Christian nation series: “Thou Shalt Not Steal” and reparations

Christian nation series: “Thou Shalt Not Steal” and reparations July 30, 2023

Today, we boldly go where few Americans have willingly gone before: a discussion of white supremacy and slavery. More precisely, we’ll be talking about reparations. Take a deep breath. (The following words challenge me, as I imagine they will challenge you.)

Not sure Christianity was complicit in the enslavement of human beings? Read The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby. He will give you all the background you need. But today, I will be referencing Reparations: a Christian Call for Repentance and Repair by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson (this title, by the way, is currently available free to Audible members – and this is an unsolicited endorsement).

This conversation about reparations is part of our series on the Ten Commandments and America’s founding documents – which Christian nationalists insist are in perfect harmony (the whole series is available here). Kwon and Thompson view slavery as a form of theft, and today’s commandment happens to be Thou Shalt Not Steal.

If you believe that “today’s Black people were never slaves – they don’t need reparations,” or “I was never a slave-holder – I don’t owe reparations to anyone,” keep reading.

The Good Samaritan as a story of reparations

Chapter Six of Reparations, “Owning the Ethic of Reparations,” offers a compelling examination of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (a parable about which I have written several times) as an example of restorative love, and as proof that reparations is part of essential Christianity. Here, in no particular order, are several of the important points that Kwon and Thompson make (emphasis added, and a few of my thoughts, no extra charge):

Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan as part of his instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27) – specifically, the parable clarifies God’s definition of a “neighbor.” The lawyer who asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?” wasn’t looking for clarification, only to “justify himself.” That is, he didn’t want to know whom he needed to love, but whom he didn’t need to love.

(Boy, did that lawyer get an earful! Let’s not limit our love only to those who don’t need anything from us, or those who will love us back, or pay us back. We know perfectly well that Jesus calls us to love our enemies – which is what Jews and Samaritans were to each other.)

Jesus’ choice of a Samaritan as the victim was not random. “Jesus perceived that a Samaritan was exactly the sort of person the lawyer sought to exclude from the duty of neighbor love…Jesus’s purpose was to expose how bigotry treats certain plundered neighbors as unworthy of restorative love…[He sought] to call us to love in particular those whom our hostilities condition us not to love. R. T. France argues that what we have in the parable of the good Samaritan is ‘not primarily a call to universal benevolence.’ To the contrary, ‘this parable, properly understood, is one of the most powerful challenges to racism in the Bible.'”

(When we settle for an innocuous interpretation of the Good Samaritan – “we should love everyone!” – we can end up on an “all lives matter” sort of path. Sure, loving everyone is great, but it dilutes the power of Jesus’ message: love those who, apart from God, we would rather avoid.)

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Jesus reminds us that to love as the Samaritan loved “is the sum of all that God requires of us…And Jesus affirms such love as a necessary condition of eternal life: ‘Do this, and you will live’” (Luke 10:28). In the words of Reparations, “a sustained lifestyle of restorative love tests and proves the authenticity of one’s faith.”

(Yes. Praying the Sinner’s Prayer is well and good, but it won’t heal our hurting neighbors. Ongoing restorative love is the fruit of God with us.)

The thieves steal the traveler’s dignity by treating him as only an object, not a human being. They steal his bodily agency by violating his personal boundaries. They steal his wealth and the security of his future by taking his possessions.

(In this sense, the attack victim is an image of the enslaved: slavery was in essence a generations-long, brutal attack. Post-slavery, many racist policies on the part of our federal government, as well as at the state and local levels, denied African Americans the opportunity to accumulate wealth – this will be the subject of another post someday soon.)

Restorative love “is personal rather than transactional…The work of restoration demands, in the end, the giving not of a check but of one’s soul—the giving of one’s very self…This kind of love is “wrought in human hearts and institutions by a process of profound spiritual transformation…Only by such a spiritually invasive procedure will our eyes be opened to see not only the realities of White supremacy but, more than that, the faces of our neighbors. Only then will our hands, once limp with reluctance or despair, be invigorated for the wholehearted embrace of street-level love.”

(“Spiritually invasive procedure” indeed! Restorative love requires most of us to surrender many of our most treasured beliefs: for example, that we earned our spot near the top of the heap, that we deserve to live better than others, that “they” need to just make an effort. Open our eyes, Lord. We want to see Jesus in our neighbor’s face!)

