits nonsensical defenses and justifications versus lament, grief, and self-examination?
The authors seem to know their audiences very well. One such audience is likely to scoff at the idea of reparations embracing the belief that certain sins of the past don’t require repair today. Their selectivity here and the anemic understanding of repentance reveal a theological matter that looms beyond the topic of racial justice. What is repentance? Presumably, such scoffing by one audience is rooted in ignorance and not malice so the role of education and persuasion abounds in this text. Love assumes the best and that’s why despite what critics might say, I read Kwon and Thomspon’s words as a tough-love letter to an audience that they seek to walk with and not away from.
The authors’ very self-identification, one as a Korean American and the other as a white American man comes with a disclaimer and a gift. They state their own social vantage points and their subsequent limitations. Noting early that they are not attempting to speak for African Americans for example but rather to speak to the church largely and perhaps the white American church specifically as individuals whose group identities are not those directly restituted by reparation. The contemporary research shows that most white Christians do not want to deal with the problem of racism, claim it as a non-problem, or see themselves today as the primary victims. Is it possible for us to educate people into an appreciation for real history with real consequences and away from their American Christian mythologies? So, it appears that Kwon and Thompson have an especially steep hill to climb and a hard case to be made to the most resistant of hearers. Here I am noting the group dynamic. With patience and pastoral care, and skilled academic heft, the writers are willing to move past the group dynamic or rather burden and make an appeal that moves person to person defying the data for the sake of what the Church and Christian ought to be. So, they thread a delicate needle honoring the victims of racism and attempting to win through reason and tone the deniers, minimizers, and siblings in Christ given racial ignorance by their faith communities.
This, in my read, is the heartbeat of the book. Real Christians, really repent albeit lowly, and spotted with sin. Sin and its consequences don’t just grow stale or disintegrate with time. We must attend to the long gangrene arm of Christian-supported and ignored oppression that misshapes the world even today with calculable harms to African Americans. These harms were overwhelmingly done as evidenced in the book in the misused name of Jesus.
Kwon and Thompson make their case using history, theology, and good old Bible study. They explain why the church has this calling, making it both responsible and equipped by the Holy Spirit to do something about racial injustice and its debts. Calling is the right language here for the authors as they are appealing to Christian duty and identity. As their case is constructed brick by brick that Christians are called to make right and repair the ravishes of racism in this book, they at times center the African American voice, and the reader is reminded or informed about how entrenched Christian-protected white supremacy is in the United States. If that sentence alone causes you to cringe or rebuff, ask yourself why? Which word causes the most tension? Take a breath and then engage this book with curiosity and humility. Ask, what does it mean for me if its thesis or parts of it are true? What does it mean for my belief systems and the reputation of the Church in the States, for example? Is God’s grace great enough to contend with the ugliest of truths? Is the work of sanctification real enough to make a closed hand open and a hard heart softened even amongst a crowd of racism deniers and minimizers?
Grace is greater than the sin of racism. I get the sense that this is what Kwon and Thompson believe. That greatness of grace isn’t shown with cliches, truncated, or misapplications of the doctrine of salvation to excuse injustice or avoidance of embracing the gift of repentance and repair. The greatness of grace is revealed in the finished work of Christ that has a claim on how we live today and pursue the unity that Christ died and was raised for. For the ways that greed and self-idolatry, the bloodline of racism, have wronged Black people and Black believers specifically, in the name of our Lord by the white Christian church in America, reparation is due.