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Reparations For Slavery – Biblical and Theological Considerations

Jun 15, 2019

In Part One of this article I looked at the issue of reparations for slavery, and the many calls now being made for this – especially by American Democrats. I mentioned that plenty of questions – political, economic, social – arise about such proposals, and we really need some very good answers first before going any further.

But since most of my readers here may well be Christians, some of them might be feeling uncomfortable at this point – certainly the Social Justice Warrior-types. They might be asking, “Aren’t Christians supposed to be apologetic and the like? Should we not lead the way in reconciliation and such things? Are we not meant to always extend the olive branch? Isn’t this what Jesus would do?”

Well, yes and no. Let me explain. Obviously as individuals we are to be responsible for our own actions. And that means that if we have sinned or harmed someone, then we need to take steps to make things right. If I stole your bike a few years ago, as a Christian I should return it and apologise. If I no longer have the stolen object, offering some form of financial compensation would certainly be in order.

That of course is one thing. But am I personally responsible as an individual believer for something that an entire nation did – and hundreds of years ago? The truth is, the notion of collective guilt is a long-standing Marxist concept – and it has led to the death of millions. Christians are not – or should not be – Marxists.

Yes there is a biblical principle of collective responsibility, but that is rather different. We see this in the Old Testament especially. If an Israelite sinned, sometimes he and his entire family would have to face the consequences. The sin of Achan in Joshua 7 would be a classic case in point. The whole family paid the price for his sin.

That and other stories reflect the strong sense of family and corporate solidarity in Ancient Israel. But generally speaking the Bible says we are responsible for our own sins, and no one should be punished for the sins of another. Consider these important OT passages on this matter:

Exodus 18:20 The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.

Deuteronomy 24:16 Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.

Ezekiel 18:4 The one who sins is the one who will die.

But some folks might point out a passage like 2 Samuel 12:15-18 which speaks about how the child conceived in sin by David and Bathsheba was born – and then died. But this was David’s punishment, not the son’s. Yes there are consequences to sins, and our families may feel the impact of this. But the principle mentioned in the above passages remains.

It is in this light that we need to understand the texts that speak about the ‘sins of the fathers being visited upon their children,’ etc, as in passages such as Exodus 20:5-6. Without wanting to belabour things here, John Piper offers some helpful words;

1. The visitation of the fathers’ sins on the children is not a simple punishment of innocent children for what the fathers did. The children themselves are always thought of as sinful and rebellious as the fathers’ sin is worked out in their lives….
2. There are two kinds of effects of fathers’ sins in the lives of children: one is rebellion against God; the other is the calamities of judgment that God brings on the children. We are not told how this rebellious condition is passed to or “visited on” the children….
3. None of this should make anyone feel trapped and without hope because of his parents’ sins….
4. And no one who has a child who goes bad and forsakes the way of righteousness, should feel that it is all his fault.
www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-god-visit-the-sins-of-the-fathers-on-the-children

Again, the key biblical principle here is that any punishment for a sin should be on the person committing the sin. While we might feel bad about what past generations of Christians and others may have done, we are not personally responsible for what they did.

I recall some time ago a leader in a major parachurch group telling me that he was not too pleased what some other leaders in the group had done: they put on a “sorry” march in Europe about the Crusades. Some of the leaders decided they had to make a public apology for the Crusades.

I see two problems with this: One, all that I say here would warn against it. How can someone living in 21st Century Europe or America or Australia apologise for what transpired some eight centuries ago? If Christians want to show some sort of solidarity with Muslims, that is up to them, but that of course will be all one-way traffic when we go down the path of national or public apologies and the like.

If an individual Christian wants to have a Muslim neighbour over for a cup of tea, make friends, and seek to eventually offer the gospel to him, that is one thing. But big public apologies for something that happened so long ago does not seem all that helpful to me. It simply keeps the Islamic grievance machine well-oiled.

