Suppose American history is as bad as Kwon and Thompson aver. Suppose our corporate guilt is everything they say it is. Suppose everything they want to see under the banner of reparations would be good for our country and good for our communities. The religious vision is still one that I find more in line with a community organizer’s dream for America than a distinctively Christian one. It is a vision where sin is White supremacy and salvation comes from a lifetime of moral exertion. It is a vision where the church’s mission is to change the world and heaven is a world of art studios and co-ops. It is a vision where urban renewal feels central and the grace of the risen Christ feels peripheral. It is a vision filled with many noble aspirations, but one ultimately that depicts a future where the White guilt never dies and the reparations never end.
Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Renewal (Brazos Press) is a new book by Duke Kwon, a PCA pastor in Washington, DC, and Greg Thompson, a former PCA pastor (previously serving a church in Charlottesville, Virginia) who now leads a number of initiatives related to race and racism in America. Reparations is a bold work, calling for nothing less than for the language of White supremacy and reparations to be “fixed in the church’s imagination and fundamental to its vocation” (28). In simple terms, the problem is White supremacy, and the answer is reparations—restitution for what has been taken and restoration unto wholeness. Reparations is the cry of the ages and the call of the church (207).
With only 200 pages of text and over 30 pages of endnotes, Kwon and Thompson have written a book that is both accessible and academic. The writing is clear and excellently organized. Kwon and Thompson have a knack for breaking down complex ideas into helpful categories. For example, they argue that racism can be understood in four ways: as personal, with the need for repentance; as relational, with the need for reconciliation; as institutional, with the need for reform; or cultural, with the need for repair (32-44). There are more lists and rubrics like this throughout the book, many of them insightful and useful.
Kwon and Thompson are also to be commended for avoiding the history-as-screed template. The tone is strong at times, but never incensed. If readers have only viewed American history with rose-colored glasses, they will be helped to see the uncomfortable truth that racism in America has been far too pervasive and that the White church—with some noble exceptions mentioned in the book—has far too often been part of the problem instead of the solution. The authors have plenty of criticism for White Americans and for the White church in America, but they want to persuade not merely scold. To that end, they have put forward the most compact and most learned Christian defense of reparations to date. Well written and thoughtfully presented, this is an important book that deserves to be taken seriously.
It is also a book with which I have profound disagreements.
Reparations is a far-reaching indictment of American history and life in America as it exists today. Kwon and Thompson are right to show us the failures in our national history and in our churches; what’s more debatable is whether racism and White supremacy are embedded in every institution and encoded in every aspect of our society. One can be honest about our nation’s sins and shortcomings while still insisting that America wasn’t founded on White supremacy. Likewise, one can question whether “White supremacy”—with the images of Klansmen and Neo-Nazis it conjures up—is the best term to describe the whole warp and woof of American history, especially when heroes like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. often appealed to the Founders and their ideals. As a point of historical fact, it also bears mentioning that Kwon and Thompson wrongly assert that 12 million human beings were “caught in the slave trade between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries in America” (87), when the total number of slaves brought to America was just over 300,000, with the vast majority going to Brazil and to the Caribbean. They appear to have interpreted Orlando Patterson’s estimate of enslaved Africans brought to the New World as a statement about America only. None of this is to downplay the horror and the injustice of the Transatlantic slave trade (slavery isn’t less horrible for having gone to other countries besides America), but misstating a historical number by a factor of 40 is worth noting.
But I don’t want to provide a historical analysis of Reparations. Neither do I want to focus on the sociological and economic claims of the book (though underlying the book’s criticisms are the unstated convictions that racial disparities are obvious signs of culturally embedded racism and that Western capitalism is a White supremacist system of “extraction” that harms the poor). Neither am I going to attempt to sketch my assessment of race in America or to offer a ten-step plan for moving forward (this is, after all, a book review). Instead, I want to provide a theological assessment of the book’s theological claims. For at the heart of Reparations is a moral argument—indeed, a Christian argument—about justice. “Reparations,” according to Kwon and Thompson, “is best understood as the deliberate repair of White supremacy’s cultural theft through restitution (returning what one wrongfully took) and restoration (restoring the wrong to wholeness)” (17). Consequently, “Reparations are not primarily given in light of a hoped-for-future; they are given in light of an actual past” (25). In other words, reparations are about what we owe and what is due. Kwon and Thompson call “the Christian church in America to embrace reparations as central to faithful Christian mission in this culture” (210). This is the key theological and ethical claim—one that I find ultimately ambiguous, unworkable, and unpersuasive.
