Regarding Reparations (Part Three): Are reparations a practical possibility?

In the first part of this four-part series on reparations, we explored some of the biblical foundations for why reparations might be an important part of bringing hope and healing to the racial issues of our time in America.  In the second part we raised the questions of rightness as well as exactly who should receive reparations for the injustices of the past and why.  Here in part three, we will consider whether or not reparations are a practical possibility.

Are reparations a practical possibility?

Inevitably, the pursuit of something of this magnitude requires a massive level of wisdom and accountability, not to mention extensive financial, legal, and human resources.  How much will go to those who don’t actually need or deserve it?  How (in)efficient will the distribution of opportunities and assets be?  Who will decide who gets what, and who will hold the distributors accountable to be fair and just in their dissemination of those benefits?

Without careful consideration, it will undoubtedly create another bloated and inefficient governmental department sucking away enormous amounts of tax dollars from other praiseworthy programs and genuine human needs.  Not only that, would there be any clear starting and ending point for making reparations?  Beginning to offer them opens the door for endless special interest groups to line up and make the case that they too should be beneficiaries.  And at what point will the government have the courage to say, “We have done enough.  There will be no more reparations given to anyone from this point forward.  It’s time to disband this department and use our resources for other things.”  History shows that the chance to create a class and voting block of long-term political dependents is very hard for any government to resist.

Because of this powerful tendency, I believe that the only practical and possible way to enact reparations must involve much more than creating another bureaucratic governmental program.  In fact, Christians and the Church are often situated in the closest proximity to the people who are in the greatest need.  This means that very often they (and not the government) are best positioned to assess the problems and offer genuinely viable solutions for them.

Putting a large part of the solution into the hands of local churches, however, means first and foremost that such programs need to be largely voluntary.  But making it voluntary means that some (perhaps even many) churches and Christians will not participate and instead ignore the golden opportunity to show Christ’s love to those who need it most.  Christians who oppose the government being involved in reparations should simultaneously be looking for ways to step into that gap and provide opportunities for those in need to experience hope and healing.  They should also seek avenues to change and restructure unjust social systems at the local, state, national, and even international level.

Sadly, I suspect that for some Christians, expecting the government to spearhead a program of reparations is really just an excuse to do little or nothing themselves since, “the government will rectify the problem.”  The fact is, people find all kinds of ways to ease their conscience that do not cost them very much.  Taxes are a relatively simple way to avoid the pain and inconvenience of more direct involvement in the lives of those who suffer from injustice.  And that is the great danger of thinking of reparations in terms of a one-off kind of payment or benefit.  Sinful human relations will continue to create all kinds of opportunities to make further reparations.

As Christians, we need to be willing to do more and give more for the sake of loving those who have suffered and still continue to suffer under the injustice of past wrongs.  This is why governments have often had to step into the gaps created by indifferent and comfort-loving Christians and churches.  If the Church was more actively and sacrificially involved in community care and change, I suspect that the demand for reparations would be significantly muted and perhaps even largely met.  Of course, this would not solve every problem.  Apart from God’s sensational and supernatural intervention, sinful human nature makes it impossible to create a paradise on earth.  But that does not mean Christians cannot and should not continue to work toward making society fairer and more just.

Therefore, rather than pointing out the ways a large and governmentally-administered program would be a bad idea (which it very likely would), Christians should be asking, “What we can do to meet social needs and rectify immoral and unjust social systems?”  Exactly how this can take place is a worthwhile and important conversation, but always looking primarily (or even exclusively) to some political party or legislative set of solutions tends to lift the burden of responsibility off of our Christian shoulders at a time when we should, more than ever, bear with Christ the burden of responsibility to do what we can, in very practical and direct ways, to turn wrongs into rights and injustice into justice.

Looking to material solutions also tends to ignore the fact that we are wrestling with problems that are not merely systemic at the political, economic, and educational level.  These are important, of course, but these problems are also deeply spiritual, moral, and personal in nature.  They can only be fully resolved in supernatural and non-material ways, making the gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church that much more necessary in any quest for genuine and lasting social transformation.

Ultimately, because the problems we are talking about involve personal and public, as well as spiritual and material aspects, it seems inevitable that both governments and churches would need to be involved and even, if possible, work in concert.  But Christians cannot wait for legislative action and let that be an excuse to slip back into letting the government do what the Church has always been called to do, even though it is extremely costly, inconvenient, messy, and heartbreaking.  It is a responsibility we are privileged to do, and we must not shrink back or excuse ourselves from it because someone else is actively trying to take it away from us.

Having said all this, we must reiterate the simple conviction that if reparations are morally right, then regardless of what the government decides, Christians ought to find ways to implement them, despite attending difficulties.  But one of the important moral aspects of making reparations is determining whether or not they are actually helpful in rectifying the problem in the first place.  This is last question we will consider in the final post in this series.

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