Acres and a Mule:
Slavery as a legal institution lasted for about 250
years up until the Emancipation
Proclamation of 1865 and for another 100 years, African Americans were
subjected to Jim Crow laws of which they were not seen as legally equal
until 1965. Initially,
reparations were to be paid by giving freed slaves 40 acres of land and a
mule, but the bill was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson in 1869 after
having passed in Congress. However,
the issue was far from being put to rest.
One hundred years later in 1969, the Black
Manifesto was published, demanding monetary compensation equaling $3
billion dollars from predominantly white places of worship (Catholic,
Protestant and Jews) depending on the predetermined amount that the
National Black Economic Development Conference calculated. This request
stemmed out of the Civil Rights movement, a fundamentally moral position
taken up by religious leaders. Its
more radical counterpart, the Black militant and power movement felt that
the Civil Rights movement did little to improve the economic situation
despite what was given in the legal sense through the Equal Rights
Amendments of 1964 and 1965. Initially, there were religious groups and churches fighting
for social programs to eradicate poverty and working against forms of
discrimination, “By fall of 1968 nearly $50 million had been pledged and
some millions expended.” However,
these actions resulted in more emergency, short-term help rather than
systemic change. And with the
election of a more conservative president, President Nixon, the tide in
favor of poverty programs and economic development of black community
changed and it was no longer a national priority.
As a result, the Manifesto,
written by SNCC leader, James Forman, brought to attention the forgotten
or tabled issues at hand. However,
the form of attack was not directed at the government on behalf of the
black churches, but rather a public intrusion on predominantly white
places of worship in which the Manifesto
was read aloud. Needless to
say, the response was immediate and the reparation issue, in this more
modern context, became heated and controversial.
Coming up with a cost for what were considered lost wages
implicated national level guilt as well as suggesting that monetary
compensation would begin to make up for historical oppression:
For centuries we have been forced to live as
colonized people inside the United States, victimized by the most vicious,
racist system in the world. We have helped to build the most industrious
country in the world…We are also not aware that the exploitation of
colored peoples around the world is aided and abetted by white Christian
churches and synagogues…(this) is only a beginning of reparations due us
as people who have been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and
In general, the churches that were asked to raise
money for the reparation cause rejected this proposal.
Some absolutely denied any right to the suggested money, whereas
some believed that money should not be given to the black community
directly, but through some federal or state social program.
Something was accomplished, however, as the
religious community became aware of the grievances held by the
black community directed against the church.
The most contemporary manifestation of making
reparations has come about in a law suit against the government headed by
Alexander Pires, books such as Randall Robinson’s The Debt: What Americans Owe Blacks (2000), and Richard F.
America’s Wealth of Races
(1990) and Paying the Social Debt:
What White America Owes Black America (1993). On an international
scale, both the United Nations and Nigeria have formalized a position that
the US should respond to this issue, at least with an apology and at most
to right the wrong by paying in the form of economic compensation. A
growing interest has been fostered at Boston University in the very recent
“Great Debate: Should The U.S. Pay Reparations for Slavery” (November
2001), and earlier, in the short-lived running of David Horowitz’s
student newspaper ad, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad
Idea for Blacks and Racist Too." The new amount that the most contemporary form of
reparations is close to $8 billion, (if each descendent of a slave
received $150,000) an estimated amount that takes into account what 40
acres and a mule would be worth and lost wages over the 250 year period.
The Manifesto and the
legal case is built on a precedence of making reparations to the Indians,
Holocaust victims, Japanese Internment camp victims, and the Tuskegee
Syphilis experiments (the only reparations given to descendents that were
not in the direct family.) 
Briefly, the issues of contention are how Americans
can now be responsible given that slavery ended over 150 years ago, and
given that there is no direct connection between the people of today and
slaves of multiple generations ago. Another
issue at stake is whether monetary compensation can make up for slavery,
and whether an apology and/or developing social programs would be more
appropriate to the present black situation.
Third, making reparations can be seen as a handout, further
stigmatizing and perpetuating the victim mentality of the black community.
Fourth, there is an economic challenge that is implicit in asking
for the money in that it could fundamentally change the economic structure
giving African Americans the upper hand in this society.
And finally, one might ask, could reparations bring about unintended
consequences, such as exacerbating racial tensions and creating or
sustaining racial division in the country?
The most critical issue for this paper begs the moral
and in some cases, explicit religious response. From a theological perspective, the concrete issue of making
reparations for slavery will be analyzed using three main themes:
evil/sin, guilt, and redemption.
