Racial Reparations: Faith Communities and Political Action
Commentary by Nick Gier
Editor’s Note: This column was written in honor of Black History Month
In their infamous booklet “Southern Slavery as It Was,” Doug Wilson of Moscow Idaho, and Steve Wilkins wrote: “There has never been a multi-racial society which has existed with such mutual intimacy and harmony in the history of the world.”
The clear implication of this statement (yet to be retracted) is that Americans owe nothing to the descendants of these happy plantation workers. In his inimitable snarky style Wilson, pastor of Moscow’s Christ Church, made his position explicit in “Let’s Have a Little Fun with Reparations, Shall We?” A post on Blog and Magblog from March 2019.
Here is a clear statement of biblical reparations: “If a man is sold to you, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free. You shall not let him go empty-handed; you shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your wine press” (Deut. 15:12-14).
Following the essence of scripture, Gen. William T. Sherman ordered, on Jan. 16, 1865, that every enslaved family receive 40 acres and a mule. Twenty Black ministers (mostly Baptist and Methodist) convinced Sherman that this was the Christian thing to do.
Initially, 400,000 acres along Georgia’s southeast coast were granted for this purpose. The families insisted that they themselves would govern this domain separate from whites, because “there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over.” This was an understatement for the ages.
President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, overturned the Sherman’s order, and land-less Blacks struggled as sharecroppers, constantly cheated even under that arrangement. They were stripped of their rights and thousands were lynched. In an excruciating irony, enslavers in Washington, D.C., were paid reparations for the loss of their human property.
Blacks in the North were denied home loans, and when they did buy homes on predatory “contracts,” property values declined in their “redlined” districts. White labor unions denied them membership, and, as a result, good paying jobs were not available to them.
The result of this systemic racism is summarized in a 2020 Brookings Institute report: “Today, the average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family. White college graduates have over seven times more wealth than Black college graduates. In fact, white high school dropouts have more wealth than Black college graduates.”
It is significant that conservative Christians such as Doug Wilson ignore Deuteronomy 15 and dozens of other biblical passages focusing on social justice, but liberal Protestants emphasize them. Jews and Catholics have also joined in this effort.
A wide coalition of the latter have sponsored webinars, produced by the Center for Reparatory Justice, Transformation, and Remediation. The goal is to pursue “national and global reparatory justice, and to take faithful action to ‘repair the breach’ as commanded in Isaiah 58:12.”
In 2008, both the Senate and the House passed a bill apologizing for slavery and Jim Crow, but the Senate bill had the proviso that no financial commitment to reparations was implied. Many people believe that the issue will have to be settled by local and state governments.
At the state level most progress has come, not surprisingly, in California. The Reparations Task Force has published a report with recommendations, and it is now the politicians who will determine the structure and cost of the reparations. Some are proposing that $300 billion (1% of the state’s GDP) be appropriated for the project.
When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the “promissory note” of human equality in the Declaration of Independence, he meant compensation not just formal equality In other words, the “bank of justice” is also a fund for reparations.
In an April 14, 1967, speech titled, “The Other America,” King clearly stated: “The Negro was freed from the bondage of physical slavery. But at the same time, the nation refused to give him land to make that freedom meaningful.”
Nick Gier lives in Moscow, Idaho. He holds a doctorate in philosophical theology from the Claremont Graduate University. His major professors were James M. Robinson, New Testament scholar and editor of the Gnostic Gospels, and John B. Cobb, the world’s foremost process theologian. He taught in the philosophy department at the University of Idaho for 31 years. He was coordinator of religious studies from 1980-2003. He has written five books and over 70 articles and book chapters. Read his articles on religion at nfgier.com/religion. He’s enjoyed two sabbaticals and one research leave in India for a total of 22 months in that country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.