Reparations

I had the great fortune to read an advanced Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by my former pastor, Duke Kwon, and Gregory Thompson. And friends, I’m awash in a lot of thought and emotion. Let’s see if I can sort through this.

First of all, a brief synopsis. Duke and Greg (since I know one of them, I feel weird calling them by their last names, hope they don’t mind the familiarity here) argue that the multigenerational theft of black wealth, culture, power, identity, and agency (which is the practical definition of White Supremacy) is a the heart of the American story; the white church has benefited from and been complicit in that; and the white church has an Christian obligation and calling, rooted in Scripture, to be part of the reparation of this theft. They spend several chapters going through the history of White Supremacy in America, including the complicity of the white church. They then shift into a scriptural exploration of why repairing and repenting for this theft is central to our calling and practice as Christians, before ending with an exploration of practical ways the white church can enter into the work.

As a scholar of American history, as I once was (and still am on paper anyway; you’ll have to pry this Ph.D. out of my cold, dead hands!), much of the book’s initial information wasn’t new to me. I am certainly well aware of the history of slavery and racial subjugation in America, and I need no convincing of its deeply entrenched impact. I wasn’t as aware, however, of the church’s very direct complicity. Congregations in the South actually owned slaves. I will repeat that: CHURCHES HAD THEIR OWN SLAVES. They rented them out for money to sustain the church. In the process, they contributed to one of the worst aspects of slavery, family separation. In addition, there was no safeguards on how the slaves were treated, because the slaves were hired by many different masters. It was in many cases worse to be a church slaves than the slave of one master. Lord have mercy.

After laying out all the historical evidence, they then turn to the Bible and lay out the case for restitution and reparation in the case of theft and abuse. There is a lot to work with, but the centerpiece is the story of the Good Samaritan, a member of a marginalized people who restored the victim of a crime, who was from the majority culture that reviled Samaritans, to health after many others passed him by out of fear and wanting to remain “pure.” “Jesus’s purpose was to expose how bigotry treats certain plundered neighbors as unworthy of restorative love,” they write. They also explore the Christian roots of the abolition movement, and the early calls for reparations rooted in faith. Central to the entire thesis of the book is that the church bears unique responsibility and brings unique tools to this work because it “is the only institution claiming to be in the business of salvation, resurrection, and the giving and restoring of life.”

The final chapter was the most revelatory and thought-provoking for me, because here they get to practical ideas about how the white church can make reparations. I was kind of expecting a more specific program for how churches might actually transfer wealth, and there are some ideas on that, but mostly Duke and Greg lay out broad principles for the white church, which include cultivating vulnerable communities, being humbled by truth, letting go of control/following and supporting the work already being done by Black leaders, and giving in ways that target the damage done by White Supremacy. In sum, white churches need to listen to Black people about their experiences and what they think should be done to repair harm, face the harsh truths of history without excuse, partner with Black leaders and organizations in ways that are not paternalistic, and build mechanisms that directly help to build Black wealth.

OK, that’s kind of the nuts and bolts, and sadly, I can’t really do it justice. Just read the book! Especially, especially the last chapter. Please read that if nothing else. Now I’ll get to the specific thoughts and feelings this book stirred up for me.

First of all, what’s really important about this book, isn’t necessarily the content–as Duke and Greg say up front, much of it is synthesis of other works–it’s WHO is presenting it. Duke (who is Korean American) and Greg (who is white) are theologically orthodox pastors in a conservative denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America or PCA). While their church (which was once my church), the GraceDC network, is definitely on the liberal end of the PCA spectrum, the denomination is conservative. They believe in scriptural inerrancy, don’t ordain women, aren’t LGBTQ affirming, the whole thing. I mention this not to quibble about those points (there’s a reason I no longer attend that church), but to underscore just how radical this book is. In our current political context, theologically conservative, largely white churches are politically conservative, too. And according to polling data, as well as my own observation, they are decidedly not receptive to the issue of racial injustice. In fact, they are incredibly defensive about it and deny that it even exists (see the controversy in the SBC about Critical Race Theory).

For two PCA ministers to come out strongly saying that yes, systemic racism is real, the white church is complicit, and most shockingly, the white church should be making reparations, or even making this issue a priority at all, is incredible. It’s breathtaking. And for me, it’s so heartening. The last few years have battered my faith. It has severed the last threads of my connection to evangelical faith, and in fact, my family left GraceDC in 2018, not as a direct result of Trumpism, because GraceDC has not fallen into that horrible trap, but because the marriage of Trumpism and evangelicalism served as the culmination of a larger journey of faith I’ve been on. I decided I wanted to fully embrace a different vision of Christianity. My theological views have changed, but also, the baggage just became too heavy to bear anymore.