Manifesto in asking monetary compensation can be summed up in one
sentence: “Reparations is a scheme for the rearrangement of wealth to
offset past iniquities or correct an imbalance in society.” In this first section of the theological analysis, the
iniquity created by slavery will be analyzed in two ways, the structural
possibility for slavery and the perpetuation of its sinful effect in
today’s society using process theology.
This first section will set up the possibility for approving
reparations, although it will do so critically, and in the end with some
reservations, and will leave it open to further sections in this paper to
finalize this approval or entirely reject this possibility.
Theodicy: The Structural Possibility for Slavery
The institution of slavery unequivocally was an evil
institution manipulating Judeo-Christian ideas to justify the practice.
The Black Manifesto cites
29 grievances against religious organizations, specifically against the
dogma and practices of the church that made it possible to keep slaves in
bondage. The theological
ideas of a sovereign God and the eschatological hope were used to justify
and maintain the cruel treatment of slaves.
Process theology rejects both of these propositions, and offers in
its place an explanation for how slavery came into existence and
justification for liberation from its historical and present oppression.
and the World
According to Norman Pittenger, evil is “that which
holds back, diminishes, or distorts the creative advances of the cosmos
toward the shared increase of good.” (74) Evil is both deprivation and
privation and stands in stark opposition to potential goodness either
through discord or triviality (to choose against the possibility of
goodness.) The status of the
world exists in clash and in harmony between two principles, creative and
destructive principles. The world, thus, is perpetually being made and
perpetually being diminished. The
perishing principle is a result of existential finitude of the world in
that the universe is in constant and eternal process, the things of this
world will always be being.
Given the structure of the world there are capacities
for intrinsic good and evil, instrumental good and evil, and the power for
self-determination. In a
world where good and evil is intrinsic and instrumental, the case can be
made for the cruelest of structures: “The evils of pain, suffering,
injustice, catastrophe, etc. are possible in a world structured to evoke
novelty, integration, adventure, and all of the other components of
worthwhile experiences.” Slavery
can be classified in this way, and justifies a beginning analysis on the
veracity of claims made in behalf of reparations.
However, before this is done, one should examine how evil is
brought into being given the structural possibility for slavery.
Codetermination of Power, and Evil
The theodicy question involves not only the existence
of evil, but also an existent God who is good, and all-powerful.
The possibility for slavery is not a determined reality, but rather
brought about through a series of events, choices, and occasions in time.
Who is responsible for slavery? All actors are implicated, even
God. Although God in his
infinite way is working toward creating increased order and goodness, the
world can work against this. God
can only suggest his initial aim, and in an unlimited way he can persuade
for the world to unify itself in the most optimal, intense way for
altruistic satisfaction. God cannot ultimately be in control simply
because the structure of the world allows God passive power and he cannot
prevent evil from occurring. God
is held responsible to heighten our reception to his persuasion, and to
act in novelty and creativity in the world, but he is both limited in
power and is affected or changed by what happens in the world: “Process
theodicy projects a deity who is deeply involved in and profoundly
affected by the experience of finite creatures.”
This has to do with the principle of codetermination of power in
The powers that cause all events to be is produced
and shared between God and the finite world.
In other words, “God is responsible for evil, but not indictable
for it” because “finite actualities can fail to conform to the divine
aims for it.” Humans are
meant to enjoy and to contribute to the world, so they are given freedom
in direct relation to the level of intensity and instrumentality to bring
about the best possible satisfaction.
However, the more freedom that is given to humans the greater the
possibility that freedom will be used as increased “intense and
instrumental” means to go against God’s initial aim creating more evil
and suffering. God also shares in the pain of the world and is affected by
the demonic forms of impoverishment, injustice, and violence.
In this way, God becomes partially implicated by evil since he is
correlated to all that occurs in the world.
God, as can be concluded by this analysis, is not
omnipotent, although the case can still be made for his goodness and for
his love, since his initial aim is to suggest and make possible
increasingly the good in the world. God has and will always have a concern
for the world. He shows this
concern by acting and disclosing himself in the world and as Pittenger
states, God “can make even the wrath of man, as well as whatever other
evil there is in the world, ‘turn to his praise.’”
Obviously, in the case of slavery, the initial aim of God was
rejected in the most intense of ways.
Clearly, slavery needs to be seen in light of God’s goodness,
human action, and the process of culminating evil in the world.
