Did you put a man on the Moon? Did you fight in World War II? Did you fight with George Washington in our War of Independence? Did you own slaves? No. And yet, here we are, the benefactors of everything it means to be an American. Both good and bad.
There is a certain amount of community guilt that comes with all the benefits of being an American. As Christians, we should know this. Did you eat the fruit in Eden?
I didn’t eat the fruit. There is no way I would have eaten the fruit.
Everyone says the same thing when it comes to slavery.
We bemoan George Washington for owning slaves, and yet we know what it’s like to be in debt. He owed a lot of money after spending eight years of his life fighting for his country’s independence. He had earned a few years to kick back and enjoy his farm. Meanwhile, a constant stream of tourists flocked to his estate draining his already stretched resources.
One of his closest friends, Lafayette, begged him to get rid of his slaves. George appears to have agonized over this, but he couldn’t imagine a world, or his finances, without slavery. He promised to free them after he died, and later, after his wife Martha died. We all say, “I would have freed my slaves and pushed for abolition.” You wouldn’t have eaten the fruit either.
It’s easy to condemn George in the same way we frown upon Germans in the 30’s or the ancient Israelites who seemed to be constantly going astray. Yet, are we advocates for social justice today? And more importantly, are we willing to put our money where our tweets and posts are?
So, what is it that I owe?
Reparations means to repair. You need to understand something is broken before attempting a repair. That can be hard if you aren’t exposed to that brokenness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t understand the brokenness of racism in America until he experienced it with his Black friend Frank Fisher. This personal experience reframed his theology. Maybe white people swarming Black people for this purpose isn’t the answer, but we can be exposed to a lot more through reading, learning, and listening. I didn’t know about Frank Fisher until I read Drew Hart’s “Trouble I’ve Seen,” about Drew’s personal experience with racism in the Church.
While there is a lot to love and appreciate about America, it has never been “America” (as many of our ideals claim it to be) to a significant portion of the population. For all of the good intent of the Founding Fathers, they failed to recognize the humanity of the population that helped build this country. General Washington could have never left for the battlefield had he not had the means of doing so. The country grew rich and “free” because of unpaid labor. So, there is a debt to be paid, owed by the people who have enjoyed those freedoms given by those who had none. As a wise man told me the other day, “We’ve built the house you’ve been living in for 400 years.” A painful truth. Even though my grandparents were from Holland, the “we” still hits home as part of the white majority. We have come a long way as a country. Like many, I thought that having a Black president was the final nail in the racism coffin. It seems so naive now.
There is a great deal of repair that is still required. Great damage has been caused to the Black family first through slavery and then Jim Crow era laws that led to mass incarceration. Redlining and wage gaps have held Black Americans back. What happened to George Floyd just touched an already raw and frayed nerve. A nerve that has been raw for 400 years. It will continue to hurt until it is addressed properly. This isn’t history, it’s today’s reality.
A friend was in the process of buying a house last year and found a clause in the title that said the property wasn’t to be sold to “people of color.” Yes, progress has been made suggesting that’s just a remnant of the 1950s, but it’s symbolic of the damage and wounds that remain today. Imagine if he had been Black?
In 1865, the US government agreed to give all freed slaves forty acres and a mule. That would work out to be about $2.7 trillion dollars today. This was immediately rolled back by Andrew Johnson after Lincoln was killed. The land given was taken back and turned over to the original slave owners. Laws were passed making it illegal for former slaves to be unemployed. So, many were arrested and put to work on chain gangs tending those same lands that should have been theirs. For many, they were worse off than when they were slaves.
What about the Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII?
In 1988 President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which gave survivors of Japanese internment camps $20,000 and a formal apology.
What about Native Americans?
In 1946 President Harry Truman established the Indian Claims Commission which distributed $1.6 Billion dollars. While impossible to truly compensate people groups for past sins. It was a solid, concerted effort.
What about slavery?
In 2008 Congress passed a formal apology. But lacking any reparations it feels empty. Justice requires more than that. After repenting to Jesus, Zaccheus paid back what he owed. He paid reparations. In doing so he repaired those relationships. You don’t need to look deep into recent current events to see there is a broken relationship. A large portion of the population feels that there needs to be justice. Reparations is supported by 85% of the Black population.
Reparation bills have languished in Congress for many, many years. I think it’s unlikely I’ll see reparations in my lifetime, and every generation that passes makes it more and more unlikely to happen.
So, now what?
What I am suggesting is voluntary reparations. Zaccheus gave out of a desire to repair and restore. The Good Samaritan, while having nothing to do with the original crime, gave out of a desire to repair and restore. Christ died for us, though blameless, to repair and restore. Regardless of our felt guilt, there are reasons to give. People are hurting. They’ve been beaten and stolen from for generations. We should give for love, and give for the love of justice.
Give to one of the many wonderful nonprofits that are tirelessly serving Black communities.
They are the ones who are doing the repair work. By giving to groups who specialize in offsetting the injustice of poverty and destruction of community, we can give to those who need it most.
No, nothing we give will be enough. There is no turning back the clock and completely reversing the course of history. However, we can change the course of history going forward. We can head in the direction of healing. We can repay, repair, and rebuild for future generations.