But I’ve remained deeply anguished by what I’ve seen in the white evangelical church and deeply prayerful that things might change. And in the midst of much discouragement, I have indeed seen the seeds of a possible shift. And watching those friends like Duke and other evangelicals who have pushed back and refused to swallow a political program and the worship of a sociopathic leader as Gospel, at great cost in some cases (I can see it on their Facebook pages)–watching that has given me tremendous hope. I don’t believe in celebrating “heroes of the faith” because the whole concept is dangerous, but to me, these folks are the closest acceptable thing. What I’m seeing from the majority of white evangelicals honestly disgusts me to the point of physical nausea. But what I’m seeing from this minority is a new way of faith that could not only change the church in America but transform America itself. There are increasing numbers of particularly young white evangelicals who are done with the unholy marriage to a political party. They are done with boiling down their faith to basically sex and personal behavior. They are done with painting culture as truth. They are done with hypocrisy. They want something more. They want a cause that brings them into to the heart of Jesus’s ministry and is inspiring and uplifting. Leaders like Duke and Greg point the way toward that something more, in a way that does not upend orthodox theology and scriptural interpretation.

Just imagine if the white evangelical church took this book seriously and embarked on a wholesale, radical program of racial reconciliation and reparation. Too often the white church has lagged the government and culture on justice, human dignity, and repair. While Duke and Greg argue that Christianity was at the heart of abolitionism, the fact is abolitionists were a very small minority in American Christianity. There is a much more direct through-line from pro-slavery Christianity, particularly its narrow, literal interpretation of Scripture, and present-day conservative Christianity. That line runs through the Civil Rights movement as well, when the vast majority of conservative white Christians were at best bystanders and at worst segregationists themselves. The same goes for women’s rights and, I believe (and Duke would definitely disagree), LGBTQ rights. What Duke and Greg are suggesting is that the white church get way out in front of the culture, to join the Black church there. To assess the change that would bring, all you need to do is consider the amount of time, money, and energy the white church has expended on supporting the Republican Party and all its related causes and the impact that has had. Imagine that energy applied to the issue of racial reconciliation. My heart sings to think about it.

And that goes for the liberal white church, which I am now a part of. I would say that at least the will is there, the acknowledgment that racial injustice is a problem that the church should be involved in redressing. What I’d like to see, and what this book has challenged me to consider, is how my church and others like it–very white spaces, and rich ones at that–could give energy and resources much more sacrificially and radically to directly involve ourselves in this work. My white liberal fellow congregants and I are super excited about putting up a BLM flag–which costs little in terms of money or skin the the game, especially here in northern VA–but would we donate significant hours and money to rebuild a Black church building that has fallen into disrepair or establish a fund to provide no interest home loans to Black families or college scholarships or student loan pay offs to Black students? I’m not sure we would forego that kitchen remodel in order to do that.

The fact is that both the white evangelical church and the white liberal church are deeply enmeshed in a culture and faith based on individualism, which Duke and Greg rightly point out as an obstacle to restorative work. If I personally didn’t do the crime, then repairing the impact is not my problem. But as they state, this denies not only scriptural teachings, but the deep, unavoidable reality that we are all connected, and what hurts one, hurts all. The pandemic this past year has brought that into sharp relief, as well as the fundamental selfishness of many American Christians.

I want to end with a mild criticism for my friend, Duke and his fellow pastors, and I want to caveat this by saying that I make it from a place of comfort relative to where Duke is sitting, in a conservative, largely white denomination that is on the whole not receptive and which pays his salary. But I would encourage them toward greater, more explicit boldness. Things in the present, happening RIGHT NOW in the white evangelical church, need to be named. The fact that faith-based educational curriculum is in fact the worst offender of a white-washed view of American history. The fact that many PCA members are enthusiastic supporters of Donald Trump, who has targeted Black voters to support his specious claims of electoral fraud. The fact that many members of Grace DC work for the GOP, which is actively trying to suppress Black votes. The implications of what Duke and Greg are saying are convicting as written. But there may be a time and place to lay things more bare. The fact is, you cannot support the present manifestation of the Republican party and work for racial reconciliation. That doesn’t mean you have to be a Democrat, but you can’t be a Republican.

As Duke and Greg write, “White Supremacy is a theft of truth.” This theft continues in how American history is presented in Christian spaces, the dismissal of Black experience and pain in the here and now by white Christians, the support for political leaders who exploit white fear and racial grievance, the efforts to make it harder for Black voters to exercise their rights, the adherence to lies that prop up racist tropes and programs. I encourage them to keep calling the theft out. And I pray earnestly for their thriving.

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