Two, I don’t actually think we need to apologise for the Crusades. The truth of the matter is this: they were a delayed response to 400 years of Islamic expansion, slaughter and bloodshed. But I explain all that in much more detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/01/20/on-the-crusades/

Christians of all people should be vitally interested in morality, fairness and justice. And the long-standing definition of justice as “giving to each person his due” is fully biblical. Making one innocent group of people suffer or be penalised for the actions of another group of people is simply unfair and unjust.

In my previous piece I quoted from the Black economist Walter Williams. He, like Thomas Sowell, has a wealth of wisdom, knowledge and information, and is again well worth quoting from:

There’s another moral or fairness issue. A large percentage, if not most, of today’s Americans — be they of European, Asian, African or Latin ancestry — don’t even go back three or four generations as American citizens. Their ancestors arrived on our shores long after slavery. What standard of justice justifies their being taxed to compensate blacks for slavery? For example, in 1956, thousands of Hungarians fled the brutality of the USSR to settle in the U.S. What do Hungarians owe blacks for slavery?

There’s another thorny issue. During slavery, some free blacks purchased other blacks as a means to free family members. But other blacks owned slaves for the same reason whites owned slaves — to work farms or plantations. Are descendants of these slaveholding blacks eligible for and deserving of reparations?

When African slavery began, there was no way Europeans could have enslaved millions of Africans. They had no immunity from diseases that flourished in tropical Africa. Capturing Africans to sell into slavery was done by Arabs and black Africans. Would reparations advocates demand that citizens of Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Kenya and several Muslim states tax themselves to make reparation payments to progeny of people whom their ancestors helped to enslave?
www.washingtonexaminer.com/the-truth-about-slavery-reparations

“But, but, but…” the SJWs will exclaim. “America got wealthy because of slavery” they will insist. But is this true? Williams again nails it:

Reparations advocates make the foolish unchallenged argument that the United States became rich on the backs of free black labor. That’s nonsense that cannot be supported by fact. Slavery doesn’t have a very good record of producing wealth. Slavery was all over the South, and it was outlawed in most of the North. Buying into the reparations argument about the riches of slavery, one would conclude that the antebellum South was rich and the slave-starved North was poor. The truth of the matter is just the opposite. In fact, the poorest states and regions of our nation were places where slavery flourished — Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia — while the richest states and regions were those where slavery was absent: Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts.

One of the most ignored facts about slavery’s tragic history — and it’s virtually a secret today — is that slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years. It did not become a moral issue until the 18th century. Plus, the moral crusade against slavery started in the West, most notably England.

I think the call for slavery reparations is simply another hustle. Advocates are not demanding that government send checks to individual black people. They want taxpayer money to be put into some kind of reparations fund from which black leaders decide who receives how much and for what purpose.

But those on the left – including the religious left – usually feel really good about themselves if they can coerce others into contributing to their cause. And their virtue-signalling does not end there. They especially can feel good about themselves if they once in a while send off a cheque to some poor person in Africa.

“See, I am doing my bit to end world poverty.” But they likely will never get off the couch, walk across the street, and give some actual hands-on help to a neighbour who is in real need. They do not offer actual help to actual people, so they deal with their white guilt by making token gestures and hopping on board with the latest leftist demands. As I wrote in an earlier piece:

Yes, it is always easier to write out a cheque for some stranger in Africa than to actually be reconciled with your next-door neighbour. [Theodore] Dalrymple concludes, “Guilt, by its very nature, ought to be connected to responsibility; it ought, moreover, to be in proportion to the wrongdoing that is its occasion. To assume a guilt greater than the responsibility warrants is actually a form of grandiosity or self-aggrandisement. The psychological mechanism seems to be something like this: ‘I feel very guilty, therefore I must be very important’.”

