A gentleman asked me a question recently that somewhat stumped me, and the fact that it stumped me startled me a bit. After several of my articles on race issues, and knowing I was to be speaking at the Providential History Festival last August, the black pastor asked if he could be the one to drive me back to airport after the conference. He was to use the twenty minutes together to talk with me, including asking the question, “What made you want to get into the race issue?”
I immediately opened my mouth to respond, and just as quickly as the first words were about to leave my mouth, I found myself at a loss for what felt to me to be any compelling reasons. I knew they existed—I know them and I feel them—but I had not yet considered how to simplify them into a few key points and communicate them with clarity. Why, really, is this important for me, for now, for here, for my audience?
I must admit I am still not quite settled on it all with this overall project, but I am getting there. One reason for the deficiency is that there is a particular complexity to the problem which has several layers, all of which need to be accounted for and understood thoroughly in regard to each facet itself and how those facets fit together, both in a larger context and with each other.
But there are a few things I can say up front. First, it eventually dawned on me what first sparked my interest with the race issue in America beyond something so simple as saying, “Racism is wrong, let’s move on.” It is so much more than that, and it pertains to a biblical law issue.
Then I remembered where it started. When I was in seminary, there were several black ministers from the inner city of Philadelphia who attended as well. Most of them, if not all, were Baptists. Most were theologically conservative—thus attending a conservative Seminary. But most seemed to me to be politically liberal—some had voiced admiration for Bill Clinton during one particular discussion. None liked George W. Bush. Typical stuff. It was a very interesting mix at the seminary, to say the least. Reformed Episcopal Seminary is very small, so having in the student body people from both high and low church Anglican backgrounds, Presbyterians, a couple of us theonomists, and then all these politically liberal African American Baptists was remarkable and made for many interesting discussions.
It was from one of these Baptist preachers that I first ever heard a minister of the Gospel make the reparations argument. His version went something like this (not directed at me, but to another guy with me overhearing; and this is greatly paraphrased): you may not have been the one who owned slaves, but if you have profited from the capital that was stored up by the guys who did, while so many blacks never did and still live in poverty, then don’t you have some degree of complicity? The blacks never got their forty acres and a mule; they got segregated while whites continued living off the profits that had come from slave labor. These conditions were passed down through generations. Blacks deserve something.
I am not sure if he was making it tongue-in-cheek or not; while he seemed to be acting out a bit, it also seemed serious to him. Whichever was the case, hearing that argument come from a guy who was supposed to believe the Bible was almost more than my strict, free market, anti-welfare self could handle. The problem was, while some of his facts and phrasings may need to be adjusted, there is a core element in this argument that I could not refute in my mind, and still cannot. And the reason for this is that it is a basic issue of restitution and simple justice according to biblical law.
That argument stuck with me for a long time. I did not bother with it due to other priorities and projects, and because I always associated “reparations” with the Jeremiah Wright-type radical leftists. Likewise, I was for the longest time of the typical mind that goes something like this: You were not a slave. I did not own slaves. My ancestors did not own slaves. We’re all free know, so get over it.
To make matters worse, I imbibed the spirit of those libertarians who cannot get past the fact that Lincoln was a tyrant, and then write the history as if that was the only fact that mattered about the Civil War era. So much ends up getting left out that was crucial. The Southern apologists are even worse, and can be convincing to someone without broad exposure to other literature. But pointing out how bad the North was, how bad Lincoln was, how terrible Sherman was—as correct as all of it may be—will always only be half the truth, and will never excuse the real evils at the root of all of it: racism and slavery.
And the passing acquaintance many have with the history—“Lincoln freed the slaves”-type stuff—only breeds more complacency among the general public. Many important details get left out, and we forget how bad it really was, how pervasive it really was. Worse, one gets the impression that all that was in the distant past and we live in a new reality where slavery is long gone and racism almost is. We have no concept of the long legacy of these issues, how they can be assumed and subconscious, and how they can indeed become institutionalized in many ways.
Anyone who doubts these things need only to do what I have done: go start reading the original sources and defenses of slavery at the time.
Then, start reading the history of the laws at the time. When you see how race was used to rewrite laws to justify and then to keep blacks in slavery, and you read the overt degradation of blacks throughout the literature, you will have the right starting point for understanding the war, the outcome, and a whole lifetime of historical reading of all that has happened afterward.
