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…”
Reparations were also clearly known about and understood during and after the Civil War. Union slave owners and some confederate slave owners were given reparations for the loss of their ‘property.’ But the 40 acres and mule that General Sherman ordered in Field Order 15 were not given to most slaves. Those few who initially got 40 acres and a mule had the rule overturned and their land and property confiscated. (Note that in 1862 with the Homestead Act, the federal government gave land to any citizen that claimed it, but Freedmen before the end of slavery and former slaves after the Civil War were not eligible because they were not legally citizens until the 14th Amendment.)
In 1969, James Forman interrupted the 11 AM service at Riverside Church to read the Black Manifesto, a 2500 word statement calling for reparations. (Riverside Church was the same church Martin Luther King, Jr. announced his opposition to the Vietnam war less than two years earlier). The statement was specifically calling for Christian white churches and Jewish synagogues to give $500,000,000 in reparations, $15 per Black citizen at the time. Most notably today, HR 40 is a bill to create a study commission to investigate the feasibility of reparations. HR40 has been introduced every year since 1989.
The center of Kwon and Thompson’s book explores the concepts of reparations in the bible, a broader look at justice, and an in-depth look at Zacchaeus and the parable of the Good Samaritan about reparations as biblical principles. It is here that there is real value to this book. Other books like From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century explore the economic impact and potential methods of reparations. While the last chapter explores some practical steps for reparations, the book’s main point is the biblical basis for the concept and the need that gives rise to the discussion.
Reparations in a secular sense are about justice, rightness, or economics. But for Kwon and Thompson, reparations are primarily about the repair.
“Reparations as an actuarial calculations simply will not do. The work of restoration demands, in the end, the giving not of a check but of one’s soul–the giving of one’s very self.”
“…the call of reparations is not merely for a check to be written or for a debt to be repaid but for a world to be repaired.”
And even clearer,
“The parable of the good Samaritan, set againsts the backdrop of multigenerational cultural theft of White supremacy, make a crucial contribution to a Christian account of reparations. It reminds us that the work of restoring all that was unjustly taken from our neighbors is the calling not only of the culpable but of all who seek to live a life of love in the world. Because of this, the church in America, a community whose very purpose is love, must own the ethic of restoration and give itself to this work of healing. Indeed, it is the church’s vocation both to dress wounds and to redress wrongs.”
Reparations are the first book that I read with my Supernote A5X and its digest feature. It allows me to highlight text and take digital notes and export them. I made 91 notes or highlights, and you can see a PDF of them here.