Though we intend for this book to be introductory, we also hope that it will make substantive contributions to larger conversations regarding reparations both inside and outside of communities of faith. Even as we introduce some of our readers to the topic of reparations, we also hope to engage with scholars, theorists, and practitioners of reparations in a constructive manner. Some of our readers may be surprised to learn that a robust conversation around reparations exists at all, and even more surprised to learn that it exists outside and inside the Christian church, both today and throughout history. Part of the purpose of this book is to orient our readers to that conversation. It is also our purpose to shope that conversation and to contribute to its maturation. Though the extent of our contribution will only be seen in time, we believe that our work contributes to this conversation in several important ways.
The first of these is that we set our treatment of reparations not simply against the backdrop of slavery but against the much larger backdrop of White supremacy. As will be abundantly clear, in doing this we do not intend to diminish the significance of slavery. To the contrary, we seek to embed it in a much larger and more enduring context that illumines both its essential meaning and its enduring effect. Nor do we intend to critique organizations or movements such as the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) who, as their name indicates, largely center the descendants of those enslaved in America in their account of reparations. “Even so, we deliberately join others in taking a broader approach. Doing so provides a more accurate historical picture of both the character and the duration of White supremacy’s cultural theft, a theft that preceded American chattel slavery and endures beyond it. In our view, it is only as we set reparations in the context of the entire history of American White supremacy, a history that included but is not confined to slavery, that the full picture of reparations can come into view.
Our second contribution lies in our characterization of White supremacy as theft. While this is central to our argument, we also confess that it is a point in which our argument is vulnerable. After all, White supremacy expressed itself as a symphony of vices: not least idolatry, covetousness, lying, adultery, and murder. Even so, the simple fact is that American White supremacy originated in the theft of Black bodies, sustained itself through the theft of Black wealth, and justifies itself through the theft, the erasure, of truths that expose its lies. Theft is, therefore, not simply an expression of White supremacy, it is, rather, both its most elemental impulse and its most enduring effect. We believe that characterizing it in this way helps not only to clarify its essential logic but also to chart a clearer path toward reparations.
We also contend that this theft is best understood not merely in terms of wealth but in the more comprehensive terms of truth and power. This is an important feature of this work that distinguishes it from most of the literature on reparations. A great deal of the literature frames reparations in largely economic terms, as a form of redress for the incalculable wealth lost to African Americans caused both by slavery and by subsequent decades of contined inequality. As we will show in chapters 3 and 7, we are in deep sympathy with this view and fundamentally agree that there is a critical monetary horizon of reparations. Even so, we resist reducing reparations to this horizon. To view White supremacy as a theft of not only wealth but also truth and power provides important insights regarding White supremacy’s inner logic. It is also a more accurate account of White supremacy’s devastating cultural reach. To frame the harm done by American White supremacy in exclusively economic terms is actually to obscure the nature and magnitude of that harm. In our view, this broadened perspective opens up new horizons for reparations by reminding us that the true imperative of reparations is not simply for a debt to be repaid but for an entire world to be repaired.
Another contribution of this work is its focus on the church. We hope that this book will introduce Christian readers to the reparations conversation, to the role of the Christian thought in those conversations, and to the incredible potential of the church to bring those conversations to the forefront of the national imagination and to enact them in their local contexts. In doing this, however, we have subtly shifted the institutional backdrop of this conversation. Most treatments situate reparations against the institutional backdrop of the federal government. Even as these treatments differ from one another in their accounts of history and their elaboration of debt, most believe that reparations is, finally, the work of the government. We, too, believe that the United States government is morally responsible for the work of reparations – both for the ways that it sheltered White supremacy and the ways in which it benefited from that sheltering. Indeed, throughout its history the government has paid reparations to Native peoples, to Japanese Americans interned during World War II, and most relevantly to slave owners following emancipation. The United States government has already demonstrated its capacity to enact reparations when it finds the moral and political will to do so. And, pragmatically speaking, we believe that the scale of reparations is such that the resources of the United States government, combined with the governments of other nations, are necessary. That said, given the history of our government’s indifference to reparations to Black Americans, and given the profound divisiveness of our political moment, we are not sanguine that the United States government will take up the work of reparations with any real intentionality or efficacy in the foreseeable future. And yet the need for reparations remains.
Because of this, we believe that churches can and should play an important role in catalyzing and demonstrating the power of reparations in our communities. Indeed, the church’s complicated history, moral tradition, committed membership, considerable resources, local knowledge, collaborative potential, and divine power render it the perfect context for the work of reparations. As with all civil organizations, the church’s efforts will, structurally speaking, be smaller in scale than those made possible through governmental resources. But they will be a beginning, which with labor and time may yet amount to the whole.
Our final intended contribution is our insistence that reparations requires what the Christian community refers to as repentance. Which is to say, the work of reparations requires us to become different kinds of people. The sad, though understandable, truth is that conversations over social change, especially those surrounding racial redress, are fraught with self-righteousness and venomous recrimination. Rarely are these conversations characterized by the presumption that perhaps we are wrong, that we are the problem, and that our social goals require our personal repentance. Indeed, there is a discernible vanity in both religious conservative “patriots” and secular liberal elites that presumes that social change can somehow bypass personal repentance, that the world can change while we remain the same. This false presumption obstructs the work of reparation because it inevitably focuses our attention on defending our rightness rather than on repairing the wrong before us. This tendency is evident everywhere around us, but perhaps its greatest expression lies in the almost total unwillingness of many Americans and of our collective government to stand before our African American citizens and before the world and say, “We did this, it was wrong, and we want to repair what we have done.” But if we are to heal the wounds of White supremacy,this is precisely what we must do. Though reparations will not be accomplished simply by changing who we are, they cannot be accomplished with it.
From “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair” by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson