Evangelicalism’s Ungodly Pursuit of Slave Reparations
Much is being made these days in American society and in Evangelicalism over the concept of reparations. Thabiti Anyabwile, an SBC pastor and thought-leader in this area recently tweeted the following:
For 10 minutes Christopher Hitchens engages in the false analogy of the restoration of ancient Grecian artifacts on the part of the British Museum. He labors over this analogy attempting to find some supposed link between that and the current issue of slave reparations that is once again being put forth by many leaders in the black community, most interestingly, from black churches.
Over at Baptist Global News you will find an article entitled, White Baptists and racial reconciliation: there’s a difference between lament and repentance, by Wendell Griffin. Now, in the interest of transparency, I have always thought that the racial reconciliation movement was always a movement not nearly as interested in reconciliation as it was in shifting the conservative evangelical vote in America and as a result, increasing entitlements. The racial reconciliation movement has continued to push the boundaries in this regard. The conversations of this movement began with vague generalities around reconciliation. On the surface, the language was filled with Christianese. It sounded pious, right, spot on in many cases. But it was, nevertheless, short on details. Now we see that the details are being advanced. It feels very similar to a bait and switch tactic. The initial wave of these details began with intense attacks against the conservative political party and its leaders in American government. These were relentless. People who had already signed on to the RR movement through peer pressure to the idea were and are more easily convinced to shift their politics leftward. Then there was the emotive celebration of MLK. This was a direct appeal to the shallow-minded emotional American Christian. In addition to this, there has been a steady stream of attacks and disrespect directed levied toward Law-Enforcement and this has come even from men like Matt Chandler. Now the edges are pushed once again as we come to what I believe is the main concern: $$. You see, if you are sincerely interested in reconciliation and that is your primary goal, you are not going to introduce ideas that you know full-well will get in the way of your supposed goal of, reconciliation. I will come back to this point.
So, what is the Christian to think and do where reparations are concerned? Well, since the Scripture is our final authority, we must turn to Scripture to see how it informs us on this idea. Therefore, it is to Scripture we turn. The idea of restitution seems to be closely associated with our modern concept of punitive damages and is very closely associated with biblical texts that deal with property rights.
Exodus 21:33-22:15 goes into great detail regarding property rights and restitution. The common factors are clear. First, in ancient Israel, God established the theocracy in such a way that the idea of property rights was protected by the concept of restoration and restitution. There was a system of justice and equity provided for loss of rights and for anyone who deprived someone else of those rights through negligence or willful intent, payment would be demanded or else. Second, the deprived was always an individual who had an inherent right in place. Third, the negligent party was also an individual who was culpable by way of their direct action or involvement in the incident. When someone says that reparations and restitution are clearly biblical concepts, they are not wrong. The question is, are they wrong in how they are attempting to apply them today? Is their model for reparations and restitution aligned with the Bible? Based on a straightforward exegesis of the appropriate texts, it seems to me that the answer is no. I want to turn your attention to those texts ever so briefly.
We see the command in Lev. 6:5 to add 20% to the value of what was stolen or lost as restitution. If you steal $100 from your friend, you are to return to him $120. Think about this for a moment. What happens if you are a thief for 20 years before entering the Christianity community? What if, over those 20 years, you swindled hundreds of thousands of dollars from people? What are you to do? What if you cannot remember everyone you wronged over the course of those 20 years? What if the wife of the man who cheated you out of $20k just buried him? Is she on the hook? Are his kids or grandkids on the hook? And before you go demanding what is “rightfully” yours, what about all those people you have wronged? Have you paid your debt? Have you done your duty? As a reminder, these command involve individuals directly involved in the transaction in the context of an ancient theocracy around 3500 years ago.
In Numbers 5:5-10 we clearly see that restitution shall be paid to the offended or to that party’s relative if he has any. If he does not have a relative to which restitution can be made, it will go to the Lord by way of the priest. So, if a man has taken what was not his, he shall restore it back to the property own from whom he took it plus 20%. If the property owner is not living, then the guilty party will make that same restitution to his relative.
Proverbs 6:30-31 tells us that in general, men do not despise a thief who steals because he is hungry. Nevertheless, even in this situation he is to repay sevenfold even if it means all the substance of his house. These are strict standards indeed. It makes me wonder if those who are clamoring for reparations have given this idea the sort of critical thought it deserves. It would seem to me, based on some of their other positions expressed by certain individuals, that very little critical thought has gone into the concept of modern-day slavery reparations.
Finally, we come to Zaccheus, the NT example so often given by proponents of slavery-reparations. Some suppose Zaccheus went above and beyond the requirements of the law for restitution, saying he would give back 400% (full amount + 3x the full amount) of what he had taken from those whom he had wronged. Marshall comments on this point:
For συκοφαντέω cf. 3:14** where it is used of a characteristic sin of soldiers who may have aided tax-collectors. The conditional clause is to be translated ‘From whomsoever I have wrongfully exacted anything’, and thus does not put the fact of extortion in doubt, but rather its extent. The normal recompense for money illegally acquired was the amount plus one fifth (cf. Lv. 6:1–5; SB II, 250), but fourfold recompense (τετραπλοῦς**), i.e. the amount plus a threefold penalty was demanded of rustlers (cf. 2 Sa. 12:6; Ex. 22:1; Jos. Ant. 16:3); similar practices appear to have been known in Roman law and in Egypt (Derrett, 284; O. Michel, TDNT VIII, 105 n. 154).
Now, the important thing to remember is that Zaccheus’ offer for restitution was only to those whom he had συκοφαντέω (sukophanteo). This is the Greek word rendered in the NASB, defraud. It means to put pressure on someone for personal gain, harass, squeeze, shake down, blackmail. Here it means to secure something through intimidation, extort, or blackmail. It cannot be emphasized enough that this restitution was being undertaken by an individual who committed the actual offense and that the ones being restored were those who had been defrauded. John the Baptist used this same word συκοφαντέω in Luke 3:14: “Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:14, NASB) In this instance, the NASB renders this same word, “accuse anyone falsely.” Again, the idea of blackmail or extortion comes to mind. Think about the false witnesses that were paid to falsely accuse Christ. This practice would have been forbidden by Christ without question.
The point is that the transaction about which we are concerned always and only involved an individual person acting willfully to defraud or willingly chose not to do their duty concerning another to whom such duty was due. Inherent in the Biblical concept of restitution is the concept of property rights as well as an unlawful act on the part of a willing person to defraud another.
As I come back to Christopher Hitchens’ argument for reparations, it should not be lost on those reading this that Hitchens was a militant atheist. Having passed into the next life and into the hands of a holy God, Hitchens is no longer an atheist. It is interesting to see a theologian like Thabiti Anyabwile call on a pagan, God-hating atheist to support his push for reparations. What moral ground could Hitchens offer in defense of his argument? He has nothing but nature doing what nature does. In other words, Hitchens, as an enemy of everything and anything Christian has no standing in the Christian community to event participate in the conversation. It is telling that men like Anyabwile and Griffen are taking their cues from pagan society rather than from Scripture rightly interpreted.
Now, we come back to the question, does the argument for slavery reparations for black people living in America a sound argument or not? Well, it is only sound if it is logically valid and true.
- Anyone in ancient Israel, living in the theocracy, had a right to reparation and restitution when their property rights had been defrauded by another person living in the theocracy.
- Black people living 150 to 400 years ago were defrauded of their property rights by mostly white Americans living 150 to 400 years ago.
- Therefore, modern black people are due reparations and restitution by modern white people.
What is wrong with this argument? First, the laws regarding reparations and restitution were given to ancient Israel 3500 years ago. These laws were specifically given to that theocracy at that time and for specific reasons within God’s overall plan of redemption. The law that contained those commands has been made obsolete by the new covenant. Heb. 10:9 informs us that Christ takes away the first in order to establish the second. As Gentile Christians, we do not live under the Mosaic law, but we do live under God’s law, the law of Christ. Second, the reparation/restitution (R/R) transaction involved only the individual trespasser and the individual trespassed. Only in instances where the trespassed was deceased did the transaction involve a relative. No mention is made however of the scenario in which the offender is deceased. So, you had to be an ancient Israelite living in the theocracy under the Mosaic law and you have to be directly involved in the incident. Even in the NT example to which reparations proponents appeal, Zaccheus was concerned to make right only those whom he had personally defrauded. Zaccheus then adds nothing at all to strengthen the R/R position. Coming back to the argument, because there is no relationship between the first and second premise, the conclusion is a non-sequitur. This mean the argument is not valid, let alone sound.
For some time now the evangelical churches, mostly the SBC, at the behest of the ERLC and Russell Moore, have pushed hard on the idea of racial reconciliation. Many of us were puzzled as to what the issue was that required addressing so that reconciliation could take place. Well, as we have come to see, it appears that racial reconciliation means the following:
- Celebrate ungodly heroes like MLK as godly heroes.
- Change your voting preference to line up with the agenda of the overwhelmingly liberal black community.
- Downplay political leaders who favor infant murder (abortion) for social gains elsewhere.
- Renounce white privilege. Hate whiteness. Detest old white guys.
- Repudiate Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and other giant theologians of the Christian faith. They were racists and slave owners. In other words, pull the foundations out from under the evangelical churches.
- Install affirmative action in staffing in the churches.
- Open the tax-coffers and create a massive economic entitle program for all black Americans to restore them or repair them to their former slave state.
- Free tuition for black students.
The idea of reparations is immoral for a number of reasons. For starters, no black American alive today has suffered or been defrauded because their ancestor was a slave 150+ years ago. There is no reliable data linking economic suffering and ancestral slavery. The causes of economic failure seem more situated in the choices and decisions of the individual than any other single factor. In ancient Israel, the only person who is due reparations is the one who was actually defrauded or that person’s living relative at the time. The only person who is obligated to pay reparations or restore is the person guilty of the transgression. There is no precedent in Scripture for that person’s heirs to repair unless they were a participant in the fraud. So, the transaction we are talking about had to occur during the lifetime of the transgressor at a minimum. Individuals transgress, not non-human entities. Not only are these laws governing an ancient theocracy that no longer exists, they were never extended to those outside the covenant community in that theocracy. In other words, the parties involved ought to both be in the covenant community. In other words, implicit in these laws is that both parties are inside the covenant community. Strangers were not to be mistreated or wronged, but the laws of reparation are issued within the covenant to the covenant people who have bound themselves to that covenant.
What is happening right now in the reparation movement is that a certain segment of the population is seeking to take what never belonged to them in the first place from those who have not actually wronged them personally, directly, or otherwise, to begin with. And that, from what I can tell, is stealing. What is worse is that these leaders are attempting to use the Bible, to use Christian morality in order to engage in unethical practices. What is worse than using our good God for to line your own personal checking account by stealing from others and using the government and the churches to do it? A pastor lining up on this side of the issue should be terminated immediately. There is no place for this kind of egregious incompetence in leadership in the churches.
Another interesting aspect of this argument or debate is that those who are arguing for reparations are the very same ones mostly likely to repudiate even the idea of property rights. They come from a socialist/Marxist ideology for the most part. And they are making arguments against the idea of property rights and claiming God rejects such thinking. Well, according to what we have covered, God does not only NOT reject property rights, he ensured them in the theocracy 3500 years ago. The bigger problem is if you repudiate property rights, reparations cease to be an issue. The only way the argument for reparations can work is if one assumes the legitimacy of property rights, something most of these folks deny. If you don’t have a right to that property, then you cannot be defrauded of it.
Finally, you thought the racial reconciliation movement was a sincere, genuine, heart-felt effort to bring black Christians and White Christians together. As it has unfolded, however, what you are finally starting to experience is the wizard behind the curtain. It has been about entitlements, economic advantage, and power all along. It is a backdoor way to change the structure of things so that a certain segment of the population benefits economically. It isn’t about equality at all. It is about advantage, an edge, power. I have witnessed a push toward liberal ideologies and politics, a change in attitude toward law enforcement and civil authorities, a drastic disrespect toward the civil leader, the down-playing of infanticide, a push for feminism, homosexuality under the guise of SSA, and now, the final “show me the money” straw. After all, it was this same Wendell Griffen who measured white repentance by how they voted in his article: On election day, I’ll be watching for signs of repentance from white evangelicals. Such a perspective is anything but Christian.
What does racial reconciliation look like? It looks like white guys hating white-ness (whatever that means). It looks like the church throwing our giant theologians under the bus, destroying that which has served the church so well for so long. It looks like voting democrat. It looks like belittling abortion. It looks like hating LEO. It looks like hating the president if he is white and conservative. It looks like embracing feminism. It looks like embracing homosexuality. It looks like demanding the government adopt a policy on open borders. If borders are open, more people can vote democrat. Wow, it really is about power after all! It looks like writing a check to black Americans who feel oppressed and disadvantaged because 150-400 years ago, ancestors that they never knew were slaves to white people that their white counterparts never knew.
The bottom line is that you are going to take $$ out of my bank account even though I lived in a state that fought on the side that ended slavery. I never owned or defrauded a black person in my whole life. Yet, somehow, it is supposedly a Christian principle to take from me and give to someone else who hasn’t even been defrauded in terms of slavery. Less than 5% of Americans today have ancestors that owned slaves. Not only that, it is estimated that the median for slave holding states was around ~25 % of white people who owned a slave. That leaves 75% who did not. You will have to prove that you have ancestors who were slaves and then you will have to prove that a white person descended from a slave owner. That is virtually impossible to do.