The next section will deal with how slavery has affected the world
today in terms of human sin and the oppressive force of evil persisting
through the centuries.
Human Sin and
In order to make the case for reparations, one should
establish a direct connection of slavery to the contemporary situation and
thus, establish a case for direct and collective responsibility for
slavery. Stackhouse, a
Christian social ethicist claims, “One of the decisive things we ought
to have done is overcome the generalized structured that cast dimensions
of poverty and racism in the society, an inheritance from slave days now
built into the very fabric of the culture."
Before one can make that claim that as a society we owe a debt to
the black community, one should articulate clearly what was lost,
suffered, and deprived in the event of slavery and its perpetual evil
The essence and purpose of humankind is “the
reality of the decisions of creatures, at every level form the quantum of
energy up to the free choice made by man.”
To be human is to choose, to decide, to create, and to be empowered
to be fulfilled in the world. It
is the choice for self-actualization and self-fulfillment, it is the
“spontaneous, creative self-determination in every event.”
Thus, to take away these basic rights is an act of sin against a
person. In fact original sin, comes from the “situation or state of
deprivation or alienation in which men find themselves.”
Process theology also asserts that human beings do not start with a
level playing field in that original sin affects some individuals more
than others. This is
different, for example in a reformed theology where all
humans are “totally depraved.” Acts
that result in terminating the right to determine one’s future and limit
his/her freedom to be fulfilled is the kind of oppression that occurred in
slavery and as result is present still today.
In fact, clearly the reparation demand is nothing
short of claiming the right, in an economic and social way, to fulfill
their human purpose. Forman
states, that “essentially, the fight for reparation is one of
self-determination and the transfer of power.”
In this way, sin has an indelible effect through the passing of
time. Once that right to freedom to be and to choose had been stripped of
the black community, it remained so and perpetually sustained oppression
far past the point of the Emancipation
Proclamation (1865). The thwarted creative potential has and continues
to deprive the black community from accomplishing and contributing to
society, to its community, and to their personal selves.
And far worse, is the prevention of the black community to be
united and engaged with the initial aim of the infinite God. The following
sections will deal with oppression on the economic and religious level.
Sin And Economic Oppression
Those involved in the initial demands for reparations
held a view that saw slavery as a systemic issue. David Griffin offers a
valuable and description of what kind of structure slavery was; it was
“the corporate structure of alienation and oppression which has been
built up through centuries of human sin.”
The injustice incurred in slavery requires an acknowledgement of
societal responsibility for conditioning black people to feel inferior.
However, at the same time, process theology aligns itself with
liberation theology to say that the black community is “not necessarily
a total victim of (societal) values… individuals can exert an influence
back on it and thereby transform it.” Furthermore, Suchocki contends
that “cumulative acts of human beings (are) the sources of the
demonic.” In process
theology, all acts and occasions of interdependent.
This is how Forman sees it when he asserts,
Operating upon all of us are a whole set of control
factors, many of which we are not aware. These control factors however,
have been drummed in our heads for centuries, and we accept them as
realities, hence the major reason we are not all totally dedicated to
The societal factors that Forman points are systemic
in nature, and more specifically requires an economic response.
To be oppressed is to be fundamentally economically
oppressed in that slaves had and the present black community has a “lack
of adequate material prerequisites for a good life and of the opportunity
to determine their own destinies and to make significant contributions to
history.” For the
proponents of reparations for slavery, it requires a collective change in
the system, and an overturn on who remains in control over the system. Early reparation proponents want to see an economic shift of
power from white hands to black hands either through a peaceful exchange,
and if this did not work, through more violent forms of revolution and
guerilla warfare. (Forman, 115) The
attack on systemic evil has not been just toward society proper, but also
towards the church in its responsibility for perpetuating black
The Church’s Responsibility to Systemic and Historical Sin
The direct responsibility for slavery is not just on
the conscience of society, but on the church as well. As a sign of repentance, the church was asked to pay
reparations long before the government.
And as a responsive community, given the process structure, the
church can continue to perpetuate racial divides or ameliorate the
situation by restoring freedom, power and creative control in and through
society. Even in silence the church stands condemned in a way that
Forman writes so clearly, “Basically the Black Manifesto is an
historical reminder to the white religious establishment...and highlights
the contradictions between words and deeds…(which) has been to form an
unholy alliance with a worldwide system of oppression.”
There ought to be a religious assessment of its responsibility to
the systemic perpetuation of evil and then, a plausible solution to help
the plight of the present black situation.
