In Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance & Repair (Brazos Press, 2021), Presbyterian Church in America ministers Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson lay out their biblical and historical case for the American church making reparations to African Americans. The intertwining of the biblical and historical is the foundation of their argument: there is a biblical model of reparations, and the history of the American church meets that biblical criteria for practicing reparations. Their aim is not to provide a detailed plan on reparations (though they offer many concrete recommendations and mandates), but to introduce and frame a conversation on the subject for the church.
They also seek to contribute to the broader academic and cultural discussion on reparations through their articulation of White supremacy, which they define as a “multigenerational campaign of cultural theft, in which identities, agency, and prosperity of African Americans are systematically stolen and given to others…theft of truth, the theft of power, and the theft of wealth.” White supremacy is racialized theft. Reparations is the practice of restitution of what White supremacy has stolen.
They affirm that race is best understood culturally and that Whiteness as a racial category is a social creation designed to lump together the various Indo-European national and ethnic groups in contradistinction to Black Africans. Initially, this concept was crafted to separate light-skinned people from Black skinned, thereby denigrating African Americans as non-persons. Their overview of Black enslavement and abuse through the Civil Rights era documents thoroughly for the lay reader that White supremacy is not just extremists, like the KKK, but the benefits to White people and institutions that came from plundering African Americans and creating systemic barriers to their prosperity, such as redlining. This exploitation and exclusion resulted in a lasting legacy of White American cultural and material privilege at the expense of African Americans.
Tragically, the White church was complicit in this theft. Ministers’ salaries were funded by annually renting out church slaves; biblically-twisted catechisms were used to brainwash slaves; the Southern Presbyterian Church endorsed Robert Dabney’s speech against tolerating African American clergy; Christian baptism was repudiated for Black people as an equalizer of moral status before God and the church in order to legitimize their enslavement as moral inferiors.
Helpfully, on the historical front, the authors also engage with the White church’s post-1960s response to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. First, there was repentance for racism, followed by efforts beginning in the 1990s for racial reconciliation across interpersonal and institutional divides. Now, they argue, it is time for the next phase: restitution for White supremacy, repairing the damage done through theft.
And that is the key theme in their work; reparations is about returning what was stolen: Black truth, power, and wealth. Reparations is a penitent, not paternalistic act, by the perpetrators of theft: “Reparations is best understood as the deliberate repair of White supremacy’s cultural theft through restitution (returning what was wrongfully took) and restoration (restoring the wronged to wholeness.)”
The citation of 16th-century Anglican bishop William Beveridge best summarizes their perspective:
“The provision of restitution to the poor under such circumstances is not alms, but the discharge of debt: ‘I say pay, not give it, for it is not an Act of Charity, but Justice.’” Reparations is not charity or diaconal ministry as such, but debtors restoring to the robbed what was stolen.
By far the strongest section of the book is chapter 5, which breaks down the biblical foundation for reparations. Relying on the Mosaic law, particularly Exodus 21:33-22:15, Numbers 5:5-18, and Leviticus 6:1-7, as well as the account of Zacchaeus, they lay out the framework for theologically identifying who owes and who is owed. Restitution is the return of stolen goods. Leaning especially on Thomas Aquinas, Richard Baxter, and Thomas Boston, Kwon and Thompson argue that the sinful withholding, obstructing, and keeping those stolen or found items, including non-material goods, is what requires restitution. Who returns the items? The perpetrators of the theft, their accomplices, and those who have inherited the stolen goods. To whom are they returned? The true owners, their heirs, and if no relative is found, the poor.
Reparations is about justice for the wronged, and their heirs, through the repentance of the wrongdoer and those who have benefited from the theft. For many evangelicals, perhaps especially for many of Kwon and Thompson’s fellow Presbyterians, this is the hardest biblical argument to accept related to reparations. Which is why a glaring oversight on the authors’ part is inexcusable: the Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 141-142 teaches that the 8th Commandment (“You shall not steal”) forbids “receiving anything stolen” and requires “restitution of goods unlawfully detained from the right owners.” This omission was a strategic blunder if they hope to persuade the incredulous from their own church.
Yet reparations is not just about restitution, but repair. Kwon and Thompson turn to the parable of the Good Samaritan to describe how “the work of restoration demands, in the end, the giving not of a check but of one’s soul – the giving of one’s self.” This is to be an act of love to restore those who have been plundered, even if we who sacrifice for that restoration are not culpable for the theft. Our defining attitude should not be one of pedantic excuse-making or self-justification, but a calling to love our neighbors into wholeness through action.
I am a White minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The questions hanging over me after this book are “am I actually culpable of racist theft? Is my congregation?”