It was not simply enough that “the slaves were freed” after the Civil War. They were victims of a horrendous crime. They were entitled to restitution, and they were promised restitution. Instead, they got continued racism and segregation. This was not just a Southern problem by the way. Throughout the United States at the time, the prevailing desire by far among white emancipationists was to free the slaves and ship them back to Africa; many Northern “emancipationists” did not support ending slavery unless doing so also entailed deportation. Living together in social equality was considered impossible by most, shockingly horrible to many. The view of social inequality of most whites, North and South, entailed a tremendous amount of oppression in regard to available work for blacks, living conditions, working conditions, terrible rackets of exploitation, loan sharking, and much more. During Reconstruction, several prominent Southern cities created police departments for the first time specifically to use vague and flexibly-interpreted statutes to target blacks, incarcerate them (get them “off the streets”), and then use the prison force for state labor projects. In these cases, it was enslavement all over again.
From Reconstruction all the way up until the Civil Rights era, “freed” blacks were subjected to a variety of segregation laws, not to mention extralegal action and violence, that all had the effect of the routinization of exploitation, oppression, degradation, and the perpetual denial of a particular, clear justice that was both due and promised.
There is no biblical argument against that. You could make all kinds of arguments that amount to an appeal to some kind of statute of limitations; but this is not a statute of limitations issue. God has no statute of limitations for social sin and injustice. This is precisely the type of injustice for which God stores up his wrath over four generations (Canaanites) or four hundred years (Israel). This is the kind of issue for which candlesticks get removed and nations stricken down Deuteronomy 28-style.
The true history, fully accounted for, is, consequently, the reason I have some sympathy for #BlackLivesMatter. I, of course, have zero sympathy with the rampant leftism and radicalism that currently seems to own the movement. But I fully understand that blacks have suffered a unique history of oppression and exploitation in this nation. It is a history that still has lasting effects in many ways, and which most whites don’t even know much if anything about and rarely consider. As a result, most conservatives end up judging it like any modern “left-vs.-right” issue, and when the leftist roots behind the rioters are exposed, they feel vindicated. They think they have transcended the issue when they say #AllLivesMatter, but to millions of blacks, this only signals that the whites don’t know, don’t understand, don’t care to know, and it intensifies the frustrations blacks rightly feel. But merely understanding and acknowledging the fact that blacks have had a unique history of oppression that is still ripples through society in many ways, economic, social, and judicial, is in no way 1) to condone the leftism that controls the movement, 2) to justify the rioting and looting, 3) be a “social justice warrior” (itself a phrase that conservatives would be wise to redeem), or 4) accept any of the proposals suggested by leftists. Nor is it to ignore that all lives do matter, or that black lives matter because all lives matter; yet in addition to these things, there is a unique place for special consideration of black lives and their unique situations.
The greatest problem for reparations now is, in fact, practical. It is that, after such great passage in time, how in the world we would account for who all gets paid, how much, for how long, and who has to pay it. At this point, I am less averse to having it paid from the general fund (assuming it would be cut from other areas of the budget, many of which are waste and idiocy anyway), even though this would seem to be the very type of socialism I myself decry. I think, however, that is not socialism per se, but a matter of justice delayed and yet due, and should have been exacted from the public wealth of the South to begin with. I would be happy to see other parts of actual socialistic bureaucracies denuded of budget to make restitution where it is due, could it actually be calculated and all the logistical and individual issues sorted out. This thinking of mine is purely conceptual and heuristic at this point.
There are many other problems, of course, as well as other issues. Why am I doing this? I keep coming back to two main reasons:
First, restitution is a biblical law issue, and justice denied is God’s wrath stored up. This will not go away, ever. It will be resolved, eventually, through godly social reform, or God’s judgment.
So, I look at this as we should any judicial issue: consider the law and the facts. We need an accurate account of the biblical law and the facts of history. I think we are very close on the law aspect already. We need an uncompromising account of the history that makes clear to people that the tyrannies we live under now are direct extensions of several aspects imposed on the nation because of the racism inherent in the civil war, Reconstruction, and segregation, etc. These policies are both North and South, Federalist and Confederate, liberal and conservative—such that both sides of the war and its consequences have done what the title of one very decent book sums up admirably: Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. If I can successfully show this history, and how racism lies at its root, I believe Christians may be able to wake up to the types of criminal justice reform, and other reforms, that are needed badly today. For, it is needed for all of us, not just blacks, but the tragedies of black history and healing the unique history of their suffering lie at the heart of it. So much to say in this regard. If people will in fact not wake up, I will have at least done my part; and it is good and right to do.
