In some churches, talk of reparations draws a hearing

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Drake University ethicist Jennifer Harvey signs her book, "Dear White Christians," during the Race & Faith Dialogue series at Duke University. Photo by Shontea Smith MTS ’17, Social Media Associate, Office of Black Church Studies, courtesy of Duke University

Drake University ethicist Jennifer Harvey signs her book, "Dear White Christians," during the Race & Faith Dialogue series at Duke University. Photo by Shontea Smith MTS ’17, Social Media Associate, Office of Black Church Studies, courtesy of Duke University

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) A white scholar touring churches across the nation is trying to convince Christians that racial reconciliation is not enough — it’s time to start talking about reparations for descendants of slaves.

And among mostly white, mainline Protestants this controversial — some would say unrealistic — notion is getting a hearing.

What divides the races in America, says Drake University ethicist Jennifer Harvey, is not the failure to embrace differences but the failure of white Americans to repent and repair the sins of the past.

“Our differences are not only skin deep,” the 44-year-old scholar told a lecture hall packed with Duke Divinity School students recently. “Our differences are the deepest and most complex manifestations of genealogies of harm done to some and perpetrated by others.”

“All over the Hebrew Bible, this is what it says to do when you steal — you give it back sevenfold,” she said.

Harvey’s 2014 book, “Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation,” has led to speaking engagements at United Church of Christ gatherings, Presbyterian assemblies and college campuses such as Duke and Colgate University in New York.

Over the next year, she’ll address UCC statewide meetings in the Midwest, a Lutheran congregation in Arkansas, social justice conferences in Georgia and New Mexico, college students Michigan and in Pennsylvania, United Methodist and Disciples of Christ seminarians in New Jersey and Oklahoma.


READ:  Denzel Washington preaches gratitude to church members at Pentecostal convention


The book, said the Rev. Cameron Trimble, executive director of the Center for Progressive Renewal, “touched a nerve with a lot of religious leaders who care about this particular issue and who want to be prophetic in this moment.

Trimble’s  center has published a video interview and a book-study guide to promote Harvey’s book to its 13,000 affiliated congregations in nine different denominations. 

“Jennifer is inviting a conversation that needs to be had among white people. In all of our mainline traditions, we have deeply institutionalized racism. We have to willingly give up power in order to equal the playing field.”

"Dear White Christians," by Jennifer Harvey. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Harvey

“Dear White Christians,” by Jennifer Harvey. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Harvey

On Saturday (Nov. 7), Harvey discussed the topic of reparations with members of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

More than 20 churches in the diocese have investigated their connections to slavery and produced an online historical tour, “Trail of Souls,” as an act of truth-telling and confession.

“If we’re not reconciled with our history, then we can’t understand what the repair is that’s needed,” said the Rev. Angela Shepherd, the diocesan canon for mission.

Shepherd said it’s too late for the U.S. to consider any kind of direct reimbursement but welcomed Harvey’s stoking the reparations movement in churches. She hopes Harvey’s visit, along with the Baltimore protests in the spring, will help to motivate people in her diocese to support a bill first introduced by Michigan Congressman John Conyers’ in 1989 to create a federal commission to study reparations.

“It would not look like writing checks to individuals,” Shepherd said. “To me, it’s about figuring out a way in our country to bring up the playing field so that it is level.”


READ: Black, white Baptist presidents lead racial unity event


Harvey’s push for reparations comes on the heels of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ story in The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations.”

“White households are worth roughly 20 times as much as black households,” wrote Coates. “Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net.”

Coates traced some of the systemic injustices to “redlining,” the denial of home mortgages to black Americans, driving them toward predatory lenders outside the banking system.

Harvey said this history, beginning in slavery and Jim Crow and continuing with poor, underfunded pubic schools for minority children, has stalled well-intentioned efforts at reconciliation since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. This history also explains the energy around the “Black Lives Matter” response to recent acts of police brutality.

“I find myself surrounded by white Americans in a state of shock,” Harvey said. “We should not be shocked or surprised. We have no right to surprise.”