The work of restoration fundamentally begins with a different way of seeing. The priest and Levite saw the same facts on the road, but the Samaritan, we’re told, saw the man—he saw a man—and immediately owned his plundered condition…[In the words of MLK:] “I imagine that the first question which the priest and Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?…The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”

(Yes – the individualism that is American Christianity enables us to put ourselves first. The opposite of Christlikeness.)

“We might think, The despoilment of African Americans is unfortunate but not ultimately my problem—it is their problem. Alas, with Cain, we retort, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ But the voice of his blood cries from the ground. Indeed, I am my brother’s keeper. His burdens are mine.”

“Restorative love is sacrificial in that the Samaritan’s actions were both costly and risky. Having already allowed a stranger’s suffering to interrupt his journey, the Samaritan placed the stranger on his own animal and resumed the trek on foot. He brought the wounded man to an inn where he took care of him overnight, tending to his every need…he also covered the monetary cost of the man’s care in its entirety, effectively handing the innkeeper a proverbial blank check.”

(We Christians tend to be very reluctant to share our earthly goods – we, among the most prosperous people in the world – even though Jesus told us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6: 19-21).)

MLK comments on the Samaritan’s actions: “’no law in the world could have produced such unalloyed compassion, such genuine love, such thorough altruism.’ To the contrary, this superlative neighborliness could only be produced by an ‘inner law,’ a ‘higher law’ etched on the human heart; the Samaritan was ‘obedient to that which could not be enforced’ externally or coercively.”

(This is perhaps the “mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5), which we tend to tap into when it suits us. When Christ’s mind is suggesting challenging ideas, then we suddenly become practical: “I can’t give away my savings. How will I be able to retire?” No, this is the “more excellent way” that insists on love above all (1 Corinthians 13). This is the calling of the Church.)

“The invisibility of African Americans is a central feature of our racial history. It remains a significant reason why we persist in our collective neglect of their restoration…[T]he church in America, a community whose very purpose is love, must own the ethic of restoration and give itself to this work of healing. Indeed, it is the church’s vocation both to dress wounds and to redress wrongs.”

(Jesus addresses our selective blindness by reminding us that whatever we do to “the least of these,” we are doing it to him (Matthew 25). Instead of hunkering down in our Christian cliques, we must go out into the world – perhaps to the places frequented by robbers? – to find neighbors to love.)

A glimpse into the “how”

Chapter 7 of Reparations, “The Call to Repair,” begins to outline some actions that Christians can take to begin the work of restoration and reparation. I encourage you to read it for yourself, but here are a few bullet points to whet your appetite:

  • We must “center voices other than our own.”
  • Reparations “must be rooted in a new way of being that expresses itself in a new way of living.”
  • We must make “four spiritual commitments: the vulnerability of community, the humiliation of truth, the renunciation of control, and the revaluation of wealth.”
  • Our efforts must have a goal of helping our beloved neighbors become “whole so that they have the same access to love, wealth, and choices that we have. Reparations is fundamentally relational work.”
  • We must “create structures for community.”

African American activist Taj James sums up the challenge before us: “The essence of reparations is giving up control.”

Giving up control is something that Americans – especially white Americans (including white American Christians) – are generally not excited about. Instead of laying up earthly treasures and guarding them with our lives, we must focus on the example of Jesus who loved sacrificially, and emulate the Good Samaritan who ministered with abandon.

(If you are energized by challenges to the evangelical status quo like this, please subscribe to my newsletter! If you would like to comment on this post, please pop over to my Facebook page. All of my posts are there and open to constructive comment! I welcome your thoughts.)


FEATURED IMAGE: “Juneteenth reparations rally to demand reparations from the United States government” by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

About Kathryn Shihadah
I was raised as a conservative Christian, and was perfectly content to stay that way – until the day my stable, predictable world was rocked. A curtain was pulled back on conservative Christianity, and instead of ignoring the ugliness I saw, I confronted it. I began to ask questions I never thought I’d ask, and found answers I’d never expected. Old things began to fall away, and – behold! – the new me has come. What a gift to be a new, still-evolving creation. I found out that it’s better to look at the world through Progressive Lenses, with Grace-Colored Glasses.  You can read more about the author here.

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