Regarding Reparations (Part One): Some Initial Biblical Perspectives

There’s growing chorus of people in America supporting the notion of reparations.  It may come as a surprise to some that reparations, at least properly defined, are not inherently anti-Christian.  In fact, concern for social justice and doing something concrete and measurable to right past wrongs (something more commonly called “restitution”), is an important component of revealing and advancing God’s kingdom on earth.  Of course, what requires restitution and the best means to that end are far more complicated questions to answer.

I wish I could give some real and reasonable solutions as well as provide some sense of closure for these multidimensional as well as very convoluted and complex, yet deeply important matters in a brief series of blog posts, but I honestly can’t.  Instead, this series will mainly raise concerns and questions in hopes to spark some deeper interest in and movement toward a better society and a godlier church.

Before raising these questions, I want to give some important biblical perspectives since most westerners (Americans especially) are deeply influenced by the individualism of a post-enlightenment rationalist set of values that push very hard against some of the scriptural aspects pertinent to these matters.

Solidarity with Our Ancestors

First and foremost, the idea of sharing some sense of solidarity with our ancestors is foundationally biblical. Although many tend to skip over them, genealogies are common in scripture and become centrally important for present concerns with respect to such things as the Levitical priesthood (e.g., Ezra 2:62) as well as the Davidic line leading to messianic hope in Jesus Christ (e.g., Matthew 1:1-17).  Our ancestors are deeply important to understanding our connections to the past as well as our responsibilities in the present and trajectories for the future.  In individualistic societies, we are not nearly concerned enough with our predecessors.  We often lack a healthy and biblical sense of our connection to, knowledge of, debt (good and bad) toward, and reliance upon our past.

Second, if we affirm (and I recognize some Christians do not) that in Adam, everyone sinned, and that in Christ, everyone who believes has been made righteous (Romans 5:12-21), our personal guilt is also tied to our ancestral guilt in a way that makes us helpless and hopeless apart from the mercy and grace of God made known and available through Jesus Christ.  In short, we are guilty and deserve eternal death not only because we ourselves have sinned, but, first and foremost, because our patriarch, Adam, sinned first.  This guilt is real, and while it has been called many things, I consider it to be a genuine and “inherited” guilt before God.

Third, and closely related, suffering the consequences of our ancestors’ poor choices is also overtly biblical (e.g., Exodus 34:7).  No one arrives in this world unstained or untouched by prior acts of evil.  All previous generations have contributed to the injustices of the current one, and sadly, we ourselves will also contribute to and leave some behind for subsequent generations to rectify as well.

Daniel’s Confession

Fourth, there is an intriguing passage in Daniel 9:1-19 where righteous and faithful Daniel, pours out his heart to God over the sins of his ancestors, considering their guilt as his own.  If anyone could claim to be an innocent victim of the sins of prior generations and a personally righteous person in spite of it all, Daniel would be that one.  And yet, he repeatedly identifies with (note his repeated use of “we”) and confesses the sins of his ancestors to God as His own.  As I understand it, such confession does not mean we are directly and personally guilty of the sins of others in the same way as if we committed them ourselves. Deuteronomy 24:16 is clear that we are not directly responsible for the sins of our ancestors.  But this kind of confession is healthy, godly, and important for at least three reasons.

First, it recognizes our solidarity with those who have come before us in this world.  To some extent, we do share in their guilt because we come from their stock.  Again, this does not mean we are guilty in the same way they are guilty, but it does mean that we share a certain burden of responsibility to admit and recognize the wrongs of what they have done.  For the purpose of clarity, I am going to call this sense of guilt that stems from our solidarity with our direct and recent ancestors, “corporate guilt.”  It is not the same as personal guilt (mentioned above) and does not make us culpable in the same way our direct offenses and involvement do.  Failure to appreciate this runs the risk of subverting Deuteronomy 24:16 and holding us responsible, as if we had done certain evils in some direct and conscious way.  Still, the burden of sorrow and sense of connection are real—or at least they should be—in some important sense.  We not only mourn over the wrong those related to us have done, but we willingly take on a level of responsibility for the harm it has caused and continues to cause others because we are directly connected to them through our ancestry.

There is a second reason why confessions like Daniel’s are biblically important.  It demonstrates humility and a genuine willingness to see and admit that there really is a problem.  I suspect that at least some of our resistance—even defensiveness—over the idea of reparations stems from a refusal to admit that there are and were real and profound past systemic restrictions imposed upon certain communities and people-groups—simply because they were members of a certain ethnicity or class.  Perhaps we are ashamed; perhaps we are ignorant; perhaps we want to protect reputations or personal interests.  To admit that we have some connection to the matter is to bring us to a humbling and uncomfortable place of recognizing some level of genuine responsibility to do something to right such wrongs.

And this idea leads us to the third reason why such biblical confessions of this kind are so important for us to highlight.  It heightens our sense of present responsibility in terms of our need to turn to God in humility and look to and trust in Him—not just to political, educational, financial, and social programs—to provide the strength and wisdom to rectify the wrongs others have done.  Why?  Because this reflects the purposes, plans, and character of God Himself.  Thus, sharing some sense of responsibility for rectifying past sinful choices of others does have an important place in Christian thought and is therefore directly pertinent to questions about reparations.

Zacchaeus’ Reparative Transformation

Before tackling some of the pressing questions surrounding reparations, one more story from scripture bears mentioning.  When Zacchaeus came to faith in Jesus, his life was transformed in a very practical way.  He not only recognized he had done evil and was part of an unjust system of Roman taxation, he actively sought to give back everything and more to those that he had cheated.  I suspect it was a very costly commitment, but he understood that his faith in Christ was not mere assent.  It was the motivational source of transformation alongside a completely different set of values and way of life.  This new life not only reached out in the present to a radically alternative future, it reached back into a sinful and unjust past in order to practically and materially rectify blatant injustice and sin toward others.  In short, a life changed by Jesus was immediately and lastingly characterized by the observable values of repentance, regret, restitution, restoration, and reparation.

Of course, Zacchaeus’ responsibility for wrongdoing here was his own, and his actions to rectify those wrongs was wholly voluntary. No one forced him to make restitution for what he had done, and they were given directly to those that he himself had wronged, but his behavior shows that seeking to repair past wrongs should be a natural outflow of a truly transformed life in Christ.

Having begun by looking to the scriptures, many practical problems and crucial questions need to be addressed before any real movement toward making just reparations can be seriously considered and enacted.  It is to just four of these we will turn our attention in the remainder of this series.

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