40 Acres and a Mule:
The Reparations for Slavery Debate

J. Griffin Coop
Nori Henk
Cory Phillips

Theological Analysis Project
STH TT 810
November 14, 2001


INTRODUCTION: Historical Background and Description

SECTION I: Theodicy and Original Sin in Process Theology

SECTION II: Alexander Pires, David Horowitz, and Karl Rahner

SECTION III: Redemption: The Case for Reparations


INTRODUCTION: Historical Background and Description

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.[1]

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 persecuted.

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.[2] 

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.[3]  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."[4] 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.) [5]

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.[6]  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.[7] 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?[8] 

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.

SECTION I: Theodicy and Original Sin in Process Theology


The Black 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.

Evil 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.

God, 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 world.

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 Historical Oppression

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 throughout history.

Human Nature

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.

Systemic 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 liberation.

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 oppression.

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.

SECTION II: Alexander Pires, David Horowitz, and Karl Rahner

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.

Alexander Pires

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.[9]

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.[10]

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 America.

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.”[11]

David Horowitz

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.[12]

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.[13]

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 commit.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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.[19]

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.

Karl Rahner

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 success.

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 sinners.”[20]

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.”[21]

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.”[22]

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.

SECTION III: Redemption: The Case for Reparations

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:

“Through keloids of suffering, through coarse veils of damaged self-belief, lost direction, misplaced compass, shit-faced resignation, racial transmutation, black people worked long, hard, killing days, years, centuries, and they were never paid…hundreds of millions of black people endured unimaginable cruelties - kidnapping, sale as livestock, deaths in the millions during terror-filled sea voyages, backbreaking toil, beatings, rapes, castrations, maimings, murders - left behind to gasp for self-regard - in the vicious psychological wake of slavery are history’s orphans played by the brave black shells of their ancient forebears, people so badly damaged that they cannot see the damage - it is a human rights crime without parallel in the modern world. For it produces its victims ad infinitum, long after the active stage of the crime has ended” (The Debt, Randall Robinson, pp. 207-208, 216).

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:

“Clearly, how blacks respond to the challenge surrounding the simple demand for restitution will say a lot more about us and do a lot more for us than the demand itself would suggest - we would begin a healing of our psyches were the most public case made that whole peoples lost religions, languages, customs, histories, cultures, children, mothers, fathers. It would make us more forgiving of ourselves, more self-approving, more self-understanding to see, really see, that on three continents” (The Debt, Robinson, pp. 208).

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.


[1] National Public Radio broadcast

[2] Churches Reactions to the Call for Reparations for Slavery

[3] The Case for Reparations for Slavery with REAL AUDIO

[4] Ten Reasons Why Reparations is a Bad Idea . . . and Racist Too

[5] CBS News Article on Alexander Pires' Call for Reparations for Slavery

[6] Support for David Horowitz's Arguments Against Reparations for Slavery

[7] Reparations for Slavery Discussion Board

[8] Arguments Against the Reparations for Slavery

[9]  Pires, Alexander. The Great Debate. Tsai Performance Center, Boston. November 7, 2001.

[10]  Pires, Alexander. The Great Debate. Tsai Performance Center, Boston. November 7, 2001.

[11]  Hitchens, Christopher. The Great Debate. Tsai Performance Center, Boston. November 7, 2001.

[12]  http://www.frontpagemag.com/notepad/hn01-03-01.htm

[13]  http://www.frontpagemag.com/notepad/hn01-03-01.htm

[14]  http://www.frontpagemag.com/notepad/hn01-03-01.htm

[15]  http://www.frontpagemag.com/notepad/hn01-03-01.htm

[16]  http://www.frontpagemag.com/notepad/hn01-03-01.htm

[17]  http://www.frontpagemag.com/notepad/hn01-03-01.htm

[18]  http://www.frontpagemag.com/notepad/hn01-03-01.htm

[19]  http://www.frontpagemag.com/notepad/hn01-03-01.htm

[20]  Rahner, Karl. The Content of Faith. New York: Crossroad. 1999, p. 531.

[21]  Rahner, Karl. The Content of Faith. New York: Crossroad. 1999, p. 533.