Quite right. We live in a very mixed up society. On the one hand, people everywhere feel guilty (for the simple reason that they are guilty, as in the Judeo-Christian version of events). Yet we want to deny guilt – at least in terms of personal responsibility – and talk instead about mere guilt feelings, and how to remove them. But on the other hand, we are told we must feel guilt about all sorts of things which we have nothing to do with, or at least very little. So we absolve ourselves of personal guilt for personal sins, while making up imaginary sins to feel quite guilty about. No wonder we have an army of counselors and psychologists busy at work. Such twisted moralism should keep the shrinks gainfully employed for quite some time.
billmuehlenberg.com/2008/12/15/i%E2%80%99m-sorry-for-what-somebody-else-did/

Again, individual Christians can do what they want. If a Christian in America feels bad about slavery and the like (and none of us here are condoning it), then they can do as they like. But what is being called for here is a national reparation scheme.

And of course all government legislation – if it is not just to be mere advice – must be coercive in nature. People must be forced to go along with whatever laws might come out of this. And all government programs cost money – your money. So the real issue here is how believers should think about government actions on all this.

We need to be careful that we do not have the same faulty thinking that so many Christian lefties have concerning socialism. They somehow think it is something Jesus would do or favour. But no, Jesus never demanded that governments confiscate people’s money and give it to some others as they see fit.

What he did do was tell his disciples that they personally and individually should do what they could to help the poor – and by extension churches and church groups as well. But see more on this topic here: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/14/actually-no-jesus-was-not-a-socialist/

In many ways it is the same here. Individual Christians and churches might take certain courses of action about the wrongs of slavery if they are so led. That is up to them. But what a government does about it is another matter altogether. Once again Christians need to think and pray carefully about such matters, or we may end up with something that makes matters worse, and/or is actually not very Christian.

Part One of this article can be found here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/06/15/reparations-for-slavery-social-and-political-considerations/

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7 Responses to Reparations For Slavery – Biblical and Theological Considerations

  • I’m still waiting for reparations for land rights for Britons after the Norman invasion.

    I don’t mean to make light of it because God was quite clear that stealing men for slavery was a crime worthy of death (Ex 21:16) but the fact is the approach put forward is unworkable. How a year of Jubilee would work theses days is hard to imagine but the O.T. law was not only that the slaves had to be freed but they had to be set up in such a way as to be able to make a living. That requirement, however, is the same for all people under O.T. law. We all have the right to be able to work and make a living.

    What the U.S. does probably need to do, however, is arrange for institutions to give reparations for what happened under the sub-prime lending scheme, which largely targeted African Americans. This, just like what you point out, Bill, how the non-slave owning states were the more profitable, is just one more indication how when nations defy God’s laws, here both for slavery and usury, then there are hugely adverse consequences. In the U.S. with slavery there was the civil war where the nation did, in fact, pay heavily for slavery and in the second instance we ended up with the world financial crisis.

  • So if that analogy is true [and I agree with it], then why am I and others being blamed for something Eve or Adam allegedly did eons ago? It wasn’t our sin!

  • Thanks Girvan. The short answer is this: ultimately you and I are being blamed for our own sins. We are responsible. However, the point Piper made above (“The visitation of the fathers’ sins on the children is not a simple punishment of innocent children for what the fathers did. The children themselves are always thought of as sinful and rebellious as the fathers’ sin is worked out in their lives”), applies in a larger sense to Adam and his offspring. Adam was responsible for his own sin, just as you and I are for ours. However, as Paul informs us, in Adam we all sin and in Adam we all die. So that is another component to the discussion – one that theologians refer to as the doctrine of original sin. How exactly we are to understand all that would be the topic for another article. So you have encouraged me to do a whole piece on this – stay tuned. But I have dealt with it at least in part in other pieces, such as:

    https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/10/10/the-vital-importance-of-the-biblical-doctrine-of-the-fall/

    But the issue here of folks today apologising and making financial payments for something that happened centuries ago is a rather different matter of course. But you have raised a good point. Thanks again.