Kwon and Thompson warn against being like the lawyer who challenged Jesus on the identity of his neighbor. Such questions, with the motivation of self-absolution are “casuistry,” and “we must beware of the self-justifying pedantry that, with fine-sounding arguments and questions, expends great energy in limiting Christian concerns for reparations exclusively to those whose culpability as direct descendants of slaveholders can be verified by Ancestry.com.” I intend to address my questions in good faith, not as a way of practicing sophistry. If reparations require returning what was stolen, then auditing history is a necessary part of penitent reparations, not an act exculpating guilt.
I was persuaded of the biblical arguments for reparations before reading Kwon and Thompson, and their work only strengthened that conviction. But the application of that biblical principle into the life of the church? My church, where I pastor? The duty of Christian love and sacrifice in working towards repair does not go away if fault is cleared, but the bedrock of Kwon and Thompson’s argument is that reparations is the complicit returning of what was stolen. It is not ethical bean counting or an evasion of loving obligation to take that aspect of their argument seriously and then to assess its claims of historical moral responsibility for my congregation.
History matters: who owes as a complicit party or heir to White supremacy’s plundering of African Americans? Answering these questions on this side of the Civil War and Civil Rights era is complicated for several historical reasons mentioned, but glossed over by the authors.
Not every benefit White people, churches, or institutions enjoy is the result of White supremacy, and not all White people and institutions can trace their heritage back through Jim Crow or the antebellum South. As antebellum institutions, Princeton and Southern Seminary may have accounted for the portion of their assets built by slave labor as part of their reparation efforts, but not all organizations can do that. Unlike Kwon and Thompson’s PCA, with its Southern roots and acknowledged racist origins, the formation of my denomination in 1981 did not have a racial element. It is implied early on in their book that Kwon, as a Korean American, has benefited from White supremacy and is implicated in it in complex ways. The only racialized activity of White supremacy they cite as occurring post-1960s is the massive incarceration rate of African American men.
Together, these observations point to an undeveloped area that needs to be addressed. What does it mean to benefit from White supremacy – especially after the Civil Rights era – if you are not White, if your ancestors resisted slavery and Jim Crow, and if your institutions formed without robbing African Americans? Though they do not explicitly say so, Kwon and Thompson imply that America is so embraided with White supremacy that it is impossible to be an American, especially a White American, and not benefit from the plunder of African Americans. The indication is that to be White (or at least not African American) is to be entangled with White supremacy through perpetual benefiting from the historic theft of Black resources. At some point, the abstract conception of the cultural benefits of White supremacy diverged from Aquinas’ stolen, nonmaterial goods.
On an individual level, this means that it would not matter if your White ancestors immigrated after the Civil War or Jim Crow; they benefited from White supremacy. It would not matter if some of your ancestors made reparations in blood, wealth, truth, or power; that may be your inheritance, but so is the White supremacist society from which you continue to benefit. Can this debt ever really be paid? Is it possible for me to pay off the sins of my fathers so my children are not culpable?
The “complex ways” in which organizations are implicated in White supremacy increase when the racial reconciliation movement that began in the 1990s is considered. It had a marked success and effect, even if not the final success needed in restitutional repair or in multiethnic congregations living up to their vaunted promise. However, since 1998 the number of racially diverse congregation has increased, as has Black leadership in multiethnic congregations and the racial diversity within multiethnic congregations. If White churches are to practice reparations as a matter of debt, this complicates the answer to another question: What is a White church?
My congregation is majority White, though some members are people of color, including some African Americans. If we were to pay reparations as a matter of corporate repentance, do I tell our African American congregants that they are liable because they are members of a church that is majority White, and therefore White supremacist? That sentence just seems laughable and noxious. We can slice and dice the responsibility of individual guilt in relation to institutional culpability, but without a record of specific theft, the congregation is admitting corporate culpability grounded in the preponderance of White people, not sin. And the African American congregants, along with other members of color, are being held corporately responsible for the guilt of being White-adjacent.
When James Forman of the National Black Development Conference delivered the Black Manifesto to White churches in 1969, demanding $500 million in restitution, there was no specific breakdown of which churches owed which amounts of money. The (“northern”) United Presbyterian Church paid $100,000, .02% of the total demanded, an admittedly very small amount of the total. But did it clear the sinful theft that the UPC owed? How much did they owe? How much does my congregation, which traces our history through the UPC, owe now? Our congregation formed in the late 19th century, post-slavery; what is our share in the plunder of White supremacy? Payment in reparations is supposed to clear debt; did the UPC’s?
