How do you “address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery in the United States”? You form a commission, of course.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D–Texas), along with 23 of her colleagues, has introduced H.R. 40, a bill to form a commission to study reparations for slavery. The commission would be comprised of 13 members and an unlimited number of support staff, experts, consultants, and contractors. Their purpose would be to document the evils of slavery and discrimination, then recommend appropriate remedies, including paying money to the descendants of slaves. The commission would have one year to prepare their report and present it to Congress.
Reparations have been supported by multiple Democratic presidential candidates and religious leaders. Last week, Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the Episcopal bishop of Maryland, urged Congress to pass HR 40. Sutton, perhaps himself a candidate for the commission, claimed to represent the perspective of the faith community in favor of reparations. After all, reparations have unanimous support from his diocese, which is 90 percent white.
According to Sutton, America needs to address the evils of our past, because there is still a “wall of injustice” blocking relationships between blacks and whites. Even though black Americans “forgave this country a long time ago,” Sutton says we are not yet reconciled. Americans must “offer atonement” and “make amends” to repair the injustice.
Along with religiously tinged words, Sutton explicitly claimed to base his remarks on the “Holy Scriptures” and “teachings of Jesus.” However, Sutton was vague on the specific verses or Christian teaching that he was espousing.
This is not surprising. When Christ came to save the world from its sin—including slavery—he did not start by chairing a 13-member commission with his disciples. Below are four key biblical concepts Sutton distorted in his remarks to Congress.
1. A Distortion of Justice
We know God demands justice and hates oppression (Micah 6:8). Justice means holding people responsible for the wrongs they have committed. When we harm another person, we must make restitution (voluntarily or involuntarily). As an example, when Zacchaeus the tax collector converted, he promised to pay back anyone he had defrauded fourfold (Luke 19:8).
However, justice does not mean holding people responsible for wrongs they have not committed. In fact, that is the opposite of justice! We are responsible for our actions alone: “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).
No one disputes that slavery was a great injustice. Yet it has been 154 years since the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, 55 years since Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, and 11 years since American voters elected our first black president. It is a distortion of “justice” to require remote descendants of one group to make restitution to the remote descendants of another group. And this assumes that the remote descendants of the two groups could be accurately identified!
2. A Distortion of Forgiveness
Sutton declares that black Americans have forgiven white Americans, but they still want reparations. Let’s put aside the fact that black Americans have a variety of opinions on reparations, and likely on forgiveness as well. Are reparations compatible with forgiveness?
Christ spoke of forgiveness as the cancellation of a debt. Forgiveness means that when someone wrongs you, instead of trying to collect on that wrong, you forgive the debt. You act as if the person no longer owes you anything (Matthew 18:21-35).
Forgiveness is so important that Jesus commanded his followers to do it over and over and over, 77 times if necessary. If Sutton and the community of faith he represents have truly forgiven white Americans, why are they still acting as if something is owed? Why are they still trying to collect the debt?
3. A Distortion of Atonement
The truth is that, despite heroic efforts by many, America can never pay the moral debt it owes for its history of slavery and other corporate sins. The evil is simply too great for mere mortals to repair—especially if our best hope is a committee to study throwing money at the problem. If we must offer atonement for the original sin of slavery, as Sutton urges, we will never be done.
This is the very heart of the Christian gospel: atonement for sin must be made, but human efforts are woefully insufficient. For this reason, God sent his son, Jesus Christ, to live and die and rise again, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (John 3:16). If you are looking for atonement outside of Jesus Christ, you are not preaching the gospel.
4. A Distortion of Reconciliation
Sutton claims his goal is reconciliation. It is true the early Christians were all about reconciliation. In fact, St. Paul called the gospel the “message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Christ’s great prayer before his crucifixion was for unity—“that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11). But how do reconciliation and unity happen?
The Apostle Paul states “For he himself [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14). Because of sin, our relationship with God was fractured, and so were our relationships with other people. Christ’s death did not just atone for our sins and restore us to God, it also enables us to have peace with each other.
For Christians, the saying “we are all God’s children” is not trite nonsense. It is the precious legacy of the death of our Savior. Reconciliation does not come from redistributing resources through government programs.
Christians must fight injustice and seek restitution for victims. Christians should study the structures that promote and hinder human flourishing, and create wise policies. Christians should spend their time, treasure, and talent on these things. But in the process, Christians must not carelessly misrepresent the unique work of Christ, a work that cannot be replicated by a commission.