Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Kwon and Thompson

Summary: A call for reparations in the context of US slavery, largely making a case for an American Christian audience. 

There are few things less popular than the concept of reparations. According to two general polls, 26% of the US supports reparations. It is much less popular among White Evangelicals, around 4%, according to sociologist Samuel Perry. I do not think that Kwon and Thompson believe that this is going to be an easy case to make. And I want to commend Brazos Press for publishing the book because I can’t imagine that an explicitly Christian case for reparations, something that is only supported by 4% of White Evangelicals, is going to become a best seller.

The center point of the claim for Reparations is that “White supremacy’s most enduring effect, indeed its very essence is theft.” They use white supremacy here and throughout the book in the sense of a racial hierarchy with a cultural belief in white racial superiority. The sense of theft here is also broad but nuanced, “…theft is best understood not merely in terms of wealth but also in the more comprehensive terms of truth and power.”

One of the complaints about the book that I predict is that Kwon and Thompson frequently use language that is associated in the minds of many with Critical Race Theory and Social Justice. The complaints will be about the method of argument more than the content of the argument and the reality of the harm done, or the need theologically for repair because of that harm. One of the book’s strengths is that Kwon and Thompson attempt to define what they mean all through the book clearly. It is hard for me to adequately evaluate how well they accomplish this for readers that are new to these concepts since I am not new to this discussion. But the concept of whiteness and the social construction of race do matter significantly to the case that Kwon and Thompson are trying to make.

The process of this expanded meaning of Whiteness mirrored the expanding of Blackness; as Blackness took on new meaning, Whiteness took on its opposite. Where Blackness signified inferior personal capacity, Whiteness signified superior personal capacity. Where Blackness signified inferior moral deficiency, Whiteness signified superior moral virtue. Where Blackness signified the margins of society, Whiteness signified a rightful claim to the center. To be White came to mean not only having lighter skin, but also possessing elevated personal capacity, inherent moral virtue, and an assumed place at the center of the social order. And, as with Blackness, by the middle of the nineteenth century, the presence of this newly invented notion of Whiteness was clearly visible in American cultural life.”

Reparations are not a new concept, even if there has been renewed interested. John Hepburn, in 1715, wrote a pamphlet, The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule, which called explicitly for reparation using Christian theology before the US was founded as a country.

“I am of Opinion, that such Sins cannot be repented of without Restitution made to them that they have wronged; for until the Cause be removed, I know not how the Effect should cease. But they that live and dye without making Restitution to them that they have wronged, how they can expect the Forgiveness of God…”

Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us by Layton Williams

Summary: Unity is important for Christians, but there are times when unity can mask issues of justice and legitimate disagreement.

I probably would not have picked this up if it has not been included in Audible Plus Catalog (which means it is free to listen to for audible members.) Generally, I am strongly in favor of ecumenical work and of the church as a whole recognizing itself. I am part of a group called The Initiative, designed to facilitate understanding and cooperation between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.

I am a part of several groups trying to build a similar understanding and cooperation among Christians of different racial groups. But you cannot seriously participate in groups like this without thinking about lines you will not cross. One of the significant and accurate charges in White Evangelical Racism by Anthea Butler is that White Evangelicals often claim to be against racism but rarely are willing to make racism a line which they will break fellowship over. One example in that book is MLK Jr directly asking Billy Graham not to appear on the platform with a noted segregationist in 1957, a request that Graham refused.

Not all unity is a positive unity. Unity can be achieved through various means, and sometimes the means to unity actually subverts the cause of Christianity. If visible unity requires suppression of people or their personhood, then that unity is a false unity. But even that is not nearly nuanced enough. There are times when it seems appropriate for a person to choose to voluntarily not exert their own rights for the sake of unity. It becomes more difficult when a larger group, especially a group of historically marginalized people, is required to not exert their rights as a Christian for the sake of unity.

Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren

Summary: Discussion of grief and the spiritual life framed with the Compline prayer from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. 

