Reconciliation apart from justice is not reconciliation. So, too, biblical justice entails reconciliation. To adapt Immanuel Kant’s famous claim from his critical epistemology and apply it to a critical and constructive model of race reconciliation, it would read: reconciliation without justice is empty; justice without reconciliation is blind. What does each side of this claim look like? We’ll take up each one of these items in successive posts. First, reconciliation without justice is empty. We find an instance of this in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 19, the account of Zacchaeus reads:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 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.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Zacchaeus was not simply a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. His wealth was made, at least in part, from cheating people. Jesus’ determination to dine with Zacchaeus at his home did not sit well with the people since Zacchaeus was a sinner: in this case, someone who assisted and benefited from the unwelcome Roman regime by taxing and cheating Rome’s Jewish “subjects.”
We will return to the Zacchaeus story in a successive post to discuss how justice without reconciliation is blind. For now, however, we are focusing simply on how reconciliation apart from justice is empty.
Here we find that Zacchaeus is overwhelmed by Jesus’ presence and mercy. As a result, Zacchaeus responds to God’s reconciling love and repents of his sin. When Jesus hears Zacchaeus’ confession that he will give half of his possessions to the poor, and if he has cheated anyone he will pay back four times the amount, the Lord proclaims that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house; he, too, has the faith of Abraham. Abraham’s saving faith was active. He believed God and followed where God led. So, too, with Zacchaeus. In his case, reconciliation with God leads him to go and be reconciled to his fellows whom he has swindled economically; he is moved to pay them back—and with interest. It’s not that Zacchaeus’ actions saved him, but saving faith always entails repentance, as our hearts are transformed by God’s mercy and grace to make things right with those we have wronged.
What would this discussion on Zacchaeus entail for such matters as race reconciliation? To the extent one has cheated someone else—anybody else, but specifically for the purposes of this post, someone of another ethnicity, to that extent one should pay back—and with interest. To the extent one has benefited from an economic system in the United States that has oppressed Native Americans, African Americans, and other people groups over the generations, to that extent repentance economically is also required. Reconciliation that begins and ends with a hugathon is not a marathon race for justice; it is not biblical reconciliation. So, we need to peel off our spiritual bumper stickers that reduce race reconciliation to “Have you hugged a black or native person lately?” My late friend, Lakota Sioux Christian leader Richard Twiss, once said at a conference I attended that white Christians have washed his feet as an act of love and reconciliation; but in the end, all he comes away with as a First Nations Christian is clean feet. Nothing has really changed.
This point also came home to me through the story often attributed to Dr. John M. Perkins who speaks of redistribution as key to Christian community development. The story goes that two teams have been playing baseball for seven innings, one white and the other black. Around the seventh inning, the black team realizes the white team has been cheating the entire game. As a result, the score is 20-0 in the white team’s favor. The white team is confronted and “repents” by saying that they will play fair the rest of the game. The only problem with their repentance is that the score is still 20-0.
In view of the Zacchaeus story, it would be accurate to argue that there is no transformative repentance if nothing is done to rectify the situation: at the very least, the white team needs to award 20 points to the black team, or go back to 0-0.
While it is true that people of various ethnic backgrounds oppress one another and even their own, and while the white majority has also been oppressed in different ways at times, the dominant white culture(s) has been guilty of a far greater share of oppression, including economic oppression.
Here are some questions to address: what does racial repentance entail economically for individuals who have oppressed people of diverse ethnicities? How far can one take the Zacchaeus story to talk about corporate repentance involving economic reparations? How does the Zacchaeus story apply to people who might not directly “tax” and cheat individuals like Zacchaeus did, but who benefit economically in one way or another from such economic oppression? Future posts will address these questions.
This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.