The Souls of White Folks: On Reparations in the Church

Photo by Karla Ann Kote, Flickr, Creative Commons.

On May 4, 1969, James Forman disrupted worship at Manhattan’s Riverside Church with a list of demands known as the Black Manifesto. In no uncertain terms, the manifesto called upon white churches and synagogues to pay $500 million in reparations: $15 for each black American.

The bold articulation, roundly endorsed by black faith leaders, of the basic terms necessary for repair of America’s original sin, fell on deaf ears. According to Dr. Jennifer Harvey, white leadership “ran from the demands being made by their fellow Christians with more fervor than they had ever run toward civil rights.” Dr. Harvey insists that today’s white liberal Christians prefer the softer notion of racial reconciliation to reparations.

And yet, as our nation marks 400 years since people of African descent were first brought to our shores in chains, some politicians, academic institutions, communities of faith, and individuals are beginning to wrestle with the atoning possibility of reparations. The institution of the church is uniquely positioned to shape this movement of reckoning.

From the de-centering of white theology springs forth a potent re-centering of our God-talk around those who live under the heel of violence.

Theologian Elaine Robinson calls this possibility a “new reformation” in which white Christians might “awaken to the systemic sin of white supremacy,” to enact what the church has taught throughout the ages—repentance, repair, and renewal.[1] Robinson calls for theological reparations that name “the history of white theology’s complicity in the nation’s racist discourse and practice,” committing to thoroughly engage and learn from the theologies that emerge from communities of color—liberation, black, womanist, mujerista, Native, Asian, and more.[2] Indeed, once white Christians comprehend the connection between the cross and the lynching tree, of which the late Dr. James Cone spoke, then we must also connect the crucified Christ with “the crucified peoples of the world.”

From the de-centering of white theology (which maintains the status quo by cloaking it in neutrality) springs forth a potent re-centering of our God-talk around those who live under the heel of violence. Real God-talk attends to the raw truth that economic violence plagues black communities as a result of an emancipation that failed to cede land or resources, Black Codes that sewed into law the alleged danger of black bodies, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, police brutality, and mass incarceration. Inequity persists in education, health care, criminal justice, housing, and wealth because it is embedded in our institutions and systems.

Perhaps it is here that the church can truly shine, because handing stories down through the generations is what we do together. We tell stories, interrogate hidden characters, search out God’s movement in history and in the present moment on the human stage. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission testified to the world that reparative work of deep harm begins with excavating stories. Inviting those most affected by the violence of racism to tell their stories must inaugurate the American church’s reckoning with our original sin of racism, because stories open the heart. They move the spirit. They shift thinking stubborn as mountains. Stories change everything.

Will we live as an imperial church that protects the powerful, or will we forward a new reformation that seeks to make whole what racism has distorted?

Poet Marilyn Nelson was invited to excavate the history of one community of faith in Old Lyme, Connecticut. As she peered into their past, she discovered this: two members, in good standing, participated in a business transaction in which one sold an enslaved three-year-old girl to the other as property. And this: the founding pastor held enslaved persons in the attic of the parsonage rather than emancipate them. Nelson’s poetry put words to what had never been named. It carved out silences for lament between the poignant phrases. Only a poet can tell a story like that, faithfully guiding it toward the river of suffering that is the human experience, then bringing it out once again, baptized into new life. Reparations begin with telling the truth, hearing the harm, excavating and emancipating the stories themselves; trusting that they can hold a community’s sorrows and shame like a chalice holds holy wine. We drink of it together and—impossibly, miraculously—we are restored through God’s grace alone.

This fraught moment in human history, when white supremacy is on the march, poses a clear question to the church: will we live as an imperial church that protects the powerful, or will we forward a new reformation that seeks to make whole what racism has distorted? Churches and denominations of the new reformation must call forth the specific stories embedded in their own histories—stories of the people who inhabited the lands upon which buildings now sit, those whose lives were intertwined with the places, people, and congregations seeking to repair the harm. The stories must be told in their historical context—illuminating the connections between individual lives and the historical facts of redlining and segregation laws, elements of the structural edifice built to ensure white dominance.

Once these untold stories are spoken into the hearts and sanctuaries of the church, the faithful response is confession. Here, again, the church has taught us well. We confess not only our own missteps and mistakes, failings and frailties, but also connect our brokenness back to that of the wider, historical church, the broken body of Christ. This we claim: We fall short of God’s intention for us. We stand in need of God’s grace. We have crucified Christ, and with him all the peoples of the world who have struggled against empire, violence, and exclusion. We continue to perpetuate the very circumstances that made possible the assassination of Jesus. Our confession is not only to God, but also to our neighbors, ourselves and our children, and the very earth beneath our feet to which native people once belonged.

Reparations call us to confess our complicity—how the privileges we hold, many of which are invisible to our untrained eyes—are tied up in whiteness; how the institutions that have taught and nurtured us from the moment we were born did so with resources gained on the backs of enslaved laborers and land stolen from the indigenous. Protestant denominations trace our lineage from a church that worshiped Manifest Destiny as a false idol, justifying violence against people of Native and African descent with the deadly lie that they possessed no true soul. There is simply no way to separate ourselves from America’s original sin, our only choice is to confess and struggle mightily against the internalized superiority (in the case of whites) or internalized oppression that both wither our humanity and primal identity as God’s beloved children. We confess, not once, but again and again, for this original sin lives under our skin. We act it out, consciously or not. And so we must make a ritual of apology, acknowledging the sheer violence done. We stand in need of God’s mercy and the forgiveness of those we have harmed.

Only after telling the stories and confessing is the church prepared to consider how it might direct resources to right the terrible wrong. There exists great disagreement about how to direct resources in ways that truly close the yawning gaps of inequity. To be sure, vigorous disagreement over how to direct resources will be weaponized as an excuse to forgo reparations altogether, for the effort is too little, too late. It is ineffective or misdirected. Perhaps a more faithful enactment of reparations for the church is to view financial reparations through the lens of experimentation, that by attempting to make financial repairs, we might set the stage for more targeted, effective reparations in the future. In short, we do this work imperfectly, and perfection ought not be the enemy of action. We make the road by walking it.

Financial reparations may be most effective when they are tied directly to the history of the harm. For example, Georgetown University students recently approved a referendum that seeks to charge each student $27.20 per semester as a form of reparations, acknowledging that Georgetown once cleared its debts through the sale of an enslaved family.

Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss

How each denomination, congregation, or individual might choose to make reparations is a spiritual exercise in discernment, but we must not allow our ignorance of right action to hold us hostage to inaction. A church might allocate a portion of the budget to reparations; or ask individual members to match that amount; or invite other congregations to join them in the effort, or call on the denomination to direct financial resources to churches of color and ministries led by people of color for people of color seeking to close the gaps in wealth, health, education, housing, and justice. Most importantly, congregations making reparations participate in building a collective will in denominations, other institutions, and the highest reaches of our government to reckon with our nation’s history and repair the breach wrought by slavery, Jim Crow, and the insidious forms of bias that continue to dole out death.

Perhaps white Christians ought to commission, then, a new Black Manifesto. This time, when its scathing words—like those of a fiery old prophet—disrupt the soothing sounds of worship, I pray we will run toward reparations as if our souls depend on it. For they do.

[1] Race and Theology, 2012 (Nashville, Abingdon Press), p. 86.

[2] Race and Theology, p. 87-90.

This story was produced by Fellowship Magazine

Since 1918, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published the award-winning print magazine Fellowship. It is also now online, offering original grassroots analysis, movement research, first-person commentary, poetry and more to help people of faith and conscience build a nonviolent, compassionate world.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.