In light of the clear evidence from Scripture that restitution is nothing like what some people are claiming it is today, one has to honestly ask the question if reconciliation really is the goal after all or is it something else? If you want to reconcile with me, which means you want to end hostilities between the two of us because we are estranged, do you think demanding money from me is the right approach? Do you think it’s the right approach especially if I haven’t actually defrauded you personally or that you haven’t actually been defrauded by me personally? Wendell Griffen, in his article mentioned above writes the following: My immediate reaction after reading the report was that SBTS appears more interested in – and hopes to be commended for – detailing its sinfulness about racial justice than repenting from it. And then Griffin makes this incredible statement: A robber who will not at least promise to make reparations does not deserve credit for publishing an announcement about having engaged in a career of robbery.
Wendell, and most of the black leaders in the black community clearly do not understand grace, nor do they understand repentance. It wasn’t Al Mohler or SBTS who committed the sin in this instance. For starters, a non-human entity cannot sin. This means that when someone says SBTS must repent and pay reparations, at a minimum, they are talking about the men who sit on the board. So, when I say SBTS, I mean the men sitting on the board. Whom did these men defraud? Does anyone have a “right” to a seminary education? No, they do not. Do seminaries have a right to exclude men whom it believes are not qualified to enter ministry or the seminary? Yes, it does. That is where you start.
The next question is this: Was it wrong for SBTS to refuse admittance to the school based on the criterion of melanin? Of course, it was wrong. Is this policy anything like stealing from someone? No, it is not. There were always other options. You see, Martin Luther King should not have been admitted to the seminary, not because he was black, but because, as it turns out, he wasn’t qualified to be there. Only Spirit-filled men need apply. The group justice mentality involved in this situation adopts the view that people often have certain sweeping rights. Given this, SBTS was not defrauding anyone of something they owned. It was not depriving them of their own property rights which is precisely what the ancient laws on restitution address. It is apples and oranges. Not admitting someone to your school is not the same as stealing their car, their bread, or their coat.
Finally, Griffen insists that repentance in this instance will look like reparations. So, here it is in a nutshell. In order to achieve racial reconciliation, the white man has to repent for the anguish he caused over the years through slavery and racism. Many naïve pastors are buying into this narrative, not because it’s true, but because of the political pressure being placed on them by their fellow SBC leaders and fellow pastors. Follow me here. Reconciliation equals repentance. Repentance means bringing forth fruit. And in this case, that fruit is money, free tuition, affirmative action in pastoral staffs, etc. You get into school because you’re black even if there are 20 other more qualified candidates. That doesn’t matter. It also doesn’t matter that none of those candidates ever defrauded you or anyone else in their life. You get the associate pastor’s position over 4 white candidates based only on the ground that you are black even though the others were all far more qualified than you. This is Matt Chandler hiring a black man who scores lower in quality versus a white guy who scores slightly higher. The best candidate does not get the job. Do you think this helps or hurts the congregation? Does that sound anything like biblical restitution? The reason it don’t is because it isn’t. Not even close. The really big elephant in the room is the arrogance of these men who think they can tinker with God’s structure by adding their own criteria to the qualifications for an elder. This behavior is more than outrageous.
How does the board of a seminary repent of bad policies that are racist in nature? How does a church repent for such wickedness? They change the policy as well as their practice. An employer who becomes a Christian who had in the past not hired black employees for jobs has no obligation laid upon him by Christ to find all those he rejected and give them money or jobs. How he repents is that he now hires the best person for the job without regard for the level of melanin in their DNA going forward. That is how he repents. The seminary admits the best students in the same manner. And the church hires the best pastor in the same way. That is biblical repentance. Current men at SBTS have repudiated racist policies openly and publicly. Those policies have been changed for some time now. That is what it looks like when men correct wrongs. But now you see what racial reconciliation is mostly about: money. The cards are on the table, the truth has been exposed, the toothpaste is out of the tube. There are few things more repugnant than people insisting on being given something that they do not deserve on the basis that they share an accidental DNA trait with someone who was slighted decades, and in some cases, hundreds of years ago. There is nothing gracious, nothing humble, nothing loving, nothing forgiving, and therefore, nothing Christian about it.
 I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1978), 698.