Critiques and Conclusion of Section I
There are a few points of critique that should be
made in light of the prior discussion to establish the relationship
between accepting or rejecting reparations on a theological basis in the
following two sections. The
discussion here poses several questions through two aims of inquiry, how
the reparation cause is ill-fit to a process theology and how process
theology fails to serve reparation aims.
The first critique is on the God and theodicy issue.
Given God’s persuasive nature, why do so many remain un-persuaded?
This empirical question again tests the goodness of God as well as
his adequacy. Second, process
theology relies heavily on aesthetic qualities of possibility, that the
moral question posed here may not be as important. The world must be given
in this way to offer the possibility for God’s involvement in the world,
but does it do so in a way that makes God more concerned with his initial
aim, then what is really happening in the world?
Third, in the possibility for change, who and what is
given the authority to make things happen, and in the same sense what is
the security in buying into the process theology. Next, do the means
justify the ends, and will the means accomplish the process goal of
fulfillment and creative potentiality?
Fifth, since in process theology emphasis is given to the
individual not the institution, can an institution effectively repent
given this emphasis? Sixth, revolutionary sentiments may or may not be in
line with process theology since violence would be a form of discord.
Lastly, one should consider unintended consequences:
Could reparations lead to even greater racist sentiments, creating more
divisions in society, and incur unhelpful anger on the side of the white
community? Furthermore, in
this same line of thought, whose to say that reparations is what the
average black man and woman desires? Could it be just the agenda of black
leaders only? And if this is
true, can the goal of reparations really be brought about if the black
community is not willing to take advantage of their newly achieved
freedom? These seven points of contention speak to the inadequacy of
and disparity between a perfect fit of analysis and subject of analysis.
Despite these multiple critiques, however, quite apparently there is a connection between reparations for slavery and process theological considerations of theodicy and oppression. The question now is to ask if that connection is sufficient enough to side with reparations for slavery. The following two sections will proffer an answer using the theological concepts of guilt and redemption while taking into consideration the discussion and points of critiques developed in Section I.
Guilt is one of the greatest issues at play in the
debate over reparations for slavery and is a strong force on both sides of
the argument. Those in favor of reparations proclaim that the United
States, and essentially the descendents of slave owners, should feel
guilty for the years of kidnapping, bondage, and oppression they forced
upon the slaves. To make amends for these acts, the proponents of
reparations believe reparations of some monetary sort should be paid to
African-Americans today. Those who oppose reparations recognize the guilt
in the same way that their opponents do but believe, among other things,
that reparations is an attempt to absolve the guilt. Reparations might do
more harm than good in terms of helping African-Americans and improving
race relations, because it would likely put an end to building the bridges
burned by slavery.
The case for reparations put forth by Alexader Pires
at the recent Great Debate on the campus of Boston University is largely
built upon the obligation America has to the African-American community.
Pires, who recently won a lawsuit against the United States for $1 million
due to black farmers in the South, is collaborating with other noted
attorneys such as Johnny Cochran to file a formal lawsuit against the
government for reparations for slavery. This relies on several issues,
including precedents such as reparations dealt to victims of
Japanese-American internment camps and the Holocaust.
Also at play are issues regarding the obligation
Pires believes the government has to black Americans for building the
American economic system into what he calls the most powerful economic
structure in the history of the world. Since the slave-driven antebellum
cotton industry in the South was the most successful industry in the world
at the time, reparations proponents believe something is owed to those who
built that industry and the powerful economy that followed.
Reparations are also called for by the empirical data
that shows a strong link between slavery and the current socio-economic
status of African-Americans. By virtue of a poor post-war effort to
assimilate the former slaves into society, far too many blacks live in bad
neighborhoods, work jobs that do not pay a living wage, are undereducated,
or are incarcerated. These
statistics point to a strong link to slavery and call for reparations to
help get these people on something closer to equal footing with others in
Christopher Hitchens also argued in favor of
reparations at the Great Debate but from a realist’s perspective.
Hitchens, a noted writer and editor, argued that reparations is not an
ideal circumstance but the best recourse available today to help to
resolve the present-day problems that linger from slavery. Reparations
does not solve all the problems, according to Hitchens, but he says one
should not make “the best the enemy of the good.” By this, Hitchens is
saying that the one should not put down reparations because it is not the
best possible solution to the dilemma at hand. The best ways to solve the
problem are not attainable because we do not live in an ideal world, so
one should not expect ideal solutions. The imperfection of reparations is
not a suitable reason to discount it, or in other words, “don’t make
the best the enemy of the good.”