I am a big fan of the book of common prayer. There are many different books of common prayer, and I am not particularly devoted to one or another, but I am devoted to the value of prayers being common, of structured prayer (especially when prayer is hard), and the routine of prayer and scripture that takes you through both the liturgical year and the lectionary. I do not use the BCP every day, but I do most days. When I first started using BCP, I bought a kindle book with all the scripture inline so that there was no flipping, based on the 1979 Episcopal BCP. But the compiler of those dated kindle versions stopped producing them after a couple of years, and I bounced around for a while. I stumbled on a podcast of the 1928 BCP, which randomly was taken over by a Facebook friend and so I spent a year or two primarily listening to podcasts of the service. More recently, I have been using the 2019 ACNA BCP and creating a PDF of the morning service and sending it to my Supernote A5X, and that works really well both for a full service with everything nicely laid out and a larger format than a kindle. And there is a podcast of the same service, so I sometimes will listen along or listen instead of reading.

I was somewhat reluctant to pick up Prayer in the Night. I had read Tish Harrison Warren’s earlier Liturgy of the Ordinary, and while I did not dislike the book, it was so strongly hyped that by the time I got around to reading it, there was no way for the book to have lived up to the recommendations. And Prayer in the Night, if anything, has received even more positive press. I don’t think I have seen a single negative review or post about it. I probably would not have read it if it were not part of the Renovaré book club. I have participated in the book club for the past couple of years, so I picked up Prayer in the Night.

Prayer in the Night is framed around the compline prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Permission to Be Black: My Journey with Jay-Z and Jesus by AD Thomason

Permission to Be Black: My Journey with Jay-Z and Jesus Cover imageSummary: An exploration of the relationship between relational, emotional, and spiritual health and being Black in America.

It has been a week or so since I finished Permission to be Black. I have been trying to figure out how to write this review in a helpful way. I am a white guy in my late 40s; I did not grow up listening to Jay-Z; Thomason did not write this book to or for me. I did, however, really enjoy the book, and I think it is constructive.

Part of the reality of grappling with a racialized existence from the majority culture is that as I strive to diversify my reading, there can be a difference between reading widely and ‘the white gaze.’ In reading widely, sometimes I can perpetuate my own prior biases instead of confronting them. (As I wrote about in this article at Christ and Pop Culture magazine.) I have been intentionally diversifying my reading for years. While I do not claim perfection, I think I am doing better and understanding what is for me, what is not, and how to figure out how to read something for benefit when it is not centered on my white experience. In writing this post, I struggle with talking about a book that can feed into white superiority if read wrongly.

A reason that is frequently cited for not liking the current direction of discussing race Ibham Kendi and others start with the assumption that racial disparities are wholly the result of racial discrimination. That assertion on its face seems fairly uncontroversial. But it was the central point of a recent review on the Gospel Coalition website of Kendi’s book How to be Antiracist. The reviewer and many commenters disputed the possibility that all racial disparities could or should be thought of as the result of racial discrimination. Their claim seems to be that the assumption that racial disparity is the result of racial discrimination disallows data that contradicts that point and removes responsibility for how to respond to discrimination from racially discriminated communities.

I think both parts of that are easy to respond to. What is required is pushing the view of the data further back. For instance, a commenter on a friend’s Facebook page blamed the higher average property tax rates Black homeowners in the US pay on the local governments and the Black and other minority cultures that allow those local governments to charge those higher tax rates. I would counter that this blames the victim of the higher tax rates (and the local government) instead of looking at the US’s housing history. The history of housing includes white flight, creating new municipalities without the historic debt of the older central cities and suburbs, which are often strapped with pension and other debt that cities incurred before white flight. That is one small example of not going back to the root causes of disparity, which I believe is what Kendi is advocating in saying that racial disparity is the result of racial discrimination. The second part of the claim is that discriminated communities have a moral and ethical responsibility to respond well to discrimination. And while I do not want to dispute that we all have a responsibility for our own behavior, there is often no similar request for oppressing communities to respond well with appropriate reparations for the oppression.

I have all of this too-long introduction because Permission to be Black is a call to seek healing from the pain and trauma of generational discrimination. Thomason is not citing a deficient Black culture, as some who believe in white superiority would posit, but racial discrimination and its widespread impact. But I want to affirm that I do not believe that there is a moral, ethical, cultural, or social deficiency within the Black community. Still, there is a greater level of trauma, including generational trauma, because racial discrimination has been perpetuated for generations.

After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging by Willie James Jennings

Summary: An exploration of theological education as spiritual formation emphasizing its need to create belonging and explore how it has historically promoted white male normativity and individualism.