  • Michael Weeks:
    “What the U.S. does probably need to do, however, is arrange for institutions to give reparations for what happened under the sub-prime lending scheme, which largely targeted African Americans.”

    Which institutions, Michael? The government bodies such as Freddie Mac and Fanny Mae were directed by President Clinton to adjust the KPRs of banks and the banks were “incentivised” to ease the lending criteria they applied to applications so that “poor” people who otherwise could not own a home could borrow, despite their inability to repay a loan.

  • Regarding the point that the South was poor thus slavery didn’t produce wealth, while that was true on a state level, was it true on a personal level? The slave owning plantations in the South were owned by the extreme rich of the time who competed with regular farmers, but the vast majority of Southern families owned no slaves at all. Thus it seems that while the elite of society benefited from slavery, the vast majority may actually have been harmed.

  • John Angelico,

    You are missing the point. Why was it that there were poor who were unable to pay for their housing in the first place? This is actually not that much different to what the Normans did, which was not considered slavery but “serfdom”. The effect, however, is much the same which was why the O.T. Jubilee law was not only to release slaves but to also forgive debts. It is fundamentally wicked to not give the poor the means to be able to work their way out of poverty.

    In Western society we now have prisons for our wrongdoers and bankruptcy laws i.e. enforced forgiveness of debts, and so there is now absolutely no reason remaining to have indentured servitude (slavery). Jesus has told us that if we don’t forgive our debts then God will not forgive us, so all possible reasons for slavery have been removed through what Christian societies have done, but there still is a residual desire to create a serfdom type arrangement which is still fueled by greed and which also needs to be overcome because it is detrimental to all society and is fundamentally unjust.

    As I said, people have the right to be able to earn a livable wage, which is one thing Australia has always attempted to do, which explains, spiritually, why Australia is currently in surplus while the U.S. is in massive debt. The fact is there were obvious deficiencies on both sides of U.S. politics, so I am not politicizing this, both sides ignored what God has told us and even after the crisis Barrack Obama chose to bale out the institutions, not the individuals who were exploited, so the Democrats’ claims to be working for the poor were not substantiated by their actions. Governments who support institutions who attempt to use usury to exploit the poor, who cannot afford to pay standard interest rate let alone exorbitant ones, will find one way or another that their thinking is wrong.

    What many people simply do not understand is that oppressing others, no matter how it occurs but especially with dishonesty and disrespect for God, is actually very bad for the economy. What God called this selfish motivation is is working to get money to put in a bag with holes (Hag 1). Money, by itself, without respect for God’s truths and what He has decreed, i.e. including a free society where people are able to get a good, honest recompense for their productivity, ends up being pretty much worthless. You may end up with lots of money but with society completely oppressed, you end up with a society devoid of production and nothing to buy with it. The value of money becomes less because it is less able to buy things. This is what economists call inflation and it results in what economists call recession and then depression and ends up costing society dearly to escape.

    Western societies are currently desperately trying to combat this effect with record low interest rates but are only very limited in their success here because they are missing the other part of the equation which is respect for God and His morality. God did not give us His morality laws simply to spoil our fun. They are based on God’s love and while we continue to ignore this we will find Western nations increasingly digging into their reserves to pay increasing amount for the effects of immorality.

    If people could wake up to how much immorality is costing nations to combat and how well off we would be without that oppressive, constant overhead, then you would find there would be nowhere near as much support for the liberal policies of political parties these days. It is only because those massive costs are largely hidden from people who don’t want to face up to the reality, that we are now in this situation.

    This is what the prophecies in Rev 18 are all about. What it prophesies is the eventual effect of the current policies i.e. the rich having all sorts of goods (because they control the means of production which no longer require people) but with no one buying their goods (Rev 18:11–>) while the world concurrently descends into depravity.

    Yes you will find people who are temporarily rich through greed and wickedness, exactly as prophesied, but the price will eventually, one way or another, be paid. Much better to wake up now and address the issues ourselves than have God force the payment.

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