A latecomer to the reparations discussion

Trauma, reparations, and God’s transforming love: Part I of a series

By Rev. Rick King

Why, people ask, should present generations be made responsible for their forebears’ offenses against Black, Indigenous and People of Color? What good does that do people in the present?

I’ve been aware of my participation in systemic racism for many years, but not until recently did I seriously consider the argument for racial reparations in the U.S. The United Church of Christ and other denominations are wrestling with what reparations and reparatory justice (justice that repairs injury) look like in the church, which has often been complicit in passing this legacy of trauma from generation to generation.

When HR40, the reparations bill in Congress, was introduced early in the Biden administration, reparations had become an issue whose time had come. But as recently as 2018, I remained unconvinced that reparations rose to the top of the UCC’s list of many priorities, at least, priorities we could make progress on. There are so many things we need to address, I reasoned: Why do we have to pick such a HARD one? Isn’t that almost a fool’s errand?

But I hadn’t considered racial reparations as part of the practice of restorative justice, which seeks to bring about change not only in the lives of those hurt, but also in the lives of the aggressors. It seeks the truth about what systemic racism has wrought—the lives lost, the futures ruined, the profits made on the backs of Black, Indigenous and People of Color: all of which began in 1619, when the first African slaves were trafficked on ships to the U.S. from West Africa.

And as a pastor and Christian, the main question I had long asked was, How is reparations related to the mission of the church and the ministry of Jesus? How is it more important, say, than feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those sick and in prison?

But I’m curious about the damage Whiteness has done in my life and yours. I’m longing to be freed from racism, which is a kind of addiction which, even though we know it inflicts damage, we keep coming back to, consciously and unconsciously. It is so much bigger than us, we just have to invite God in as we seek to address it.

I now believe that reparations is of central importance to Christian identity because it is rooted in the reconciliation that comes about only through truth-telling and truth-hearing, and in behavioral and structural amends that seek to make things right, not simply to lament and apologize for wrongs. And reconciliation frees both the victim and the aggressor, and arrests the victim-aggressor cycle. That’s restorative justice.

The goal is wholeness—of the human person, and of the entire society. But this is a HUGE task.

Are you ready to explore it with me?