The arguments against reparations are plenty and one
does not have to look far to find someone who disagrees with paying them.
About one year ago, David Horowitz bought advertising space in many
college newspapers including the Daily
Free Press at Boston University for his article “Ten Reasons Why
Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea and Racist Too.” The ad caused
hysteria and disruption in nearly every locale that the article was seen,
including Boston University where the ad was pulled after one appearance.
Many papers banned the ad, causing an uproar regarding the rights of free
speech, while many students protested against Horowitz’s advertisement
and ideology. In his article, Horowitz describes ten ways in which
reparations is either ineffective, unnecessary, racist, or foolish. Many
of Horowitz’s arguments are important points in the debate over
reparations and are at the heart of the dilemma, while others arguments
seem venomous, heartless, and even inaccurate. To better understand the
argument against reparations, it is important to take a closer look at
Horowitz’s article but also to keep in mind that Horowitz surely does
not speak for all those opposed to reparations for slavery.
Horowitz’s first argument against reparations is
that there is not one group solely responsible for slavery in America. He
claims that Africans and Arabs should be indicted alongside white slave
owners and claims that 3,000 blacks owned slaves and questions whether
their descendents should be paid reparations. This argument is both
logical and helpful, because it brings in to question who is owed
reparations and the complications in making such a determination.
Next Horowitz argues that black Americans have
prospered economically by living in the United States and are better off
economically than they would have been in their forefathers’ native
lands. This claim is off base, because the fact that the black community
has in some ways been able to compete in society does not offset the other
statistics that suggest something different.
Thirdly, Horowitz argues that it is unfair to ask
descendants of non-slaveholders to pay reparations because their ancestors
were not the oppressors and, in some cases, gave their lives to free the
slaves. This is certainly a strong point against reparations, because one
is asking the descendants of those who freed the slaves to pay reparations
for the oppression. Furthermore, Horowitz next points out that many
Americans are descendants of immigrants who weren’t even in the United
States at the time of slavery and should not be asked to pay reparations.
In this light, reparations for slavery might be on the right track but is
asking some people to pay for a crime that their ancestors didn’t even
Horowitz’s fifth point recognizes that those in
favor of reparations are making judgments based on race rather than on
injury. Many blacks, Horowitz claims, are not descendents of slaves and
some are even descendants of slaves, so it would be irresponsible to pay
reparations to these people. Moreover, Horowitz points out that this case
would set a precedent in that never before have reparations been paid to
anyone other than the victims or their direct descendants, such as in the
cases regarding the Japanese-American internment camps and the Holocaust.
While that is an interesting part of the reparations story, it doesn’t
affect whether reparations should be paid; it simply means that this case
would set a precedent. Perhaps this case could even set a precedent for
crimes the United States committed against the Native Americans when the
country was being formed.
Next, Horowitz writes that it is unfair to give
reparations because descendants of slaves do not suffer economically from
slavery. In this portion of his argument, Horowitz argues that blacks have
had an opportunity to be successful economically since slavery and many
have achieved economic success. Those who have not, Horowitz writes, are
victims of their own failures rather than the failure of the American
system and are not due reparations. Horowitz, however, is unfairly holding
the majority up to the standard of the minority. While it is true that
many blacks have been successful in society, too many statistics point to
the fact that their descending from slavery has had an adverse effect on
the standing of blacks in society today.
Horowitz’s seventh argument states that reparations
is another attempt to turn blacks into victims rather than to hold them
responsible for their state in today’s society. Reparations, then, is a
way for the government to help people who can’t help themselves. Once
again, Horowitz is holding the black majority to the standard of the
successful black minority and overlooking too many other factors. While
Horowitz has a point that reparations might make blacks into victims, he
fails to notice that the entire point of reparations is that blacks are
victims and are due compensation not only for their work as slaves but
also for the poor way in which the American government helped them
assimilate into society.
Next, Horowitz claims that reparations have already
been paid through the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and welfare benefits.
Horowitz does not recognize, however, that the giving of civil rights to
the descendants of slaves is completely different than paying reparations.
Recognizing the blacks’ civil rights helped bring the African-American
community into the fold but did not right the wrongs of centuries of
slavery in the past. Horowitz also fails to realize that welfare benefits
do not go only to blacks but to all who qualify for them and are not
adequate restitution for the slaves’ oppression nor does it account for
the wages the slaves lost by working without pay.