I have read several articles and a couple of books by Dr. Willie James Jennings, but I was not sure this book was really for me. On its face, it is a book about theological education. I am not in theological education, and I do not anticipate ever being a professor or teacher. I decided to finally pick it up after someone on Twitter talked about it as a discussion of spiritual formation, whether in or outside the academy. I am interested in spiritual formation. I commend listening to Dr. Jennings’ interview with Tyler Burns on Pass the Mic podcast or Wabash Center’s Dialogue on Teaching Podcast, which have very different interviews but are helpful to get at what the book is doing.

Jennings posits that Western education in general, but theological education has a model that emphasizes three virtue: possession, control, and mastery. These three virtues are generally assumed to be ‘masculine’ virtues, and as Jennings discussed in his previous book, Christian Imagination, these virtues are also identified with the colonization project. Because we are an individualized culture, these values are about asserting the individual as the one who is master and self-sufficient. To counter this image of the self-sufficient master of educational knowledge, Jennings takes the image of Jesus, who gathers together many who would not choose to be together if it were not for the desire of all of them to be near Jesus. Jennings’ corrected imagination rooted in Jesus’ ability to gather people together suggests that the point of theological education in particular, but western education in general, should be rooted in belonging, not exclusion, hence his subtitle, An Education in Belonging.

Part of what Jennings is addressing here is that the soul is not formed primarily through information. We are not, as James KA Smith suggests, ‘Brains on a stick’. Theological education, while it does include information, must have as a primary focus spiritual formation. And that spiritual formation, because it is a significant aspect of theological educators’ work must be concerned not only with the theological education of its students but also of its faculty and staff and the institutional aspects of its community.

What’s Your Decision?: How to Make Choices with Confidence and Clarity: An Ignatian Approach to Decision Making

Summary: An exploration of decision-making using Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment as a guide.

Part of what I have wanted to explore this year is Ignatius’ Rules of Discernment. I have asked around to get book recommendations, and What’s your Decision is one that was recommended.

The Rules of Discernment are not only about decision making, but that is how they tend to be used from what I have seen. So What is Your Decision is a good practical guide on the use of the rules of discernment. It is filled with stories and examples, which makes the somewhat vague and abstract rules tangible.

What I like is that it keeps the decision-making focused on spiritual reality while not over-spiritualizing everything. And in an era where we tend to think of decision making as an individual activity, Ignatius, and the authors of this book, remind us that we live in community, and not only are decisions made better by outside input, those decisions impact those around us, and we should both hear from those around us and take into account the impact of our decisions on others.

These are three fairly brief quotes that I highlighted that I think give a sense of the discussion. (I have 14 highlights on my Goodreads page if you want to see more.)

“The evil spirit wants us to forget that we are fallible, limited beings; sharing our decisions with another person will keep us grounded in reality.” (p 96)

A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson by Winn Collier

Summary: The first full (and authorized) biography of Eugene Peterson

I have long been a fan of Eugene Peterson. There is something about him and his imagination of what it means to be the church and what it means to pastor people that resonates with me deeply. When his memoir came out, I read it twice in less than six weeks and then again about six months later, and I have read it at least once since then as well. I can’t think of any other book that I read three times in less than a year. So when I heard about a new biography, I jumped at the chance to get an advance copy.

It has been about a month since I started and about 2-3 weeks since I finished the book. I have been sitting with it. My last meeting with my spiritual director primarily talked through my response to it. One of the thoughts that came to me as I was reading was that in many ways, without really using the language of spiritual direction (although he does have one book where he does talk about spiritual direction), I think his pastoral method was spiritual direction. If you are not familiar with spiritual direction, that doesn’t mean anything. But to me, who is in training to be a spiritual director, it was revelatory to what draws me to his approach so strongly.

The early chapters, on Peterson’s childhood and family, felt light and almost verging on hagiography. There were problems identified, especially the distance between Eugene and his father and between his father and mother. But his childhood was presented as near idyllic. Collier points primarily to Eugene’s mother as his spiritual teacher, in part because the church does not seem to have mattered much at all. But something drew Peterson to God in ways that we can see both here and in The Pastor. But in neither was I really satisfied that it was explored enough.

In the college, seminary, and early years of the pastorate, I think there is a much clearer grappling with the whole of the man that became, eventually, the Eugene Peterson that many of us hold as a saint and mentor. I am not going to retrace his story in detail. I will re-read A Burning in My Bones again when it officially comes out on March 23, and maybe I will write about the book again then and trace it a bit more clearly.

