Race, Religion, and Reparations in the White Church
“Justice is what love looks like in public.”—Cornel West
The #BlackLivesMatter movement (#BLM) has captured the attention of the nation. From the streets of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and Baltimore to the stages of Republican primary debates and the political platforms of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the movement has informed and shaped a national conversation about race and white privilege. As #BLM has endured through criticism, trivializations, and continuing violence against African Americans, particularly at the hands of police officers, it has become clear that this is indeed a movement that is not going away. As a nation, we will never again be the same.
Of course, there is plenty of confusion about what #BlackLivesMatter is all about. Far too many people sling back an “all lives matter” slogan, not understanding that #BLM is not arguing that other lives do not or should not matter. Their starting point is, in fact, that all lives indeed should matter, but that the historical experience and continuing environment of racial injustice has made clear that black lives are seldom included in the “all” of “all lives matter” tweets and Facebook posts. Consequently, this movement demands that in order for black lives to matter in this country, American institutions, lives, and hearts must be radically transformed. This is a movement that is no longer satisfied with aligning itself with political parties who offer nothing more than silence or resolutions that have throughout history been merely empty promises. Thus, responding to the DNC’s resolution in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the Black Lives Matter Network released a statement clarifying its position on the resolution:
. . . the Black Lives Matter Network is clear that a resolution from the Democratic National Committee won’t bring the changes we seek. Resolutions without concrete change are just business as usual. Promises are not policies. We demand freedom for Black bodies, justice for Black lives, safety for Black communities, and rights for Black people. We demand action, not words, from those who purport to stand with us.
In short, this is not a time we can afford to put our faith in only words.
All institutions in this country need to go through critical transformations and begin taking tangible steps forward in efforts to make black lives matter in the United States. The church, which has had a fundamental role in offering up Biblical narratives in support of the enslavement and disenfranchisement of blacks, is certainly among them.
In an opinion piece on Medium’s “Theology of Ferguson” collection last fall, I insisted that “White Christians must detach themselves from the racist white power structure and fully identify with the suffering black and brown bodies that routinely are murdered and assaulted by police. It is no longer useful for white Christians to appeal to a sentimental vision of love that is powerless and upholds the status quo.”
Like so many, I failed to offer any concrete suggestions on how to do that. But there are models in our shared history of how we might begin to move forward.
Even before the death of Michael Brown and countless other black lives, an important concrete idea had been circulating around the blogosphere—the idea that the horrific treatment of blacks in America, which helped build much of the nation’s economic structure and wealth, could only hope to be balanced by concrete repayment for services rendered without compensation, under the constant threat of violence and death, and in the shadow of the regular torture and killing of black people. The idea has deeps roots in American history, having been considered even before the Civil War. Ta-Nehisi Coates reintroduced this concept in his exceptional 2014 Atlantic essay, “The Case for Reparations.”
In his piece, Coates chronicled the lives of individuals who were, and who continue to be, directly impacted by the legacies of enslavement. These legacies have unfolded in every corner of the nation. After enslavement in the South, sharecropping tied freed black people and their descendants to land they could not own and crops they could not price based on fair market values. In the North, restrictive covenants, predatory lending, and redlining relegated black folks, who had believed in the possibility of more promising lives outside the historical centers of slavery, to cycles of poverty and substandard living that have been almost impossible to break. White land and property owners gained wealth and passed it down to their children. Black sharecroppers and tenants grew poorer and passed poverty and hopelessness down to their descendants. Coates powerfully illustrated that the legacies of enslavement and Jim (& Jane) Crow laws restricting voting rights, educational access, economic opportunity, and social freedom still have profound economic, social, political, and psychological implications in black communities.
I don’t have to outline the enormous economic disparities that exist today between black and white wealth as a result of America’s past sins. (I’ll let the “liberal” magazine, Forbes, do that.) But I do want to suggest to the white church another case for reparations. This is not actually a new idea. In fact, as Coates showed, white Christian Quakers were among the first to make this appeal. As Coates stated, “Quakers in New York, New England, and Baltimore went so far as to make ‘membership contingent upon compensating one’s former slaves’” for their unpaid contributions to the wealth of a household and community.
What a radical notion it is to suggest that membership in your denomination requires that you go full circle to make amends to someone or a group of people who you have harmed.
A more recent example can be found in a moment similar to what the country is currently experiencing. In 1969 during the Black Power Movement, activist James Forman interrupted Sunday services at New York’s historic Riverside Church to deliver a Black Manifesto. In the manifesto, Forman shocked congregants by introducing concrete demands against the sins of slavery:
For centuries we have been forced to live as colonized people inside the United States, victimized by the most vicious, racist system in the world. We have helped to build the most industrialized country in the world. We are therefore demanding of the white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues, which are part and parcel of the systems of capitalism, that they begin to pay reparations to black people in this country. We are demanding $500,000,000 from the Christian white churches and Jewish synagogues.
Forman and the Black Economic Development Conference, the organization who backed the manifesto, went further to outline how $500 million, then only roughly $15 per black person, could be used to build a black power base. Included in Forman’s suggestions on where the money could be used were a southern land bank to support black farmers; an establishment of black publishing and printing industries; black-run media outlets; black training centers for education in everything from community organizers to plumbers; and the development of a National Black Labor Strike and Defense fund to assist in black labor organizing.
Riverside’s response (after petitioning for a restraining order against Forman and any other disruptions) left much to be desired, but it nonetheless presents a departure point for white Christians and churches today. Riverside’s pastor at the time, Dr. Ernest Campbell, responded that, “From the beginning the Christian church has taught that restitution is an essential part of penitence. You do not simply say ‘I’m sorry’ to a [person] you’ve robbed. You return what you stole or your apology takes on a hollow ring.” While Campbell disavowed the idea that a black revolution was the answer for the country’s ills, he and his church went on to pledge a “fixed percentage of its annual budget available to a fund to be set apart for rapid improvement of all disadvantaged people in this country.”
Not only reconciliation, but also reparations, restoration, and repayment are central to the gospel—and a responsibility we’ve inherited by choosing to follow Christ. As a black Christian, working locally on the ground and interested in the complete liberation of all black people, I’m calling on the white church to seriously consider what 21st-century reparations from the church would look like. Sure, symbolic days of mourning and Sundays dedicated to ending racism are important. And Kelly Baker’s call for “prophetic voices” in the church is also important. But is it truly possible to be in solidarity with people whose physical lives are dramatically impacted by concrete, material privileges that you struggle to acknowledge? What does solidarity as a practice, not just as a sentimental idea, look like in the 21st-century church?
I don’t have all the answers, but considering the concept of reparations in the context of national repentance, reconciliation, and healing is a start. White churches publicly supporting black-led local groups working in this liberation movement might be an even better start. These are tangible steps toward a practical love and important ways white people can co-labor with black people to end racism. Only then will reconciliation be possible.