Finally, Horowitz closes his argument with two
shortsighted and heartless points about the state of African-Americans in
today’s society. First, Horowitz claims that African-Americans owe a
debt of gratitude for being brought to America and for the whites who
spearheaded the abolitionist movement to free blacks from slavery.
Secondly, Horowitz writes that reparations places African-Americans
against the nation that gave them freedom and that they should be more
appreciative of being part of such a prosperous nation. In these two
points, Horowitz becomes the supreme judge as to what is good and evil and
that blacks are better off in America than in their homelands. Horowitz
does not consider that economic power might not be an appropriate measure
of whether one should be happy in his or her country. Also, Horowitz
believes that blacks should be grateful to live in the United States
rather than upset that they were raped of their free will to choose where
to live their lives.
One point Horowitz misses in this debate is the
effect reparations would likely play on race relations today. Since the
lines are drawn fairly clearly as far as who is in favor of reparations
and who is opposed -- and often in heated fashion with such a
controversial issue -- it is likely that reparations would perpetuate
racial division in American society. Whites who did not want to pay
reparations, for instance, would likely resent blacks for taking money
that they did not deserve. Blacks also might be indicted in this process
because it might bring to the surface new feelings of resentment in the
black community toward whites for slavery. Moreover, many whites would
likely feel no further need to help blacks to get a foot up in society if
reparations were paid. Reparations, then, is not a starting point for
reconciling this issue but a distinct end in which whites feel there is
not further need to help blacks.
Guilt plays a major role in the issue of paying
reparations for slavery. Advocates of reparations play on the guilt of the
descendants of slave owners and the American government by asking them to
own up to their responsibility. Opponents of reparations, such as David
Horowitz, do not feel guilty for the state of blacks in today’s society
and place the blame on their own failure to realize opportunities for
Karl Rahner addresses the issue of guilt and sin in
his systematic theology The Content
of Faith, which is particularly relevant to the issue of reparations
for slavery. Rahner believes that sin is not only a part of the past but
recognizes that the present and the future are built upon that past.
“ . . . sin is not a contingent act which I
performed in the past and whose effect is no longer with me,” writes
Rahner. “It is certainly not like breaking a window which falls into a
thousand pieces, but afterward I remained personally unaffected by it. Sin
determines the human being in a definite way: he has not only sinned, but
he himself is a sinner. He is a sinner not only by a formal, juridical
imputation of a former act, but also in an existential way, so that in
looking back on our past actions we always find ourselves to be
This understanding of sin, and guilt regarding past
sin, should make one cautious to pay reparations for slavery. If
reparations would indeed become an end to the white community’s
willingness to help the black community, it seems that reparations would
become a way of a people trying to wipe the slate clean of their past
actions. The government might then believe that it no longer has an
obligation to help blacks succeed in American society, because they have
paid them reparations; no longer does the government have to take
responsibility for its past sin, since reparations have already been paid
and wiped the slate clean. This is one of the greatest reasons that
reparations could be a very unhelpful choice for American society.
According to Rahner, true guilt is only understood
through God’s revelation and grace. Rahner would likely say then that
the guilt that Alexander Pires is trying to get the United States
government to admit to can only come through God’s grace.
“ . . . it remains true that the real knowledge of
guilt, that is, the sorrowful admission of sin, is the product of God’s
revelation and grace. Grace is already at work in us when we admit guilt
as our own reality, or at least admit the possibility of guilt in our own
lives . . . On the other hand, a purely natural knowledge of guilt -- one
that is completely independent of grace (if this is philosophically
possible) -- would be suppressed if God’s grace and the light of
revelation were not there to help us.”
Rahner offers another helpful understanding of guilt
in which the person refuses to admit to his or her guilt and instead
represses it. Repression, of course, only exacerbates the problem.
“By this basically false type of arguing that we
use in trying to excuse ourselves before God, our conscience, our life,
and the world, we manifest nor out innocence, but only the way in which
the unenlightened person, as yet untouched by the grace of God, considers
his own guilt, that is, he will not admit it. He prefers to repress it.”
If one considers this in terms of the debate over
reparations for slavery, the government is only exacerbating the
present-day lingering effects of slavery by not reacting to it. Instead of
paying reparations for slavery, the government and those opposing
reparations like David Horowitz are only making the problem worse by not
admitting their guilt and facing their responsibility.