This leads to my second reason. This, by far, is the saddest lament of my heart in all of this. The people who should have been at the forefront of this healing—long before it ever even began—were in fact the most disappointing failures. This was the ministers and the pulpits. When they should have stopped the racism at the outset, they exacerbated it. When they should have reformed slavery drastically—when their pulpits should have thundered with the truth and with threats of excommunication for abuses—they instead most often thundered with defenses of the peculiar institution. Leading and prominent theologians, even for the longest time in the North, continued to support the system even if by only justifying the racism at the heart of it. It was as if the Imago Dei didn’t even exist, even when it was acknowledged. Of course, the Southern churches are more blameworthy as they continued in upholding slavery and racism much longer that the Northern, but they are both blameworthy for not opposing it when they had the chance, and not standing up to the landed and moneyed interests in their churches and societies—at a time when the pulpit actually had much sway in society.
The ones that didn’t openly publish defenses of the system, nevertheless exonerated themselves through two-kingdoms type theology so they could turn a blind eye the “civil” aspects. As I am always intensely interested in addressing this pernicious and deadly doctrine, I most keenly wish to hold up this example of it as a mirror for modern proponents, and for modern Christians to see the awful results to which it can lead, and lead easily. On the reverse side of this, for those critics in all backgrounds—evangelical, secular, etc.—who say it was the South’s adherence to Old Testament forms that allowed slavery to continue, I aim to show that not only was this in no way the case, it is just the opposite. Had the applicable Old Testament laws been followed properly, American slavery would never have become what it did—it could not have.
But for want of that biblical view of race, social relations, and slavery, etc., and for want of the pulpit doing its job, the slack was picked up by radicals, atheists, Marxists, and leftists of all sorts. The left stepped in and pretended to care about race; and they really do care about race because they can exploit the issue for their own agenda of radical equality and totalitarianism. So, the church’s abject failure has become a mighty victory for the left on an issue that has enduring relevance for generations to come. We spend our time now fighting the leftists and neglecting a thorough, biblical answer to the race problems—because “that’s what leftists talk about.”
Dabney spent virtually the remainder of his life railing against the radical egalitarians and liberals of all sorts. You can read much of what he wrote and agree with him still today. But he failed to address the core issues of race and slavery in a biblical way—and that was what mattered most. Conservatives today still follow the legacy of Dabney: they see that the leftists took the side of the blacks. They see the leftism, and they rail against the leftism. Any time race comes up, they dismiss its arguments because they’re dismissing the leftism. But there’s more to it. What you say about the leftists may be right, but you’re missing what matters most.
And as long as you do, you will not do anything but perpetuate the judgment that which is to come, and is upon us already.
The other sad aspect of this failure today is that when conservative ministers or groups do want to engage in healing race relations, they don’t develop a biblical case for it. They can find no conservative legacy of fighting for race, no body of biblical thought, and no development of conservative biblical social theory, because that would mean jettisoning the radical two kingdoms stuff, and looking to biblical law. So, such groups and Ethics Commissions have nothing to say except to default to talking points already developed by the secularists and leftists. This is not healing race relations; this is capitulation to leftist rhetoric.
I say we should instead start planning a comprehensive, conservative biblical program of healing race relations, not even shying from considering reparations on the table. It will involve many issues, like criminal justice reform, what repentance in this area looks like, how, in fact, the issue actually gets resolved so that it is resolved, etc. These are huge and divisive questions. But I am almost convinced that if conservative organizations did this, they would not be “becoming leftists” or like the left at all. They would, in fact, find that their fiercest opponents would be leftists—because if it were ever actually resolved and the races healed, it would denude corrupt politicians and activists, and all leftists, of a pet issue they perennially exploit and never intend fully to resolve, and for which conservatives keep falling.
So, these are the reasons I am doing this. It is a biblical law issue; God will judge us; addressing it will further Reform and perfect God’s church; many, many, people will be restored, and many will see a great light; and this is intimately connected to many other areas of needed social reforms. It is a huge issue. And that is just the type of issue God calls His people to address.