Imagine I came to you and confessed that I had stolen something from you many years ago, something that made it exceedingly difficult for you and your family to prosper. But rather than compensate you for my theft, or even return what I had stolen, I merely apologized. Naturally, you would be unsatisfied by my words. Imagine if I had said: “But it happened so long ago. You’ve overcome so much in the meantime, and your family has found a way to flourish in the face of hardship, even without what I stole from you. So returning or replacing it isn’t going to change anything. It’s only going to stir up bitterness. Besides, we’re both Christians, and you of all people should understand forgiveness.” You probably wouldn’t consider my apology contrite or Christian.
Unfortunately, this exchange is similar to the disposition of many Christians and U.S. politicians when the subject of reparations resurfaces. But I think we can do better. Holding our Christian and American freedoms in tandem, we can make amends for one of America’s greatest sins in tangible ways that don’t disregard the offense of the centuries-long enslavement and unjust discriminatory laws against African Americans. As Christians, how we engage in the conversation of reparations can be one of the greatest testimonies of our faith to the rest of the world.
The history of enslavement may seem distant and irrelevant to some, but for me and many other African Americans, the legacy is fresh and painful. On a recent visit to my grandmother’s house, we dug around in her archives looking for old articles, books, and pictures. At the cusp of seventy-five years old, she’s eager to pass along items of significance to her grandchildren that explain the history of our people. Her more meaningful contributions were in the form of first-person and second-hand stories that explain our family’s legacy and lineage. I watched her face contort into horror as she told us how her grandmother described what it was like to be whipped by a slave master and having salt poured in those wounds. And I responded in kind to her reenactment of surprise when she learned for the first time what her grandmother meant by “nursing” as she pointed out in pictures all the white babies she had nursed. As she relives those memories, I live them with her. That history courses through the blood in my veins too.We’ve only partially enjoyed the truest sense of American independence and freedom as long as we support or remain apathetic to the indifference of a system that is insistent on overlooking past wrongs.
The pain of mistreatment and human devaluation lives on. It has not gone away. It carries social, economic, and financial consequences passed down to me and so many others. And it has come at the hands of a government that allowed such atrocities to happen under a rule of law. The system was broken for my grandmother, and her grandmother, and the level of retributive justice has been slow and minimal. What my grandmothers received was not recompense from a contrite government. Instead, what they received was earned through persistence and sacrifice from the bottom rungs of American hierarchy, oftentimes sanctioned by American churches. That I’m only a couple generations removed from being regarded as worthless in the eyes of my government and America’s largest denomination is a haunting reality. And in reality, 1-in-3 people that look like me are regarded as such by today’s criminal justice system.
In HBO’s recent documentary True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, Stevenson, too, understands the proximal weight of an unjust system at play. Bryan Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which seeks to end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, challenge racial and economic injustice, and protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in U.S. society. In the documentary, Stevenson recollects from his childhood when his grandmother took him to an old shack where his grandfather was born and told him to listen for a sound. He says it’s the same sound he hears when he goes into jails around the United States. “It’s the sound of suffering… agony… misery… and when you hear that sound of misery, it will push you to do things that you won’t otherwise be able to do.” One of those things we can do is figure out a way to repair what our systems have broken for generations, because, as Stevenson goes on to say, “There’s a history of untold cruelty that hides in silence in this country. And I think there are things we can hear in these spaces that can motivate us.” The point here is not that slavery was evil, which it was, but that it was a particular kind of evil that has never been truly reckoned with through restitution. And contrary to the opinion of some, ending slavery through a civil war does not count as restitution for slavery.
Unfortunately, many Christians of our culture turn a deaf ear to these untold cruelties. Some even echo Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s sentiments: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea,” the senator told the press. “We tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation, elected an African American president,” a president that McConnell and many others staunchly opposed. “I don’t think we should be trying to figure out how to compensate for it.”
