By Casey Chalk, New Oxford Review, April 2021
Casey Chalk, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is a contributor to The American Conservative and The Federalist.
While a student at the University of Virginia, I had many arresting and confusing moments trying to understand the black experience in America. I once witnessed several eight- and nine-year-old black children, whom I knew personally from an inner-city tutoring program, loudly curse at and harass a white police officer driving through their neighborhood. Another time I called the home of a black student-athlete at Charlottesville High School whom I coached and mentored, only to learn from his grandmother that he had abruptly decided to move to Georgia to live with his unemployed and seemingly uninterested mother. Then there was the frequency with which it was difficult even to get a hold of black kids I tutored or coached — their phones, I learned, were often disconnected for failing to pay the bill.
I suppose the biggest lesson from such incidents was that for a middle-class white kid like myself, I had a lot to learn about the lives and challenges low-income black Americans face. I wanted to help, but the more time I invested, the more I realized that the problems they face are complex, multigenerational, and, perhaps in some circumstances, even traceable to our nation’s very origins. Understanding that story, and what Christians should do about it, is the objective of Presbyterian pastors Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson’s new book, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair.
Kwon (who is Asian) and Thompson (who is white) argue that American society has been and remains white supremacist, meaning that our social and cultural structure is essentially ordered to the dominance of one race over others. They claim that the most salient effect of white supremacy is theft, whereby the “identities, agency, and prosperity of African Americans are systematically stolen and given to others.” Moreover, American Christians have been complicit in this terrible, historical campaign, and, by virtue of their religion’s sense of justice and its evangelistic and redemptive mission, they bear some responsibility for redressing these wrongs. Christians are called, the authors believe, to repair the legacy of white supremacy through restitution (returning stolen wealth) and restoration (restoring the wronged to wholeness).
NOR readers might wonder what relevance this has for Catholics, given that (1) the authors, and presumably their intended audience, are Protestants; and (2) the Catholic Church’s role in American society has often been one not of victimizer, but, like many black Americans, victim. A recent news story addresses both questions. In October 2019 Georgetown University announced plans to offer reparations to the descendants of the 272 slaves the Jesuit-run school sold in 1838 to pay its debts. Georgetown isn’t unique. Many American Catholics benefited from slavery. Though Pope Gregory XVI condemned the institution in his papal bull In Supremo (1839), American bishops refrained from pressing Catholic slave-owners to free the thousands of blacks in their possession. To put it bluntly, the Catholic Church in America was often complicit in the perpetuation of human bondage.
Furthermore, whatever the merits of Kwon and Thompson’s specific argument for racial reparations (more on that below), the Catholic Church teaches that the concept of reparations is a legitimate one. The Catechism reads: “Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven” (no. 2487). Elsewhere, the Catechism offers a more detailed description of reparation, based on a biblical example:
Jesus blesses Zacchaeus for his pledge: “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Those who, directly or indirectly, have taken possession of the goods of another, are obliged to make restitution of them, or to return the equivalent in kind or in money, if the goods have disappeared, as well as the profit or advantages their owner would have legitimately obtained from them. Likewise, all who in some manner have taken part in a theft or who have knowingly benefited from it — for example, those who ordered it, assisted in it, or received the stolen goods — are obliged to make restitution in proportion to their responsibility and to their share of what was stolen. (no. 2412)
The most immediate questions are not whether America was or remains a white-supremacist society, or whether American Catholics are guilty of historical oppression of blacks and theft of their wealth, or even whether the idea of reparations is found in the Catholic tradition. Rather, it is whether Kwon and Thompson’s particular call for racial reparations must be heeded and, if so, how.
Undoubtedly, black Americans are disproportionately disadvantaged in our nation. A host of socioeconomic indicators tells the tale: Blacks lag behind whites in high-school and college completion. Their household income is significantly lower than that of whites: they are twice as likely to be poor, and they are far less likely to be homeowners. Blacks are far more likely than whites to be born out of wedlock, are incarcerated far more frequently, and, as I noted in an earlier column (“The Catholic Church in the Crosshairs,” Sept. 2020), the criminal-justice system results in many racist outcomes. Even so, it is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify exactly how much of these current problems can be blamed on slavery, Jim Crow, and other historical and contemporary policies that adversely affect black Americans.
