Bible Study 6-9-2020
Like most deep rooted systems, the system of racial inequality in the United States is resistant in the face of attempts to release its power. In the late 19th century, the white southern portion of the United States began putting together a dual approach to keep power and reimplement slavery in another form. They used a dual approach of violence and legislation to regain control of black rights and movement without ever mentioning the word race. In a plethora of decisions in the 1890s, the Supreme Court upheld “silent” slavery because no intent to reintroduce slavery or to implement systems based on race was directly articulated in the laws in question.
A similar situation is playing out today. In Georgia in 2018, a rural county proposed closing seven of nine polling sites, specifically because they were not in compliance with rules on access for the handicapped. The real reason: it was an undermined way to weaken black political power in a heavily black district.
Certain people classified as white may agree there are some racially based injustices still lingering, but they are often overshadowed by the “we’ve come along way” conversation. Such conversations never really satisfy the hearts of white people who still hear the cries of black people. They never quench the righteous thirst of white people who see the injustices still being committed rather consistently. This situation leads us to think about a significant step in the process of seeking real liberation for those who are classified as white: reparations. The thought of reparations is very hard to face during the process of healing because it forces us to consider who the god of America is: not the God of ancient Israel or the God of Jesus, but the god of materialism/consumerism. To discuss reparations means we’d have to stare the false idol of our culture square in the eyes: THE POWER OF MONEY.
Reparations simply means doing “repair work.” The idea is biblical in nature. The people of Israel realized the need to have a periodic time of repairing their social fabric in the form of the Jubilee Year (Lev. 25:1–10), when slaves were freed and debts forgiven. Another one was the directive to compensate Hebrew slaves upon their release (Deut. 15:12–18)—they were not to be sent way “empty handed.” The people of Israel understood that reparations was a spiritual issue.
The impact of race and slavery is so deep that reparations can never truly compensate. But, if we want to find some form of healing, we must talk about and consider this topic. Reparations would involve acknowledging the destructive power of slavery and figuring out how much of white wealth was built on slave labor.
Slavery was a system for building wealth. Those whose wealth was stolen should be compensated.
How much money was made from slavery and continued acts of discrimination is hard to calculate, because so many American institutions and families were developed and built on it. But we must engage in this conversation. At its nature, slavery (and the racism that produced it) was an economic system, building wealth for the rest of the country. In my opinion, the only way to begin to come to terms with this truth is to begin having conversations about compensatory payments to those who were affected.
On January 16, 1865, near the end of the Civil War, there was a General named William Sherman who met with black ministers and other lay leaders in Savannah, Georgia. Upon the close of the meeting, he issued an order that repossessed close to 400,000 acres along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The land was purposed to be given to some 18,000 former slaves and their families, with portions divided into forty acres per family. Which is where we get the phrase 40 acres and a mule from. This order, which was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson in December 1865 was an early attempt toward reparations. It recognized that black slave labor was the engine that drove white wealth .
The idea of reparations infuriates many White people. Here are some of the reasons why.
1.) Most whites believe that slavery ended in 1865, so how can reparations be discussed now?
2.) To admit the need for reparations, those who are classified as white would have to rewrite their own autobiographies, and no longer be able to claim that their accomplishments were derived solely from hard work.
3.) How would it practically work?
It’s an almost universal belief among whites that the accomplishments of their families and of themselves are based on individual and familial hard work and sacrifice. This belief fits neatly into the idea of a meritocracy, which means those who have gotten ahead have gotten it through hard work, while those who haven’t are the ones who have not worked hard enough.
**** To think that reparations is a foreign idea in modern society is false. It should be noted that reparations have been made before in American history. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act, which granted reparations of about $20,000 each to surviving Japanese Americans who had been imprisoned in this country during World War II. Some 82,219 people received checks. That number is a small number in comparison to African Americans, but the effort nevertheless shows that it is possible.
**** Another step toward reparations would be amending the US Constitution to change the clause designating that a slave be counted as three-fifths of a human. This effort would require a discussion about why the three-fifths clause made it into the Constitution in the first place. It would help us reclaim the vision that all people are created equal.
BIBLICAL CASE FOR REPARATIONS/RESTORATION
Deuteronomy 15:12-15 and the situation with the children of Israel.
– don’t send them away empty handed
– supply them liberally
– remember that you were slaves in Egypt
Luke 19 and the story of Zacchaeus.
2 Corinthians 5:17-20
**** The biblical basis for those who were not directly involved ****
Consider the book of Ezra. The action begins “in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1). That places us at 539 B.C. when Cyrus the Great came to power. It is 70 years after Babylon captured Israel and took them into captivity. Already we’re talking about roughly two generations. Please note that everything that happens is so “that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled” (Ezra 1:1). What had God spoken through Jeremiah? Essentially that after 70 years the Lord would return Israel from captivity back to the land (Jer. 29:10-14). One hundred years prior, Isaiah also prophesied that the return would happen at the hand of a pagan ruler named Cyrus (Isa. 45:1). Ezra really records the fulfilling of God’s promise.
So two generations (70 years) after the Babylonian defeat by Nebuchadnezzar, an entirely new empire has emerged, and a pagan king uninvolved in the sacking of Israel initiates the repatriation and the reparation of Israel. That reparation began with returning the items taken from the house of the Lord when Nebuchadnezzar defeated them (Ezra 1:7-11). This was the first act of reparation. This was all by God’s hand.
But the story does not end there, of course.
Fast forward to Ezra 6. Another 20 years or so have passed since the opening of Ezra 1. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah speak God’s Word to Israel. Some Israelites have returned to the land, but other waves have yet to arrive. Now King Darius rules the empire. In one historical recounting, the temple is rebuilt in 515 B.C. (an alternative but improbable dating would put it much later during the reign of Darius II between 423-404 B.C.). So we’re now about 100 years after the first exiles went into Babylon, about three generations later.
What do we see relevant to our discussion of reparations? We see exactly what we’re told would be injustices in any modern program of reparations. In Ezra 6:6-12, King Darius, a king who wasn’t even born when Israel was conquered ruling over an empire that wasn’t even in existence when the exile began, passed a law decreeing that taxes be paid by people who did not conquer or abuse Israel in order to restore Israelites who themselves were not alive during the Babylonian conquest of Israel.
Darius decreed, “The cost [of rebuilding the house of God] is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River” (Ezra 6:8). In fact, those citizens “from Beyond the River” were themselves a people who were at some point conquered and swallowed up by the empire. In other words, Darius, as head of state, compels his citizens through taxes to pay a reparation to Israel even though those citizens did not commit the offense and those Israelites did not directly suffer the offense. What had been stolen was returned and then some as the province was commanded to give “whatever is needed” to restore temple worship and offerings “day by day without fail” (v. 9).
So it seems to me that the “innocence,” “unharmed” and “generational tax” objections all fail in this historical example. If God, who is just and only does justice, has acted in this way then it cannot be unjust for nation-states to voluntarily repay its own citizens for crimes suffered at its hands, no matter when the crimes occurred.b