To McConnell’s latter point, I must agree. There is no adequate amount of “compensation” for America’s gross iniquity of human slavery. Some acts of wickedness are simply irreversible. However, there can be just recompense. Just restitution. And former slaves were owed this. During the Reconstruction Era, the U.S. government considered and even began to act on paying restitution to African Americans by providing them avenues to acquire positions of elected power, land, and reparations. But ultimately the government reneged on these opportunities. Instead of making amends, it proliferated decades of further race-based violence and injustice. The United States stole labor from African Americans that it never paid back. Our nation owes a debt, and it needs to pay it, even if it is to the decedents of those who were wronged. Just because time has passed, the bill of justice the government is responsible to pay has not expired.
During a reparations hearing on Juneteenth of this year, author Ta-Nehisi Coates excoriated Senator McConnell for his dismissiveness on the matter. “Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores. When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell,” Coates said. “We grant that Mr. McConnell was not alive for Appomattox. But he was alive for the electrocution of George Stinney. He was alive for the blinding of Isaac Woodard,” he continued. “Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing, and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them.”
Coates’s words are a prophetic and stinging rebuke to any who joyfully celebrate Independence Day without also recognizing how irresponsibly that independence was implemented. The admonishment pierces the fundamental elements of those who sneer at even the thought of repairing what the American forefathers, and the many that followed, failed to make right. As long as Americans treat the darker origins of our country’s history with vague and empty words–bracketing past sins as nonexistent, nonessential, abstract, and inconsequential to our future–the cycle of human objectification will only take form in other unforeseen ways.
Why bring up such a controversial and heavy topic on the heels of a traditionally relaxing and leisurely holiday? Why must we keep returning to these same old, tired, controversial conversations over and over again? Why can’t we just move forward, relax, and enjoy the fellowship of family, friends, and fireworks? Because to do so is to numb ourselves with forgetfulness that anesthetizes a greater realized sense of freedom our society can experience. I believe we’ve only partially enjoyed the truest sense of American independence and freedom, and it will remain this way as long as we support or remain apathetic to the indifference of a system that is insistent on believing its past sins are somehow rectified because time has past. Lingering sin is still sin. The passing of time simply maturates its effects.
Many, however, adopt the notion that indirect culpability of American slavery and segregation lessens the burden of responsibility for the next generation. In the “Frequently Asked Questions” portion of Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, he is asked by an unnamed questioner: “I wasn’t even born when all this stuff happened. When my family came to this country, segregation already existed; we had nothing to do with segregating African Americans. Why should we now have to sacrifice to correct it?” Quoting Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he answers: “Your ancestors weren’t here in 1776, but you eat hot dogs on the Fourth of July, don’t you?” His point is that, “When we become Americans, we accept not only citizenship’s privileges that we did not earn but also its responsibilities to correct wrongs that we did not commit. It was our government that segregated American neighborhoods, whether we or our ancestors bore witness to it, and it is our government that now must craft remedies.” Unfortunately, too many of us Christians sit idly by, failing to concede that we live with enduring effects of slavery and de jure segregation. The longer we sear our consciences to these facts, the easier it becomes to avoid confronting both our gospel and constitutional obligation to reverse it. As a result, a chasm of the potential wealth African Americans could have accumulated and passed on to the next generation only grows wider. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that no one is advocating a transfer of wealth directly from white people to black people. This is a question of how the government might in some form, (through tax dollars perhaps) repay what is due to descendants of slaves.
Turning a comforting blind eye or reassuring ourselves of how far we’ve come as a country simply won’t suffice the comparable work of doing justice, which requires repairing (reparation) what is broken, whether we’re the people responsible for breaking it or not. When we allow our beliefs to become tangential matters in the way Jesus compels us to use our freedoms to love our neighbors; we deceive ourselves into believing there is no way to repair past—or even recent—American atrocities. But whether we choose to disregard the economic, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social inequities and strife caused by 250 years of American slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow legalized segregation, 150 ongoing years of disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, and continued housing discrimination, or not, it still exists and it is affecting your neighbor. The question for us Christians is now, will the church lead in demanding justice, or will we allow our nation’s “original sin” continue to mature with hollow words that lack action?