Arguing for a return of what was stolen, and then holding Christian institutions complicit in that theft on the basis of their membership’s race, does not fit the model of restitution found in either the Mosaic law or the life of Zacchaeus. Specified goods, perpetrators, victims, and interest are all in view. Telling people that they are culpable for theft, but “don’t check the records or you’re being a moral actuary, just pay up,” is flippant at best. An illustration Kwon and Thompson use is of a stolen car being bought by parents and gifted to their teenager. If confronted by the true owner, the proper response of the teenager is to return the car since it is stolen. But if I am going to deprive my children, or from my congregation disperse tithes as restitution, accepting the claim that the resources we have are stolen without pertinent proof is irresponsible. Arguing that Christian institutions formed post-slavery audit their history in order to discover if they are actually liable of White supremacy is hunting for guilt, not realizing it. At this point, who is the real moral actuary? My children and congregants are not accessories to White supremacy’s theft because of the color of their skin.
A helpful scheme that Kwon and Thompson should have employed is the idea of covenant responsibility. In fact, Kwon’s chapter, “Why We Must Confess Corporately” in Heal Us, Emmanuel, is premised on the very idea of covenant solidarity. Its absence in a book on reparations owed by heirs to heirs is strange, and could have provided much needed clarity. Covenant responsibility includes corporate ownership of institutional faults, which more neatly identifies which institutions owe repentance and reparations to plundered African Americans. This would cover institutions such as the U.S. government, Princeton Seminary, and congregations who utilized slave labor. It would also address how congregations are considered liable for White supremacy and justify restitutions from them even when they have African American members.
How should churches practice reparations? Locally, and by listening to African American leaders. White supremacy stole Black wealth, but it also stole Black truth and power. Reparations is about repairing those, using resources at White disposal for African American good, on African American terms.
Since reparations is not only about justice, but sacrifice, African American communities can lead in the work of reparations, and have done so. The calling of White churches is to humbly listen to and sacrificially assist and furnish African American groups in this work.
The book closes with the example of Clayborn Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, a case study in what reparations can look like. It is, and is being restored to, a hub for African American economic growth, social center, and memorial. The concept of memorial is a chief idea for reparations; memorializing the reality of White supremacy, the African American experience, and African American dignity is crucial for undoing the deceit and evil of White supremacy. “Reparations requires truth.”
When most people think of reparations, they think of direct payment from one group to another. And that is the case as part of Kwon and Thompson’s solution for localized restoration.
Perhaps the most important aspect of repairing White supremacy’s unjust plunder of Black wealth is the act of transferring wealth – taking wealth that currently resides in White households, churches, and institutions and transferring that wealth into vehicles designed exclusively to create wealth in Black communities. This language of ‘transfer,’ though slightly jarring, is both intentional and important. It signals that we are not talking about using White-controlled resources to ‘help’ Black communities. Instead, we want to transfer these resources into contexts that are wholly owned and wholly governed by Black communities. Simply put, until this happens, Black communities will remain in a position of culturally created dependence, never fully able to take the important step from receiving wealth to owning and deploying it.
Assisting in the repairing of wealth through paying off debt, incentivizing low interest loans for Black owned businesses, and creating vehicles for investments are all suggestions procured from African American leaders. These are just some examples, but pursuing the restoration of Black wealth, locally, means listening to Black leaders, churches, and institutions, locally.
In addition to listening to Black leaders and including the truth about race and restitution in sermons and liturgies for repairing power and truth, Kwon and Thompson recommend that the church host and sponsor artists, filmmakers, musicians, social organizations, and political organizations. The goal is to create spaces where the truth is articulated by African Americans and for the church to undo the ways it has been complicit in stripping African American cultural power.
“Although many churches may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with this type of work, for reasons that need to be examined, we must undertake it. For it is only as we do so that we will see communities weakened by White supremacy empowered to thrive.” These sentences made me queasy. Kwon and Thompson do explain that they use the term “church” to mean i) Christian congregations, ii) Christian institutions, and iii) Christian individuals working together, but clearly mean congregations here. Undoubtedly the “spirituality of the church” was sinfully invoked by Southern Presbyterians to avoid addressing racism, but do Christian congregations really need to host political groups in order for African American communities to thrive? Do congregations really need to sponsor artists for the truth to be restored? One of the reasons churches may be “uncomfortable” with this is because it represents organizational mission creep, away from the pastoral work of word, prayer, and sacrament. Snooty condescensions couched with “we must undertake” this specific set of programs to successfully challenge White supremacy is knowingly disdainful of large portions of Kwon and Thompson’s own ecclesial family.
