I recently finished leading a group of about 20 people here at our church through the book Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson (Brazos Press). Both authors are pastors with advanced degrees in theology, well-grounded in the local work of reparations. Their readable, well-organized volume has received praise from across the theological spectrum, and deservedly so. It combines historical and sociological analysis of the impact of White supremacy on American lives throughout the period of European settlement and the life of the American republic. They are seeking not only to repair the damages of slavery, segregation, and discrimination against African Americans, but to take on the burden of the White supremacy that underlies these devastating crimes against humanity.
In their words: “We see it as our responsibility to acknowledge the truth of our collective history and our own culpability in it, to surface ethical resources in the Christian tradition that can help us engage the consequences of this history, and to call others in the church to take up the work of reparations in their own communities.” (185)
In their view the claim to White supremacy, whether revealed in enslavement, lynching, terrorism, or daily discriminations of all kinds, damages the very image of God that all humans bear. It is thus a kind of original, or primordial, sin that requires not merely reparations, but repentance, a turning to a new self-concept as the door to a new way of life. In a time of struggle over the very facts and meaning of our history, their call for repentance requires an honest assessment of our personal and collective past as well as a numbering of the destruction this racist arrogance has caused. It then requires, and here is the hard part, a certain kind of grace to hold both our systemic sin and the possibility of new levels of justice in the same mind. Though they don’t use this term (they are more Calvinist than Lutheran), it is a matter of “simul justus et peccator” (“simultaneously justified and a sinner”). This is hard for most Americans, because we want to slip quickly into the beneficent sunset of our social reconstruction, ignoring the way we have sabotaged the new beginnings we have seen before, whether in our Revolution or the brief eras of Reconstruction and the New Deal. It is a task, therefore, requiring humility as well as perseverance, gratitude, and hope.
I write this in the midst of Holy Week, in which we Christians re-live the drama in which the suffering, despised, and crucified prophetic Rabbi from the outback of Israel took all the violence of the world onto himself, that we might live into the life that swallows up death in the inexhaustible love of God. On Friday, here in our local community, we will walk down Main Street with a large cross, praying at various stations along the way. We will then gather for a lunch and discuss James Cone’s classic book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, in which these two horrendous symbols are brought clashing into our consciousness, calling for repentance as well as new life. Regardless of whether you grab hold of Reparations or Cone’s testament, I hope we all will catch a glimpse this week of how new life emerges out of the suffering of our world.