In 2019, the city of Evanston, Ill., passed a resolution to address “the historical wealth and opportunity gaps that African American/Black residents” faced, particularly when it came to housing discrimination. The method? Reparations.
We serve at sister churches that work together to combat racism. I (Michael Nabors) serve as the senior pastor of the historic, Black congregation, Second Baptist Church. I (Michael Woolf) serve as the senior pastor of the predominantly white congregation, Lake Street Church of Evanston. Since the passage of the 2019 resolution, the topic of reparations has been a mainstay in our communities. Not only do we feel like Christians can and should support reparation efforts, but we also believe that the gospel calls us to the work of repair. When Jesus stands up to preach his first sermon in Luke 4:16-20, he asserts that he has come to liberate the oppressed; we believe reparations aid in the spiritual and economic liberation described in that sermon.
Talking about reparations in church inevitably brings up theological and economic questions. Sometimes these questions are asked in good faith. Other times, these questions are based on myths that need to be deconstructed. Here, we address the most common questions and myths our congregations have worked through in an effort to provide pastors, lay leaders, and activists a helpful resource.
Myth #1 - I never owned slaves, so I shouldn’t be held accountable for slavery.
Rather than thinking about racism as a personal sin tied to slavery, we find it better to think about racism as a systemic sin undergirding our entire society. The Christian tradition argues this injustice emanates from the doctrine of original sin. In the United States, a household headed by a Black college graduate has about 33 percent less wealth than a household headed by a white high school dropout. Understanding that systemic racism is linked to original sin allows us to see the ways in which Black people continue to be exploited through systems and structures. In order to begin repenting for that exploitation, reparations are required.
Myth #2 - Black people have the same economic opportunities as everyone else.
Today, over 50 years after the civil rights movement, wealth inequality between Black and white Americans is at the same level it was at in 1968. This disparity is the result of systemic racism, which has closed the door to prosperity for many Black households. In our city and cities across the United States, redlining has been a major force for maintaining this inequality. Redlining created a prosperity divide by keeping Black homes at lower values and making credit impossible to obtain, effectively excluding Black families from the American Dream.
Myth #3 - The Bible doesn’t say anything about reparations.
One of the foundational texts of the Bible is the story of the Hebrews being liberated from slavery. When the Hebrews are liberated from their bondage under Pharoah, they receive gold and silver from their former oppressors as reparation (Exodus 12:35b-36). Likewise, later in the biblical narrative, Jerusalem receives reparations when the people return after exile: King Darius uses the royal treasury to fulfill the reparations even though he was not the king who forced them to abandon their homeland (Ezra 6:1-12). It was not King Darius’ personal wrongdoing that caused him to offer reparations. Rather, it was his recognition that his nation had committed a sin against the people of Israel. Repeatedly in scripture, reparations establish equality and enable new futures (Deuteronomy 15:12-15; Ezekiel 33:15; Proverbs 6:30-31; Luke 19:1-9).
Myth #4 - Reparations are the opposite of grace.
The practice of grace is always linked to accountability and truth-telling. While forgiveness and grace are God’s prerogative, such gifts do not free us from taking responsibility to restore broken relationships and systems (James 2:17; Matthew 5:23-24). To argue otherwise is to advocate for a cheap grace, which Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted is not grace at all. True grace is costly. Perhaps the best example of costly grace is found in the story of Zacchaeus who is so overwhelmed by the grace of God that he is compelled to make restitution with those he cheated (Luke 19:1-9).
Myth #5 - Giving money to people never works (they’ll use it to buy drugs and alcohol).
This is a stereotype that has been debunked. A study from the World Bank has shown that direct cash transfers to individuals does not increase spending on what the study calls “temptation goods” (e.g. tobacco and alcohol). Reparations have happened before in the United States. In 1988, Congress approved $20,000 in reparations for each Japanese American imprisoned in internment camps. While no amount could compensate for such a wrong, reparations helped begin a powerful and still-unfolding process of healing for Japanese Americans and their descendants.
Myth #6 - Reparations are politically polarizing.
While it is true that reparations in the form of cash payments are a polarizing idea, it is important to note that the civil rights movement was also polarizing at the time. Before Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968, a Harris Poll noted that 75 percent of Americans disapproved of him. In modern times, King has a high approval rating and a reputation as one of the greatest Americans to live. Currently, cash payments for reparations are a polarizing issue but that doesn’t alleviate Christians' responsibility to advocate for them, nor does it mean that the issue will always be polarizing.
Myth #7 - The middle class shouldn’t have to pay for reparations.
There is a good argument to be made that the wealthiest citizens in the United States should be the ones to pay reparations. But we believe it would be a mistake to insulate the white middle class from this process altogether as the white middle class benefits from the economic exclusion of Black people. Recognizing how our present situation is interconnected with others is fundamental to understanding systemic racism and the need for reparations. Houses of worship can play a major role in helping people realize this truth and then mobilizing people to fight injustice.
Myth #8 - There isn’t money available to pay reparations.
This will be unique for every community. In Evanston, $10 million has been set aside through taxation on cannabis dispensaries. If we were to look at a national reparations program, we should seek to redirect funds from the national security budget, which sits at a bloated $753 billion for the fiscal year of 2022.
Myth #9 - Reparations will only benefit Black people.
While it would be a mistake to focus on what reparations will do for white Americans, we believe reparations provide an opportunity to heal the psycho-spiritual damage racism causes white people in the United States. James Baldwin evocatively linked the liberation of white and Black citizens in The Fire Next Time, when he argued, “the price of liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks — the total liberation, in cities, in towns, before the law, and in the mind.” Reparations offer an opportunity for healing through material divestment and repudiation of white supremacist systems. Reparations move us closer to reconciliation, spiritual renewal, and the full liberation of all people.
Myth #10 - The U.S. doesn’t give free handouts, so Black people shouldn’t get a free handout.
This isn’t a handout — it is simply keeping a promise that was made to Black Americans but has been broken for generations. Ethicist and theologian Emilie M. Townes notes how, at the end of the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman promised Black men 40 acres and a mule to begin their lives as free people. There were promises for reparations but these promises never came to fruition. Those broken promises created a wound in our nation that has been allowed to fester, growing into the systemic racism that is present today.
From a pastoral perspective, we believe Evanston was prepared to talk about and carry out reparations because the entire community has been working on issues of race and justice for years. Our churches have played a part, as we’ve joined together in studying James Cones’ The Cross and the Lynching Tree, creating social programs, and leading community conversations about reparations. Now in 2021, we are committed to continuing that work of repair through preaching and teaching in our churches, and developing long overdue initiatives that will promote equity among our people so that our children and grandchildren will see and live in a better world.