The subject of reparations has reemerged after a reporter asked Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders whether or not he would support them if elected. Sanders answered, "No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive.” Sanders’ response irked The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, who responded with an article entitled, “Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?”
According to Coates, Sanders’ resistance to reparations — commonly understood as compensation to Americans of African descent for centuries of enslavement and discrimination — signaled a failure to live up to his politically liberal bona fides: "If not even an avowed socialist can be bothered to grapple with reparations, if the question really is that far beyond the pale ... if this is the candidate of the radical left — then expect white supremacy in America to endure well beyond our lifetimes and lifetimes of our children,” Coates wrote. Not even the most liberal of liberals thought reparations had a chance of becoming reality.
The problem with reparations for Christians is not that it goes too far, but that it doesn’t go far enough. Conversations about reparations usually begin and end with practicality. This is Sanders’ approach. He doesn’t think any sort of reparations agenda could get passed in Congress; furthermore, he suggests that even raising the issue would only divide politicians and their constituents. Politically speaking, he’s probably right. But Christians are called to an even higher standard for reconciliation than the ones posed by those advocating for reparations.
Justice is a more expansive term than reparations.
Justice is a more expansive term than reparations. Justice can mean "making things right." It can mean "giving everyone what they deserve.” Or it can simply refer to “restoration.” Consider the story of Zacchaeus. After Jesus had stayed at the home of the unjust tax collector, Zacchaeus vowed, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” For this reason, Jesus proclaimed that salvation had come to the house of Zacchaeus. Generous recompense for wrongdoing is an act of faith, one that signals the presence of Christ’s salvation.
A Biblical concept of justice both encapsulates and transcends the modern political idea of reparations. Before we address the question of reparations, we must confront the problem of memory. The United States has failed to examine the past in order to understand the ingenious and insidious ways the nation has perpetuated racial supremacy. And so before the conversation about reparations gets off the ground, secondary objections arise: “It won’t work. How do we decide who gets paid? How much do we give?” These questions all have their place, but they distract from the foundational discussion that needs to occur. Christians, along with the rest of America, should instead be asking: “What happened to people of African descent in this country and what are the ongoing effects of those actions?” If an injustice has occurred, then it is the responsibility of Christians as neighbors and brothers and sisters in Christ to advocate for repair.
Until Americans, especially those in the racial majority, study the nation’s historic and present dealings with African-Americans, the issue of reparations will always be “divisive.” The conversation will halt over tactics, without ever determining the wrongs done and repenting of those sins. In contrast, a robust Biblical perspective of justice will lead believers to ask not, “Should we do something?” but rather, “How much can we do?”