Kwon and Thompson know that their call for individual Christians and churches to pay reparations will be a hard sell, for a variety of reasons. For starters, there’s the question of who, exactly, is on the hook. Does a white person whose ancestors bore no responsibility for slavery, or whose family only recently arrived in America, owe anything? Or does he merely owe less than the direct descendent of a slave-owner? Kwon and Thompson’s answer is that if you have benefited in any way from policies or social structures disfavorable to blacks (say, for example, federal lending practices), then you fall in the category of debtor.
And who, exactly, needs to be made whole? Presumably, a black person whose family has been in the middle or upper class for generations is not deserving of reparations to the same extent (if at all) as a black person who now suffers in poverty.
And what, exactly, is owed? If we include in such estimates all the unpaid labor, all the economic, political, and sexual exploitation of black persons going back to the 17th century — as Kwon and Thompson believe we should — we are talking trillions of dollars. In a time of declining membership and religious affiliation, no Christian institution is capable of servicing more than the smallest sliver of such a debt.
We might also note that prominent black intellectuals like Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, and Jason L. Riley vehemently argue against reparations. In his book Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed (2014), Riley, a conservative journalist, cites statistics across a number of areas — including education, employment law, and politics — to demonstrate that various attempts to pay reparations, going back to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society,” have not resulted in beneficial outcomes for blacks. To cite but one example, though the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent between 1940 and 1960, it has barely declined since then, despite massive expenditures to assist blacks through various government programs. Indeed, according to Amity Shlaes’s Great Society: A New History (2019), since 1964 U.S. taxpayers have spent $20 trillion on welfare, Medicaid, housing, and food stamps, a significant amount of that going to minority communities. What percentage of that counts as reparations already paid?
Kwon and Thompson’s response to such questions is often pastoral and even therapeutic. They refer to “a difficulty we ourselves feel,” saying they are “empathetic” to the “weariness” of those who simply want to “move past the trauma of race in America.” They acknowledge that the reparative process will often induce white “confusion, shame, and grief.” But they also argue that such concerns can reflect defensiveness and a descent into “casuistry” and “self-justifying pedantry.” Perhaps, though that rejoinder is a bit bulveristic — a logical fallacy that presumptively explains why your opponent holds opinions you deem erroneous — in that it dismisses concerns about reparations as motivated by selfishness or pride. But the unethical impulses of some do not negate the fact that there are legitimate concerns. The whole concept of reparations is premised on the idea that somebody owes someone else some quantifiable amount of something.
One Catholic philosopher I queried for this column observed, rightly I think, that “the difficulty of making rightful reparations is not a justification for not making them.” He added that “the reparation process would have to be developed in a fair commission set up for that purpose, that would consider the various factors to determine what persons are owed for injustices to them or their family, including their ancestors.” For Catholics, this approach would presumably involve parishes, dioceses, and/or other Catholic institutions directly engaging with black communities either within their immediate neighborhoods or, like the aforementioned Georgetown example, with those who have a legitimate claim to redress for specific, documented past injustices.
Kwon and Thompson’s reparative vision is, however, not merely about returning lost wealth but restoring the wronged through a process of reconciliation. This also seems just, though the content of their call also reveals their greatest vulnerability. When reading Reparations, I expected the authors would, at some point, make reference to the evils of abortion, given that the abortion rate among black women is five times that among white women. Of the more than 60 million abortions in America since Roe v. Wade, about 36 percent were procured by black women. In sum, more than 21 million black babies have been murdered, with state approbation, since 1973. This is no less than a moral catastrophe, yet it goes unmentioned in Kwon and Thompson’s account, even though abortion has often been promoted within broader racist ideologies like eugenics. How much productivity and wealth-creation were stolen from black families by, for example, Planned Parenthood’s purposive placement of abortion clinics in historically black neighborhoods, where potential black breadwinners have been murdered by the millions? As much as various Christian institutions should pursue reconciliation and repair with black Americans, this cannot be done apart from a conversation about abortion, which, whatever American Catholicism’s faults, has remained central to the Church’s public moral mission since Roe.