The debate over reparations for slavery is a difficult and controversial one with many theological implications. Advocates of reparations point to a strong link between slavery and the current state of the African-American socio-economic class and a need for the government to own up to its responsibility regarding slavery. The opponents should not, however, all be classified into one group, since the camp that David Horowitz represents opposes reparations on often venomous, frivolous claims. While recognizing the good that reparations could do, one must also acknowledge the problems that such a occurrence would be sure to instigate. Increased racial tension, the resurfacing of the guilt regarding slavery, and the chance that reparations could put an end to other types of support given the African-American community, reparations for slavery is not worth the trouble it would cause. Without regard to the stress it would put on the American economy, reparations are simply worth the trouble. Social programs for the whole American public that target certain aspects of society known to be of concern to African-Americans would be a step in the right direction.
The question of reparations for slavery demands the resolution of a host of philosophical and theological issues. What is the nature of sin? What is an individual? What is the meaning of history, and what impact does it have on the present and the future? What are the limits of an individual’s responsibility in relation to their culture? What is the relationship between justice and freedom, redemption and forgiveness?
Though it is obviously impossible to resolve these issues through this discussion, some definitions must be attempted. The most basic question arises from an apparent absurdity in the proposition of reparations. Why should anyone today benefit from the suffering of their ancestors, and why should anyone be compelled to compensate for past wrongs? The fact is that if the reparations are intended as a redress for American slavery than neither American slavery nor any of its perpetrators or victims exists today. Thus the question is raised as to the nature of an individual and that person’s relationship to history. Are human beings fundamentally independent units of value, meaning, and purpose, relating only incidentally to each other; is community an abstraction from individual goals and needs; is existence an act of individual reason or will rather than a gift, and is individual life an entity which is primarily responsible only to itself? If this classically liberal definition of the individual is accepted, than the argument for reparations is moot. No individuals exist who are responsible for slavery, and there is no possible object of the reparations.
The question arises then, is this a valid definition of an individual? From the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, several critiques can be made. The bible has bequeathed to humanity a vision of human beings both created and free, both receiving the conditions of existence and in turn transforming them. From the classical liberal perspective, the role of God for the individual is limited to the creation of the conditions of existence by fiat; individuals can struggle against these conditions (hence the Protestant struggle with authority), attempt to reject them (the heroic-existentialist tradition), or passively accept them through a gesture of obedience and surrender. The kind of freedom envisioned by the bible as existing by virtue of God’s creatorship, a freedom which emerges from God’s inner being and remains rooted in it, is impossible from the classical liberal perspective.
What are the responsibilities of an individual from the orthodox perspective? The context of creation vastly widens the scope of human possibility and responsibility. God as the creator, endowing humans with the freedom of creaturely relationality, suggests the possibility of a meaning for human life beyond the leveling of universal laws of nature. This meaning is the meaning of relationship; God is the thing (or the equality of thingness) that every other thing has in common. This awareness of a grand intention binds the universe together, and reveals itself to human beings as the gift of history.
As specifically created beings, humans receive the conditions not just of universal existence but of a particular place and time. Each person exists not just in general but in particular, in a precise moment in history. This means that each individual is constantly receiving the present as an effect of the past. This insight is what has traditionally been called by Christians the communion of saints. Every person receives the past into his or her experience of the present; for Christians, this past is blessed, hallowed, and filled with grace by the completed lives of the ancestors who in turn received it from their own historical past. Each past moment has been forgiven and redeemed by the God who is revealed in history; therefore, each past moment is a bearer of grace and meaning for the present. In biblical narrative, the continuity between generations is organic. The cycle of Abraham contains within itself all of the patterns of Israelite history: ethnic conflicts, stupendous acts of faith, dialogues with divinity, struggles with election, and inter-family wars are all prefigured in the life of the one ancestor.
The letter to the Hebrews eloquently witnesses to this merging of the historical and the personal: “We might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor” (Hebrews 7:9-10, NIV). Further, Hebrews interprets the past not only as embodied in the present, but also as a wellspring of comfort and encouragement:
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies; these were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:32-39, NIV).
The something better alluded to here is, for the author of Hebrews, the present moment; the gift of the ancestors’ redemption of the past on behalf of the present culminates in the Incarnation, when past, present, and future are united and eternally redeemed in the person of Christ.