When people hear “reparations” they usually think of compensation for past injustices, some sort of redress for crimes committed. Reparations is the act of making amends, of giving satisfaction for wrongs or injuries. Kwon and Thompson begin and end the book with the story of the former slave Jourdon Anderson and the famous letter he wrote to his former master asking for his wages for 32 years of service. In effect, Anderson’s letter says, quite powerfully, “You’ve defrauded me all these years. Now you want me to come back and live with you and believe that you will treat me kindly? Give me back all that you stole, and then I’ll take your gesture of good will seriously.”
Kwon and Thompson frame the book with this story to help us see that reparations is about returning what has been stolen. They write early in the book, “When you take something that does not belong to you, love requires you to return it” (17). This theme shows up most clearly in their chapter on restitution. Their anchor text is the story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19. When Zacchaeus had his heart changed, he didn’t just pray a prayer or say he was sorry for cheating people. He showed his repentance by making restitution. Kwon and Thompson rightly summarize the basic lesson of Zacchaeus: “If you steal something, you have to give it back” (143). With an impressive array of citations from well-respected theologians through the ages, Kwon and Thompson remind us that true repentance is not found in words alone. “Generations of readers of Scripture across church history,” they argue, “have repeatedly affirmed restitution as an enduring Christian responsibility and a foundational expression of God’s unchanging moral law” (142).
All of that is wise, good, biblical, true, and necessary. The problems come when Kwon and Thompson apply this straightforward principle of restitution—in their words: “when you take something that does not belong to you, love requires you to return it”—and apply it to an evil as far off as slavery or a sin as nebulous as White supremacy. For example, after referencing a 1715 pamphlet condemning slavery and calling for Blacks to be “restored out of the Property of him that hath wronged them” (134), Kwon and Thompson conclude that “Restitution for the thefts of White supremacy is an old idea” (136, italics in original). But that’s not exactly true. What is an old idea is for masters to release their slaves and to make reparations for the wrongs they had committed against them. Throughout the history of this country people have written—rightly and forcefully—of the Christian duty to repay what one had stolen, to make restitution for wrongs done to the slaves, and to return what had been forcibly taken from another. There is no talk, however, about something as amorphous as restitution for “White supremacy.”
Later in the same chapter, Kwon and Thompson cite a petition from enslaved Christians demanding compensation for their “Long Bondag [sic] and hard Slavery.” Kwon and Thompson summarize: “In other words, they sought restitution for White supremacist theft” (155). It may seem like splitting hairs, but the language matters. Restitution makes perfect sense, and is imminently biblical, when the person who cheated pays back the person whom they cheated. Zacchaeus did not make restitution with the world or with every poor person in Judea. Instead, he sought to “restore fourfold” (according to Exodus 22:1) anyone he defrauded (Luke 19:8). Slavery may have been ungirded by (and helped perpetuate) assumptions of White superiority but to say that restitution for the theft of White supremacy is an old idea, is to smuggle back into the past the notion that restitution might be based on skin color or based on wrong attitudes or based on something as amorphous as participating in certain systems and structures.
The concept of White supremacy does a lot of heavy lifting throughout the book. For Kwon and Thompson, White supremacy is the evil that has been essential to America’s past and remains inescapable in the present. One can question, however, whether the category obscures more than it illuminates. To be sure, very few White Americans prior to the Civil Rights movement held views about Black Americans that we would consider acceptable today. We should not gloss over this sad history. In so far as White supremacy entails believing and acting as if your racial or ethnic identity makes you superior to others, it should be repudiated wherever it is found. And yet, when “White supremacy” covers everything from the horrors of slavery and lynching to the more common blindspots of self-centeredness and indifference, the result is that little effort is made to understand people in their own time and on their own terms. Moreover, the category of White supremacy, as a totalizing heuristic device, often lacks basic Christian charity in so far as it measures peoples, churches, and nations by their worst failures (as we see them) and pathologizes everyone and everything associated with the sin of partiality as being complicit with the most egregious catalog of sins in our nation’s history.
The language Kwon and Thompson use with reference to Zacchaeus is also telling: “Acknowledging that he, as a tax collector, stood at the center of an extractive system designed to plunder the most vulnerable members of a society, Zacchaeus offers half of his possessions to the poor” (139). True, Zacchaeus generously gave away half of his possessions to the poor in addition to making restitution for those he sinned against. But did he really acknowledge complicity in an “extractive system designed to plunder the most vulnerable members of society”? If he felt complicit in the whole system of tax collecting, why do we have no record of him leaving the profession? Why did Jesus show kindness to tax collectors (even calling one to be his disciple) without ever commanding them to leave their “extractive system” behind? When the tax collectors came to John the Baptist to be baptized and asked, “What shall we do?” John did not reprimand them for being part of a system designed to plunder the poor. He told them much more simply, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:13). Similarly, neither John the Baptist nor Jesus ever castigated Roman soldiers for being complicit in an imperial system designed to maintain Rome’s control over subjugated peoples. Instead, John told them to stop cheating, stop threatening, stop lying, and be content with their wages (Luke 3:14). With tax collectors and soldiers throughout the Gospels, there is no talk of restitution for imperial supremacy or extractive systems, nor any summons to dismantle the structures they inhabited, just the straightforward command to live a godly life, be generous to others, and repay what you have stolen.
