As Ta-Nehisi Coates documented recently in his long and compelling cover story for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations," the government of the United States for centuries has perpetuated systemic injustice against African Americans. These formal legal practices explain many of the broad demographic differences between white and black citizens of our nation, and they raise the question of whether the government ought to recognize the injustices of the past and work to repair them.
Of course, the injustice against African Americans begins with slavery, but Coates frames most of his argument around policies of the 20th century. And of course, slavery, then Jim Crow, remained firmly in place in the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but Coates demonstrates the pervasive racism and discrimination that prevented African Americans in the north from educational and professional advancement as well. For example, the Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934, "adopted a system of maps that rated neighborhoods according to their perceived stability . . . Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated 'D' and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing." Similarly, the GI Bill was supposed to ensure low home loans for servicemen returning after WWII. Yet "so many blacks were disqualified from receiving [these] benefits 'that it is more accurate simply to say that blacks could not use this particular title.'" Coates links this legal discrimination to ongoing poverty within African American communities, which then links to lack of educational and employment opportunities, high rates of imprisonment, and the dissolution of the family.
Coates's article goes on for 15,000 words, and it is well worth reading for the history of abuse, disrespect, and degregation perpetrated by white Americans, first upon African slaves, and later upon African Americans. Ultimately, Coates offers a convincing argument that Congress should study the issue of reparations. He isn't arguing what the outcome of that study should be. He isn't arguing about the practicalities. He simply outlines the reason why our nation would benefit by addressing the grievous wrongs perpetrated even in recent history against a specific group of people—of citizens—in our country.
In other words, plenty of writers and thinkers are engaging the important questions about whether the government should respond to our sordid history of racism and segregation. No one needs my less-informed opinion on this matter. But it is worth asking how Christians should respond to Coates's article. Coates argues that the persistent problem of racial hatred and animosity in this country is a spiritual problem. As he writes, "I'm talking about a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal." Every instance of injustice poses a spiritual problem. This particular history of injustice implicates many white Christians (and some black Christians too). All humanity is debased when injustice is practiced on any fellow human being. Reparations imply repair. Reparations imply healing. And healing is something Christians ought to know about and care about.
For white Christians, Coates's article should provoke serious reflection and action. First, we come from a tradition that recognizes not only individual sin but also corporate sin. Isaiah admits before the Lord that he comes "from a people of unclean lips." Paul almost always writes to the church as a whole, not to individual believers. Scripture underlines the collective guilt we share, just as it calls us to our collective responsibility to do justice and love mercy.
And so we begin with confession, certainly for particular sins of racism but even for the sin we were unwittingly born into, the sin we did not advocate for or promote but that benefited us nonetheless, the passive and active attitudes and actions of our ancestors who failed to advocate for full equality and justice for their fellow citizens. We confess that our privilege—educationally, financially, and even the lack of stigma that comes with white skin in this country—has come at the cost of justice for all.
From there we turn to the more complicated question of action. What would healing look like? I do not have all the answers, but I wonder what would happen if every predominantly white church in America—north and south—were to ask a predominantly black church or a predominantly black neighborhood what they could do to serve their community? What if every white citizen with excess capital pledged some of that capital towards African Americans? What if every white Christian sending their son or daughter to private school contributed some of their income toward educating an African American child? What if white Christians started to build real relationships with black Christians, based upon our common bond in Christ, a bond that still can overcome the divisive history of all these years?
We moved to Connecticut from North Carolina nearly 30 years ago, but my parents are still in frequent contact with an African American couple I will call Vera and John. Vera worked for us. She cleaned our house. John worked at a factory. I still correspond with Vera every so often, because we share faith in Christ, and she prays for me and for our family. Many years ago, my parents offered Vera and John a loan so they could buy a house. I don't think my dad offered the loan out of "white guilt." I think it came out of a sense of respect, out of an understanding that Vera and John worked hard, just as my parents worked hard. But Vera and John weren't deemed worthy of trust by a bank, based on the color of their skin and the history of their kin and their lack of education. They still send checks to my dad regularly, and when we go back to visit, we stop by to talk together for a while.
Maybe this is what the beginning of healing looks like.
Or take our friends who have moved into a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, where a white and black pastor lead a church together. Where white and black neighbors work towards affordable housing. Where white and black members of the school board seek a good education for all the children in the neighborhood.
In both cases, the gap of centuries of economic degradation has not been undone. But perhaps healing—for both sides—has begun. And perhaps the church can take up the work the government has to this point refused to even address. Perhaps the church is even designed for this work: the work of healing, restoring, uniting, and making all things well.