Yet for Kwon and Thompson, reparations loom largest. They end their book with this: “What she [the world] sees, in short, is reparations. Reparations. Reparations is the cry of the ages. This is the opportunity of the moment. And this is the call of the church.” Well, reparations is certainly a call of the church. There are, of course, many calls, stemming from many other social crises: combatting the multifaceted, disastrous results of the sexual revolution; countering the aggressive, intolerant secularist ideology that permeates American education and politics; responding to the needs of millions of persecuted Christians and refugees, some of whom suffer because of certain U.S. foreign-policy decisions; promoting the rights of workers, prisoners, and the poor; addressing the life-threatening consequences of global warming; and promoting orthodox catechesis. Do reparations trump these?
All this points to deeper deficiencies with Reparations. The first is philosophical. Because it lacks a coherent, dispassionate intellectual framework, it tends toward histrionics and imbalance, arguing that its pet ideological concerns — namely, dismantling white supremacy and pursuing reparations — must be the pre-eminent concerns of all Christians. Indeed, the authors’ tendency to see white supremacy behind every racial injustice is reminiscent of blinkered conservatives who label as “Marxist” anything they find suspicious. What is missing, from a Catholic perspective, is what Thomas Aquinas calls the “order of charity,” by which he means that there must be a hierarchy of loves to guide where we invest ourselves.
This is relevant to reparations because the individual Christian, and the broader Christian community, has many callings, based on many loves of many objects of varying worth: God, parents, spouses, children, and fellow Christians, among others. Certainly, making restitution to a racial group that has suffered centuries of political and economic injustices is one legitimate calling for the Church’s social-justice efforts, but it is far from the only one, nor is it the most important. The Catholic Church, I would argue, has rightly prioritized fighting for the protection of the unborn over other causes. This is because the murder of the innocent is an unparalleled evil — one, moreover, that disproportionately affects blacks — and is part and parcel of a larger, ideological threat to human flourishing. Pornography, surrogacy, contraception, and transgenderism, like abortion, all stem from erroneous, destructive conceptions of human sexuality. This doesn’t mean that the Church shouldn’t engage in the work of racial reparations, but it does mean that the Church should place such a project within a broader moral framework.
The second underlying flaw of Reparations is ecclesiological. Kwon and Thompson call for a process of confession of guilt and forgiveness to repair racial divisions. Yet how can Christians fully do this apart from the Sacrament of Confession, which offers objective absolution and restoration? They call for deeper spiritual engagement between whites and blacks. Yet how can this be done apart from the Holy Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian faith, which facilitates mystical communion among Christians and with their risen Lord? They call for a greater union of Christians. Yet how can this be done apart from the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, which is the visible, physical manifestation of Christ’s redemptive work in the world? To do reparations right, full communion with Christ and His Church, where heroic virtue, radical self-gift, and saintliness find their fullest expression, is required.
As Protestants, and especially as prominent Protestant leaders, Kwon and Thompson are themselves perpetuating an ecclesial divisiveness that damages the body of Christ and undermines its mission. I know such a charge may elicit confusion, denial, or defensiveness. Believe me, as a former Protestant, I’m very sympathetic. To borrow Kwon and Thompson’s therapeutic parlance, these are tough, emotional conversations, and people can fear giving up control. But the work of repentance and repair can find its fullest realization only in the Catholic Church. As the authors themselves might say, no amount of casuistry or self-justifying pedantry can change that.
More than 15 years ago, over the Christmas holiday, I volunteered with an evangelical organization that delivered food and other essentials to people in Anacostia, a poor, predominantly black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. One kind, elderly black woman invited me into her kitchen to chat and have coffee. I noticed a crucifix on her wall and mentioned that I had been raised Catholic (I was then Presbyterian). She suddenly became very serious, looked me straight in the eyes, and asked, “Well, why aren’t you now?” I hadn’t come for a theological debate, so I demurred. Later, when I got up to leave, she pressed, “It’s time to come home, son.” It took a few years, but ultimately I took her advice. If Kwon and Thompson are serious about reparations and reconciliation, they should too.
This article first appeared HERE.