The other problem with Kwon and Thompson’s argument is that the principle of restitution is much more difficult to apply with the passage of time. Each chapter of Reparations begins with a story from history, always a story that focuses on an injustice from the past or on someone trying to remedy injustice. These opening stories are, in order, from 1865, 1968, 1852, 1826, 1969, 1684, 1803, 1968, and 1865. While it is important to know the history of these injustices, it is less clear whether these injustices from the past necessitate restitution in the present.
One of the sources Kwon and Thompson cite several times is John Tillotson’s Two Sermons on the Nature and Necessity of Restitution (1707). Kwon and Thompson emphasize how strongly Tillotson insists on restitution as a sign of true repentance when property, wealth, or reputation are stolen. Tillotson’s messages on Zacchaeus are a fine pair of sermons. I don’t think I disagree with anything in them. But there is a section from Tillotson’s two sermons that Kwon and Thompson do not mention, and it undermines one of the central arguments of their book. Here is Tillotson in his second sermon on Luke 19:8-9:
But before I leave this head, there is one case very proper to be considered, which relates to this circumstance of time, and that is concerning injuries of a very ancient date; that is, how far backward, and whether it doth not expire by tract of time. . . . When the injury is too old that the right which the injured person had to reparation is reasonably presumed to be quitted and forsaken, then the obligation to satisfaction ceaseth and expires. . . . To illustrate this rule by instances: The Saxons, Danes, and Normans did at several times invade and conquer this nation, and conquer’d it we will suppose unjustly, and consequently did hold and possess that which truly belonged to others, contrary to right; and several of the posterity of each of these probably to this day hold what was then injuriously gotten; I say, in this case, the obligation to satisfaction and restitution is long since expired. . . . [C]onsidering the necessities of the world, and the infinite difficulties of retrieving an ancient right, and the inconveniences and disturbances that would thereby redound to human society, it is better than an injury should be perpetuated than that a great inconvenience should come be endeavoring to redress it. . . . And tho’ the instances I have given of the unjust conquest of a nation be great and publick; yet the same is to be determined proportionally in less and particular cases. (Two Sermons on the Nature and Necessity of Restitution, 45–47)
In other words, in the midst of two sermons strongly advocating for reparations (the word is used often), Tillotson acknowledges that, unfortunately, in a fallen world you can’t go back in time and right every wrong. Sometimes there are “infinite difficulties” which prohibit us from determining who was wrong, who did the wrong, and how restitution could possibly be made in the present without inflicting new wrongs. Sometimes the “necessities of the world” make restitution for crimes committed in the past impossible.
This does not mean restitution can never be paid years after a sin was committed. The obligation to make restitution may transfer to descendants, not because they bear personal guilt for previous sins, but because they are still in possession of the stolen goods (149). To this point, Kwon and Thompson give a useful example. Suppose your mother gives you a car. You enjoy it for years, until one day a stranger knocks on the door and says, “That car is mine!” You look in the glove box and sure enough, his name is on the title. You’ve been driving a stolen car. You can honestly say, “I didn’t know it was stolen.” You are not to be blamed for the theft. But the car clearly belongs to him, and you should give it back (149). Fair enough, but what if the man’s name was not on the title? What if it was the man’s great-great-grandson looking for the car? Or what if you purchased the car off the lot and the title was always in your name, but someone who had had a different car stolen in the past laid claim to your car? More generally, what if the sin to be redressed was not perpetrated by your particular ancestors against this man’s particular ancestors, but the sins from the past were committed by people who look like you against people who look like him? What is the obligation to restitution then? Surely, this situation is much different than having a man, right in front of you, whose name is on the title of your stolen car.
Kwon and Thompson make a convincing case that slaveholders should pay reparations to slaves, even that the next generation of a slaveholder family should make restitution to the next generation of the family they enslaved, if such a connection can be established. But the case for reparations becomes less cogent when it is applied across centuries, across a continent, and across families irrespective of any other consideration except for skin color. According to Aquinas—whom Kwon and Thompson also cite several times (from the same section in the Summa Theologica)—restitution must always be made to the actual victim of theft because restitution “re-establishes the equality of commutative justice” and the “equalizing of things is impossible” unless restitution be made “to the person from whom a thing has been taken” (ST II-II, Q. 62, Art. 5). The principle of restitution found in the story of Zacchaeus and in the Christian tradition is essential to Christian repentance and obedience, but the principle loses its biblical force (not to mention its simplicity) when it is no longer directed to the one who was defrauded, cheated, or stolen from.