How does this affect the question of reparations for slavery? Because humans are in our depths created, historical beings, to the extent that the conditions of our existence are determined by the past, we bear a deep responsibility for the past as it is revealed in each aspect of present existence. Completed actions which refused the grace of God, contributed to injustice, and denied the relational nature of human life continue to impact the present in profoundly destructive ways.
The institution of slavery, a monstrous action only completed at the cost of tremendous suffering, has exerted an enormous impact on the present. Randall Robinson has memorably described this suffering and its continuing effects:
Robinson’s argument for reparations rests on the notion that the evil passed on to the present by slavery is so enormous that no length of time will ever cause it to dissipate; instead, its effects will continue to be received by future generations, growing worse rather than better with time. An equally powerful good, Robinson argues, must be generated in order to counter the evil .
What might be the nature of this good action, bequeathed to the future by means of the present? Redemptive action can take two forms: symbolic and practical. To perform a symbolic act of redemption is to restore by means of reinterpretation, to demonstrate the hidden relationships between actions, to acknowledge the falsehood of past interpretations, and to ask for forgiveness, whether on behalf of one’s own actions or those completed actions to which we remain responsible.
Symbolic actions are an active transformation of present reality. Symbolic redemption can be expressed artistically, liturgically, or politically, it can be both public and private, and it can involve individuals or institutions. Robinson argues that symbolic redemption is the first step that individuals ought to take in response to slavery:
One argument against reparations is that any such reparations would necessarily be a one-time event, by which presumably the complicit present could wash its hands of its historical past and forever absolve itself of blame. However, the kind of symbolic redemption advocated by Robinson is not a payoff but a transformation, with effects necessarily flowing forward into the future. The transformation would be first personal, as individuals repent of their prejudices, commit their resources towards the cause of justice, and work actively towards there-establishment of truly relational identities, and secondly institutional, as governments, businesses, and churches all strive to repair past injustices and ongoing institutional biases. All of this could happen as part of a deliberate and public acknowledgement by institutions of their role in both the past and present effects of slavery, taking the form of a request for forgiveness and a pledge of restitution.
With this confession in place, it would not be out of place for governments to call businesses to account for profits gained at the expense of slaves, to commit financial resources towards redeeming those individuals and communities who continue to be affected by slavery, and to seek to dismantle all institutions which continue to perpetuate the effects of slavery.
The concept of a war on poverty is not new, but the understanding of racial poverty as both arising from within a historical context and potentially redeemed by that context provides an interpretive resource which is often lacking from programs of institutional reform. What is the responsibility of an individual affected by racial poverty? Do their circumstances absolve them of the responsibility and the dignity that comes with being truly free? Or are they wholly responsible for their conditions and for every negative consequence which results from them? Individuals affected by racial poverty are not limited by their historical circumstances, but they are conditioned by them; the conditions of their existence arise out of those circumstances and thus the consequences of their actions can never be understood apart from them. Like every other created being, they are both free and bound, determined by history and yet finding freedom in the midst of that determination. Thus, the response to the problem of racial poverty must account for both of these realities, engaging the individual as a free being and yet always discerning the continuing effects of the past as a present reality.
To take such a course of action is to actively participate in the sacrament of history as God’s self-revelation. As free beings continually caught up between the redemption of the past and the hope for the future, we are God’s vehicles for transformation, both placed within history and bearing history into the future. This is a task for which God has amply equipped us, filling us with grace through the redemptive love of Christ, the unifier of all things past, present, and future. From this perspective, making reparations for slavery is not a case of overcoming a special evil but rather part of an ongoing responsibility both to the past - the ancestors from whom we come - and to the future, the generations who will rely on us for grace and for the hope of glory.
National Public Radio broadcast
Churches Reactions to the Call for
Reparations for Slavery
The Case for Reparations for Slavery with
Ten Reasons Why Reparations is a Bad Idea
. . . and Racist Too
CBS News Article on Alexander Pires' Call
for Reparations for Slavery
Support for David Horowitz's Arguments
Against Reparations for Slavery
Reparations for Slavery Discussion Board
Arguments Against the Reparations for
Pires, Alexander. The Great Debate. Tsai Performance Center,
Boston. November 7, 2001.
Pires, Alexander. The Great Debate. Tsai Performance Center,
Boston. November 7, 2001.
Hitchens, Christopher. The Great Debate. Tsai Performance
Center, Boston. November 7, 2001.
Rahner, Karl. The Content of Faith. New York: Crossroad. 1999,
Rahner, Karl. The Content of Faith. New York: Crossroad. 1999,