Kwon and Thompson show that communities survive and thrive when the goods stolen from them are returned, even if not by those who took them. The African American community has powerfully endured under White supremacy; its strength will increase as it is provided with its lost goods. Truth empowers. Dedicating to the creation of African American wealth, in African American communities, empowers. Submitting to the perspective of African American Christians as neighbors empowers. Reparations is strengthening African American institutions so that robbed neighbors are made whole, communities flourish and endure, and American culture is healed.
I feel like I have recently heard similar arguments. Living by the truth and investing in your cultural institutions as a means of strengthening your community to endure the squeezing pressure of a hostile society? Rod Dreher argued exactly that in The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies. Dreher urged those institutions with resources to self-invest to weather hardship. Kwon and Thompson urge those same institutions to invest in communities lacking as a result of weathering oppression. Dreher admitted that the African American experience was beyond his area of expertise, while Kwon and Thompson provide a pathway for White churches to assist and learn from African American churches in living by truth. The parallel between their arguments is striking: for communities to be resilient in the face of suffering they must live by the truth. Dreher called the church to uphold the truth against a rising cultural pressure to embrace falsehood; Kwon and Thompson exhort the church to retrieve the truth by acknowledging its sinful distortions in the past that continue to poison the present. I found these similarities jarring given Thompson’s harsh characterization of Dreher’s work as “histrionic, misleading, vindictive.”
Memorializing truth as the work of repair entails undoing the constructs of White supremacy. The White “race” is a social construct designed to treat African Americans as non-persons. Kwon and Thompson mention that the April, 2020 U.S. census designated peoples as “White” if they were of “German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.” origin. They rightly note that this is a ridiculous grab-bag of ethnic and national identities (which are themselves social constructs) classed together purely to distinguish them from people of color. White supremacy victimized light-skinned Americans through an unwitting enlistment to co-belligerence in plunder and privilege. An effect of the “humiliation of truth” is repair through repudiation.
Reparations requires restoring the truth by rejecting Whiteness. That means I am not “White;” I am of Dutch, English, French, German, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh ancestry. Yet, if the deconstruction and repudiation of Whiteness is a means and consequence of reparations, who is left culpable for the theft perpetuated by White supremacy? This is not a hypothetical or a self-serving exercise: Princeton University announced that 68% of its incoming class self-identified as people of color, and that’s not because the enrollment number of people historically counted as “White” declined. This is the goal of deconstructing Whiteness, right? A significant implication from Richard Alba’s recent work, The Great Demographic Illusion, is that the number of Americans who identify as multiracial is climbing, and climbing fast. Couple that with the deconstruction of Whiteness, and those who owe reparations and those who are owed reparations are the same.
This ties in with a consequence of Kwon and Thompson’s proposal. Reparations from White churches to Black communities should be designed to “exclusively create” Black wealth. This is not about alms to the poor, but rather restitutional justice. And the effect is that good will be withheld from people who need it because they are not Black. For instance, Oakland, California announced a program which will prove a monthly payment of $500 to families living in poverty, but only if they are not White. The specifics of a program like this may not be endorsed by Kwon and Thompson, but their rubric appears to commend its discriminatory element. Targeted repair is good; withholding aid to those who need it because they possess the socially constructed trait used by oppressors is not.
Reparations as restitution works when you can identify victims and perpetrators. Reparations as sacrificial repair works when you can identity victims by vulnerability. Drawing lines on a racial basis for who should receive aid minimizes actual need and maximizes White supremacy as the cause of vulnerability.
In Phil Christman’s helpful essay “How to Be White,” he concludes,
To me, the useful idea is not ‘whiteness.’ It’s not race at all, but—and here I am drawing on, or simply parroting, Karen and Barbara Fields’s Racecraft—racism. Thinking about ‘racism’ helps me to reach all the useful conclusions; it only spares me the useless ones. I can reach, for example, the conclusion ‘I should be willing to pay reparation taxes’ simply by acknowledging that racism is an ongoing crime, whose victims deserve, and more to the point need, compensation to help them live well in the aftermath of that crime—just as would a raped woman, or an Asian man hit by a car, or a white man hit by a car. ‘Whiteness’ adds nothing to my ability to reach this conclusion, nor to the way I live it out. All it gives me is a guilty look and a heightened self-consciousness around black people.
Reparations as restitution should be paid by those who can be identified as culpable in theft. Reparations as restoration should be made by the church to those who need aid in being made whole. Kwon and Thompson make a solid biblical case for reparations as encompassing restitution and sacrificial repair, and reparations is a necessary response of the church to the thieving of White supremacy. The weakness of their book is in their overbroad and underdeveloped explanation for the specifics of who is morally accountable for reparations.