When trying to solve any problem, large or small, it’s important to remember that hasty solutions based on poorly diagnosed problems lead to failure and frustration. This is true whether we’re talking about marketing, medicine, or ministry. And it’s especially true when it comes to repairing an injustice as complex as slavery and racism in America.
Today, there is a tendency to oversimplify the problem. But anyone objectively examining the history of American racism knows that the problem is far from simple. In his own reflections on American race relations, the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck expressed confidence that the resources for a solution existed within Christianity. According to biographer James Eglinton, however, he lamented that this solution would never come to pass unless the American church “underwent a profound transformation.”
Unfortunately, I see little evidence that such a transformation has taken place. Although pockets of hope and moral clarity exist here and there, white evangelicals have largely glossed over the embarrassing parts of their history and reacted indignantly to any suggestion of needing to make amends.
In Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, pastors Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson offer something of a crash course in American racial injustice and the church’s complicity in it. They trace the history of white supremacy from the country’s founding to the present day, explaining why overcoming a 400-year legacy of personal and institutional sin requires getting a firm grasp on what happened, knowing why the Bible calls it sinful, and working toward repairing the wreckage.
Words like reparations and white supremacy often sound scary to evangelical ears, and Kwon and Thompson work diligently to defuse the bomb. They express optimism that such language, “now so unfamiliar and awkward, will one day become as fixed in the church’s imagination and fundamental to its vocation as the language of repentance and reconciliation is today.”
Making things right
Kwon and Thompson tell the story of a former slave, Jourdon Anderson. While living as a free man in Dayton, Ohio, he received a letter from his former owner, Colonel Patrick Anderson, who had discovered his whereabouts and requested his return. As Kwon and Thompson explain, the colonel “lamented that his thousand-acre estate was faltering.” He confessed “his desperate need for Jourdon’s help with the coming harvest” and “promised that if Anderson returned he would treat him kindly.”
Anderson responds with a letter that Kwon and Thompson describe as “satirical and serious, compassionate and candid, vulnerable and shrewd, personal and prophetic.” It culminates in Anderson’s request for reparations—long overdue payment for the labor he and his wife had performed. Through his writing, the former slave paints a clear picture of the injustice that was done against his family and the measures necessary to begin making things right (measures that the colonel, who died only a few years after receiving the letter, never took).
Kwon and Thompson frame Reparations as “a long-overdue response to Jourdon Anderson’s letter.” In fact, it represents no less than a complete reset of the church’s conversation on reparations, rooted in a vivid picture of historic white supremacy and the role played by American Christians in creating and sustaining it.
“It is a difficult phrase,” the authors write of white supremacy, “and this is important to acknowledge. But it is also important to ask why it is so difficult for many of us to speak of White supremacy. Part of the difficulty lies in how we understand its meaning. For many, White supremacy is understood in fairly narrow terms: as hooded riders in the forest, torch-bearing marchers in the streets, or trolls on the dark web, promoting open, active animus against people who are not white.”
And yet, the writers continue, “To cease to use the language of White supremacy, even though it is historically accurate and broadly used in minority communities, simply because it offends the sensibilities of White people is, in our view, to perpetuate the logic of White supremacy itself.”
In America, the authors argue, we tend to categorize racism in three different ways: as a form of personal prejudice (the definition white Christians are most comfortable engaging, because most see themselves untainted by it); as a matter of relational division; and as a pattern of institutional injustice. Building on these categories, Kwon and Thompson then put forward what they consider a “much more profound” definition of racism as a kind of cultural disorder. Racism, in their words, is “an entire culture—a comprehensive way of being and doing that is embedded in our structures of meaning, morality, language, and memory and expressed in our patterns of individual, social, and institutional behavior.”
A subsequent chapter lays out, in comprehensive fashion, the consequences of white supremacy that reparations are meant to address. “What is the effect of White supremacy on African American life?” the authors ask. “In short, theft. The theft of truth through the romanticization of American history and the erasure of African Americans from that history. The theft of power, of personal and political agency necessary for effectively challenging White supremacy. And the theft of wealth by extracting it from African Americans and by purposefully obstructing their struggle to acquire it.”
From introduction to conclusion, Kwon and Thompson produce a fast-paced historical survey. They maintain a razor-sharp focus on the church’s complicity in American racial injustice, preventing readers from getting lost in the weeds while supplying enough detail to substantiate their historical claims.
This history, of course, is painful to face. Kwon and Thompson are unflinching in their portrayal of American injustice. And although the book emphasizes the relationship between white supremacy and black subjugation, they acknowledge considerable overlap with the travails of other racial and ethnic groups. Ultimately, however, Reparations is grounded in gospel hope. As the authors set out in their introduction, directed to black readers:
Our hope is that the singular harm wrought by White supremacy, the theft it has visited upon you and those you love, will broadly be seen for what it is. Our hope is that when it is seen, it will be confessed. Our hope is that when it is confessed, it will be renounced. Our hope is that when it is renounced, the world that it made will pass away, and its weight will fall from your shoulders. Our hope is reparation. We labor towards this hope.
It’s easy to feel confused and overwhelmed in conversations about race, justice, and the historical debts the church owes. But the trait that stands out clearest in Reparations is the authors’ painstaking care in communicating exactly what they mean. Kwon and Thompson are meticulous in laying the groundwork of historical facts, advancing biblical arguments for restitution in light of those facts, and giving helpful perspective on how the church has viewed restitution in the past.
Moreover, Kwon and Thompson deliver their prophetic words with a suitably pastoral tone, the better to avoid antagonizing or alienating readers who might be skeptical of reparations proposals.
My main critique of the authors’ own proposal is that it occasionally passes over certain practical questions that might arise. In fairness, Kwon and Thompson are more interested in showing the biblical and historical justification for reparations than in enumerating the exact steps the church should take. It’s clear that their goal is to begin a conversation, not to recommend an exhaustive checklist. Before we can specify the “how to” of reparations, we need a firmer consensus on the “why.”
Revisiting the problem
If you were to survey white American evangelicals and ask if they wanted or needed a book on reparations, my guess is that a solid majority would answer in the negative. Almost everyone believes they have a basic understanding of the problem that reparations are meant to address, a misconception that leads them into erroneous thinking.
For example, some will outright deny the legitimacy of any claim to reparations. Others will refuse to think seriously about such claims because they’ve decided in advance that any proposed solution will be unreasonable or unworkable.
As a marketing executive and strategic consultant, I’ve observed similar responses among organizational leaders charged with solving problems. The process typically unfolds like this: First, the leaders assume they have accurately assessed the problem (and they assume that other people in the organization share this assessment). Then, they propose quick fixes for a problem they have wrongly diagnosed, and they are impatient with any attempt to revisit the problem. And then when the quick fixes don’t work as expected, they mistakenly conclude that no real solution exists, based on their inability to conceive of one.
Where Kwon and Thompson succeed most is in giving persuadable readers ample reason for going back to the drawing board—for contemplating anew the scope of American racial injustice and depth of devastation left in its wake. This is why I would recommend the book to the American church without reservation—not because I consider it invulnerable to critique. In fact, I’m still processing many of its finer points and arguments.
Blending sound biblical interpretation and careful logic, Reparations handles a difficult, often divisive topic with pastoral sensitivity, even as it refuses to dilute the hard facts and inconvenient truths of the church’s checkered past. At the very least, any response should strive to exhibit the same virtues.
Phillip Holmes is vice president for institutional communications at Reformed Theological Seminary. He has written for The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God.
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