Harvey said she grew up attending mostly black schools in Denver, but it wasn’t until she met black students at Union Theological Seminary that she began to understand how being white gave her societal power that they didn’t have.

“Women and men of color said to me, ‘You need to figure out your whiteness,’” she said.


READ: The Storyline Conference and the all-white speaker lineup 


Harvey said demands for reparations drove white Christians out of the civil rights movement. They held onto King’s vision of the “beloved community” and kept talking about reconciliation but have never made the sort of recompense that’s needed.

With a Ph.D. in Christian social ethics from Union, Harvey has spent her career writing on white supremacy and the contemporary reparations movement.

Harvey was ordained in the liberal American Baptist Churches USA. She supports Conyers’ congressional bill and is trying to kindle the conversation in religious communities.

Harvey resists specifying what form reparations might take, saying that should come from the wounded parties. She points to the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, which calls for cash, land, economic development, scholarships and policy changes ensuring equitable treatment in criminal justice, health care and financial systems.

Harvey also suggests environmental reparations for Native American land taken and exploited; citizenship for underpaid immigrant workers; and political remedies for mass incarceration of black Americans.

“People who’ve been there, who lived through the civil rights movement, can look back and say, ‘Yes, our churches are just as segregated as they were before,’” said Michael DePue, director of Christian education at Chapel in the Pines, a white Presbyterian congregation in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Harvey’s book is being studied. “It’s been 40 or 50 years, and the things that the civil rights movement set out to do, they haven’t come to pass.”

Trimble agreed.

“There’s an awareness among progressive Christians that if you do what you’ve always done, you’re going to get what you’ve always gotten,” she said. “The challenge that remains before us is, will it move beyond talk? What we do very well in church is talk a thing to death.”

YS/AMB END DECONTO

Video courtesy of EerdmansPublishing via YouTube

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  • Fran

    What Jesus basically taught his followers to do was to love our neighbor as ourself, no matter what race, color, culture or nationality we are. That requires such action on everyone’s part to acquire true brotherhood of man.

  • Bernardo

    Hopefully, the European and Muslim countries who instigated and carried out the global slave trade will do their parts in making reparations.

  • Observer

    Bernardo,
    Good point. Many African tribes sold slaves from villages captured in conquest. Slavery in some forms still exists in Africa.

    We all owe each other so much for the transgressions against others in the past and others owe us so much for their transgressions.

    Any day now a check for reparations from the Queen of England. the Pope and various European governments should be arriving to compensate for their predecessors oppression of my ancestors.
    The best thing is to move forward in a constructive way for everyone’s benefit. Currently, affirmative action and other policies address issues stemming from practices of the past.

  • It seems to me again that the Reparation movement on your part has not done your research well. Silis Muhammad has and did make numerous intervention on the behalf of Afrodescendants. Stating civil death to the United Nation community. See allforreparations.org website abd judge for yourself, but do know he’s the Champions in this journey. His work is ten times greater than all of the names mention above and they knows it but refuse to acknowledge it. Everybody has a plan but hasnt succeeded but Silis. He’s not done yet.

  • It seems to me again that the Reparation movement on your part has not done your research well. Silis Muhammad has and did make numerous intervention on the behalf of Afrodescendants. Stating civil death to the United Nation community. See allforreparations.org website and judge for yourself, but do know he’s the Cabd hampions in this journey. His work is ten times greater than all of the names mention above and they knows it but refuse to acknowledge it. Everybody has a plan but hasnt succeeded but Silis. He’s not done yet.

  • Dante

    Hopefully Ms. Harvey will follow her own advice and write a repatriation check, perhaps equal to seven times her annual income. That seems realistic….

  • Angela

    So, will this reparation movement extend to Native Americans? If so, I hope Professor Harvey and her Drake University faculty colleagues do their part and vacate their campus, leaving it to the Potawatomi Natives from whom that land was stolen.

  • Shawnie5

    True, Christ wasn’t the first to suggest “love thy neighbor.” What He did was change forever the concept of what a “neighbor” is.

    Few people grasp the difference.

