Have you ever had someone apologize to you, but you weren't sure they really meant it? Was that apology healing for you, or did it leave you angry and confused? I think John the Baptist may have felt this way when the crowds came out to be baptized by him. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming, he said, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (Luke 3:7-8) I think he was skeptical of the sincerity of their repentance. He challenged them to follow up their statement of repentance with actions that proved they meant what they said. We show the sincerity of our repentance when we work to fix what's broken.
We've been using the acronym GAPS as a framework for the important elements of racial reconciliation. The G stands for "Go to the person you're in conflict with," and we talked about the importance of having relationships with people of races or ethnicities different from our own. The A stands for "Admit your part of the conflict," and we looked at the importance of telling the truth about our history. The P stands for "Pray," which begins with lament, moves to confession, and culminates in repentance. We've finally reached the S, which stands for "Stay" – stay until it's worked out. This is the part where we demonstrate our sincerity by working to fix what's broken and make amends.
Is this a concept that we, as Christians, should embrace? In my view, the Bible is very clear that we should. There are numerous verses in the Mosaic law requiring restitution. Perhaps the best summary is in Numbers 5:5-7: God tells Moses, "Say to the Israelites: 'Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.'" We see Zacchaeus joyfully taking this to heart when he encounters Jesus and repents. "But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount'" (Luke 19:8). Zacchaeus is so transformed by his encounter with Jesus that he goes above and beyond the requirements of the law in showing the fruits of his repentance. He earnestly desires to fix what he has broken. Another word for fix is repair, and it's from this that we get the word reparations. The word reparation has been controversial, but it simply means "the making of amends for wrong or injury done."
Beyond individual reparations, there are a couple of examples that strike me as God orchestrating reparations for the Israelites on a much larger scale. Exodus 12:35-36 fascinates me. Just before God rescues the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, Moses instructs them to ask the Egyptians for silver, gold, and clothing. "The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians." Another example comes from Ezra 6 as the Jews are returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple after the Babylonian captivity. King Darius issues a decree commanding the rebuilding of the temple using funds from the royal treasury and the return of the holy articles that had been stolen from the temple by Nebuchadnezzar. In an article called "Reparations are Biblical," Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile states, "If the Lord God himself caused a state head through taxation to require later generations of people who committed no crime to pay monies to their contemporaries who did not suffer the original crime, then it cannot be unjust (quite the opposite!) for state actors to do the same today."
All of the elements of our journey in racial reconciliation build towards the step of making amends. As we build relationships across racial and ethnic lines, Black Americans are able to share with their white friends how they've been impacted by our history of racial injustice both in the present and as a result of the past. Learning the truth about our history is vital because as Pastor Duke Kwon says, "you can't repair something until you learn how you broke it in the first place." Lament, Confession, and Repentance bring us before God so that he can transform our hearts. As a result, making amends becomes an act of joyful obedience rather than a resented obligation.
Reparations for slavery and the many continuing injustices following the Civil War has been a topic of discussion since at least the early 1800's. There are many ways that this could be carried out on a national level, and I hope for many more creative ideas yet to come. As I've progressed in my understanding of racial justice and my study of the Bible, I've come to feel personally convicted to advocate for reparations from our government. But I think we can also consider what reparations might look like personally and as a church. In his talk, "Race Reparations," Duke Kwon makes the case that the Church bears a unique responsibility to repair the wrongs of racial injustice in America and the wrongs of racial exclusion in the Church. He states, "Church reparations is guided by a repentant imagination." When Black Christians were excluded from white churches, they were also excluded from participating in the building of traditions, theologies, and practices. He asks, "What if they had been present all along?" He invites us to imagine what that church would look like and challenges us to create it now.
Can you use your repentant imagination to picture how your life, your neighborhood, your workplace, your church, and your nation might look different if racial injustice had never happened? What steps can you take to start making that picture a reality?