I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith Under Fire by Melba Pattillo Beals

Summary: The faith-filled memoir of a woman who rose to fame as one of the Little Rock 9, but who continued throughout her life to work through the ways race has continued to play a role through systems and culture whether or not it was legally mandated. 

I have been a bit in a reading slump. There are many ‘important books’ that I want to read, but I don’t have a lot of motivation to actually read them. I don’t want to blame the global pandemic overly, but over the past three months, my kids have been at home more than they have been at school, both because of school vacations, school closures, and quarantining because of covid exposure. My traditional method of resolving reading slumps is to change genres. Fiction or story-based history or biography often is the cure I need to re-invigorate my desire to read again.

I Will Not Fear is a book I picked up years ago when it was on sale but never read. Last fall, I noticed that it was part of Audible Plus (their program of including back catalog books for free as part of membership). But it wasn’t until January that I actually picked the book as a follow-up to the John Lewis biography. Melba Beals is not a household name. But many of us have a rough understanding of the Little Rock Nine, the nine high schoolers that integrated Little Rock Central High School. Initially, the state national guard was deployed by the Governor to block the Black students from the school entrance on the first day. A mob gathered to protest the integration harassed the students. The description of the threatened rape and lynching of the students and Melba and her mother being literally chased through the streets is harrowing.

Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery by Cheri Mills

Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American SlaverySummary: A lenten devotional based on the testimony of people that escaped slavery. 

There has been a slow recovery of the practice of Lent in parts of the Protestant world that has not traditionally celebrated the liturgical year over the past couple of decades. I want to commend three devotionals that I have used, although I have not read all of any of them yet. Each of them is a 40-day devotional.

Lent is a season of reflection and preparation for Easter. Traditionally, it is a period that includes fasting, repentance, prayer, and penance. Each of these devotionals is focused on knowing the history of the US, particularly the history of Black oppression, slavery, and the cultural embrace of racial hierarchy, which posits that those with lighter colors of skin are inherently superior to those with darker colors of skin. The purpose of these is not guilt, but awareness of. history for the purpose of repair and reconciliation. Without a shared historical story, there cannot be a shared future story. Each of these has slightly different focuses.

The newest is the Lent of Liberation, which was released a couple of weeks ago. The Lent of Liberation has a basic format of a quotation from slave narrative, usually about 3/4 of a page, a related biblical quotation, and then about 1-2 pages of reflection on the biblical passage and the historical reality of slavery and oppression. The focus of Lent of Liberation is to draw attention to the African Decendents of Slavery (ADOS) and the continued impact of slavery on the present world as well as the ways that Christianity is oriented toward reconciliation and the Imago Dei (image of God) within all people and how historic Christianity has not practiced that fully. The author Cheri Mills is a church administrator, founder of the 1 Voice Prayer Movement, and prayer director at Simmons College of Kentucky, an HBCU.

White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America by Anthea Butler

Summary: An exploration of White Evangelicals and Racism, primarily focusing on recent history.

Anthea Butler is a professor of religion and history at the University of Pennsylvania. This is a book that I keep seeing advanced readers recommend. (White Evangelical Racism does not come out until March 22). In many ways, it feels like a good follow-up to Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise because while both have some overlap, Color of Compromise primarily focuses on the complicity in racism by the church before the civil rights era with some content after that point. In contrast, White Evangelical Racism primarily focuses on Evangelicalism from the Moral Majority rise and after. Reading them together is complimentary.

One of the complaints that Butler is clearly trying to avoid is the ‘but not all White people’ complaint. Repeatedly Butler affirms that she is talking about those White Evangelicals that she is talking about, not all of them. But she has strong words throughout the book because there is a willingness for many to be complicit.

“…when evangelical writers claim to they not understand the overwhelming nature of evangelical support for right wing and sometimes downright scurrilous Republican canidates and politicos, they fail to reckon with evangelical history.” (p9)

Like many other historians, Butler suggests that the story of Evangelicalism in the US can’t be told without discussing racism and that many evangelical historians do not want to tell that more complicated story. (p 12) With the recent analysis of President Biden’s inauguration speech, there has been a discussion about the difference in the rhetoric of Christian Nationalism and what some see as potential positives of a type of civil religion.