  • Bernardo

    Shawnie5,

    And exactly how did your Jesus change the concept of “neighbor” since only 10-30% of the NT is authentic. Might thank people like Pilate and the myth makers and embellishers like P, M, M, L and J for before JC. Pilate could have sent Jesus to the salt mines, so then where would you be? A religion based on the whims of a Roman governor!!! And the idiocy of the Christianity and for that matter all religions has no bounds.

  • Shawnie5

    @Bernardo: LOL! Yeah, Pilate made somewhat similar remarks, while Jesus hardly even considered him worth a response. Everything that transpired in that drama of the ages went exactly according to plan — Pilate was nothing but a minor widget in the whole mechanism.

    As for how Jesus changed the concept of “neighbor,” take a course in western civilization, for crying out loud.

  • Bernardo

    Shannie5,

    Other myths and embellishments such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny et al have had more of an effect on being kind and neighborly. Might also want to check Hammurabi’s code.

    JC’s family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.”)

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by many contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann’s conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694.

    Actually, Jesus was a bit “touched”. After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today’s world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    And all that verbiage that Pilate supposedly said to your Jesus ( .https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/John/Pilate-Interrogates-Jesus), it is all historically nil as previously detailed.

  • Larry

    “Neighbor” has been rather more selective in Christianity as a religion than it ever was in Christ’s own words. I has been limited to applying only to Christians, or only of the “right” sect, or based on one’s race, their nationality, and now only it only seems to apply to heterosexuals.

    Plus there is no qualification to the phrase “love thy neighbor”, but Christians always feel free to make new ones up. Hence such little gems as Christian justification for discrimination.

    People acting in moral and beneficial ways to society in service of their faith are a rarity. The exception, not the example. People acting badly in service of their faith are more common than dirt.

  • Shawnie5

    @Bernardo: “Other myths and embellishments such as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny et al have had more of an effect on being kind and neighborly.” Santa Claus was a direct outgrowth of a legend about a Christian saint. And the Easter Bunny has its origins in fertility rites — nothing whatsoever to do with love of neighbor.

    As for Ludemann, you already know my opinion of a guy who thinks 2000-year-post-mortem psychoanalysis is acceptable practice, so don’t bother me with his offerings. Even if his ideas were reasonable, he’s only one voice among many. And quite frankly, I find much more credible the unanimous opinions of the ancients about the origins of the documents that make up scripture (they being far closer in time and place to those origins) than any Johnny-come-lately 20 centuries later trying to make a name for himself in academia and sell books. Go, therefore, and peddle the Jesus Seminar to someone more easily impressed — like Larry, perhaps.

  • Bernardo

    Shawnie,

    Might want to review Professor Chilton’s review of Xmas in his book “Rabbi Jesus”. Ditto for Professor Meier in his book “Marginal Jew”.

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  • Bernardo

    By the way, Professor Meier is a Professor of Theology at Notre Dame.

  • Shawnie5

    And you can likewise peruse the works of Dr. Bruce Metzger, who was a longtime professor of Biblical studies at Princeton Theological Seminary and fellow of the British Academy. Particularly The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (1997). Also The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Dr. Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. And perhaps How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, by Dr. N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

    We can do this all day…

  • “Racial reconciliation” is misleading, being that it means to “restore” what was in the beginning… An unfair advantage created by the Caucasian was in the beginning, so what is being restored if Africans had nothing? The system that Caucasians constructed for themselves and forced Black people into has to be dismantled systematically first. Anything short of dismantling every institution that puts white Europeans at the center is false. Money only represents a new “massa” so direct financial payouts is a set-up. What we need is an identity, a sense of Self that comes from us, and it is free. My thoughts are based on a Bible scripture from the book of Numbers. “There we saw the giants (white supremacy)… and we were like grasshoppers (ni***’s) in our OWN sight, and so we were in THEIR sight.” NKJV. Fund schools K-8 with all curriculum focused on “Rebuilding the Black/African Self. Emphasize sport/spirituality, compassion, Art, Music, true history, then STEM.

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