In our previous essay, “Sanctifying the Status Quo: A Response to Reverend Kevin DeYoung,” we examined the methodology that undergirds Kevin DeYoung’s critical review of our book, Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair. The mode of theological reasoning that DeYoung deploys, we argued, shapes and at times distorts the very questions he raises. So, it seemed proper for us to seek to expose and critique this methodology prior to addressing the substantive issues.
Some critics are now suggesting that we chose this particular approach because we—intimidated by the sheer force of his arguments—had no substantive response to offer. Readers may recall, however, that we predicted this reaction:
[O]ur intent is not to answer specific technical questions about reparations per se, but to expose and critique the method with which Reverend DeYoung approaches them. As we do so, we understand that some of our critics may see this as a form of evasion, as an attempt to escape the force of probing examination. But this is false. To the contrary, we engage these questions—and are engaged by them—every day.
Again, it’s false to assume that our methodological focus was borne of evasion, ignorance, or defeat. Rather, we regularly engage questions like those raised by DeYoung. They merit sustained reflection rather than frivolous reaction. And at this time, we would like to share some of the fruit of that reflection and study.
What follows, then, are brief and provisional responses to some of DeYoung’s critical assessments. Importantly, these are offered against the backdrop of our previous essay and with deliberate appeal to resources from within our shared theological tradition. We continue to reflect on these questions and many others, and we invite you to do the same with curiosity and hope.
Unstable Moral Grounds
DeYoung argues that our book offers “nebulous,” “amorphous,” and ultimately specious moral grounds for its call for restitution. This is especially notable, he believes, in its handling of “white supremacy” and the way it is related to principles of restitution. For example, when we describe reparations as “restitution for the thefts of White supremacy,” DeYoung interprets this phrasing to mean something vague and ill-defined like “restitution … based on skin color” or “restitution for ‘White supremacy’” or “restitution with the world.” But these renderings, which allegedly illustrate the incoherence of our case, actually misrepresent what we plainly argue in the book. Restitution—the return of ill-gotten goods to its rightful owners—is the biblical response to theft according to the 8th commandment (Chapter 5). And theft, we argue, is in fact the animating energy and demonstrable social effect of the cultural (dis)order called white supremacy (Chapter 2). Across history, this racist theft has found tragic and concrete expression in a variety of forms (Chapter 3)—not only as the theft of black wealth (as is often assumed in reparations conversations) but also the theft of truth (about black persons and history) and the theft of power (personal and political). If so, the key moral question is this: What is a biblical response to theft? One crucial answer from the Bible: Restitution. This is simply what we mean by “restitution for the thefts of White supremacy.” The redress of racist evils—namely, thefts that are relentlessly animated by the white supremacy.
Another “unresolved ambiguity” that threatens the cogency of restitution, DeYoung argues, involves the passage of time. We acknowledge that time adds complexity to restitution’s application, and that it can, by God’s providence and mercy, dampen the damaging effects of past evils. But DeYoung goes further than this. He cites an excerpt of John Tillotson’s “Two Sermons of the Nature and Necessity of Restitution” (1707)—which states that the obligation to redress “injuries of a very ancient date” eventually “ceaseth and expires”—and he claims that this excerpt “undermines one of the central arguments of their book.” But does it?
Consider this: Tillotson reveals the actual time-horizon he has in mind when, to illustrate his point, he refers to the conquests of the “Saxons, Danes, and Normans” on the British Isles. As others have pointed out, these historical injuries occurred fully 600 to 1,100 years prior to Tillotson’s own day. By comparison, “only” 150 years have elapsed since the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Furthermore, the bishop’s outlook in this section of his sermon is informed by prudential and pragmatic considerations more so than by strictly moral ones. Yes, he states that the obligation to redress ancient wrongs eventually ceases because the pursuit of the “ancient right” to seek restitution would cause “endless Disturbances,” and prove to be “a great inconvenience” to a well-ordered society. Crucially, however, he goes on to concede that “time in it self doth not alter the Nature of things.” And in a section DeYoung omits from his block quotation, Tillotson qualifies his point with the following: “[C]onsidering a thing simply in itself, an Injury is so far from being lessened or null’d by tract of time … is increased, and the longer it continues, the greater it is.”
Evidently, the bishop would have agreed with his contemporary Matthew Henry, who once wrote: “Time does not wear out the guilt of sin; nor can we build hopes of impunity upon the delay of judgments. There is no statute of limitation to be pleaded against God’s demands.” In other words, Tillotson does commend prudence and a “reasonable” handling of (very) ancient injuries, which at times may entail the relinquishing of rights of redress. Yet he is steadfast in his moral appraisal of those injuries—namely, when a theft, even a very old theft, is considered “simply in itself,” restitution is still warranted according to “the Nature of things.”
One more example related to the problem of time: At one point, DeYoung acknowledges that “the obligation to make restitution may transfer to ancestors,” though he goes on to limit that transfer (somewhat arbitrarily) to one generation only. Very well. How, then, shall we respond to racial thefts that date back to the days of Jim Crow—thefts committed only one generation ago? Would DeYoung agree that the responsibility to redress them endures to this day? That they have not “expired” with so “brief” a passing of time?
A third “unresolved ambiguity” that is concerning to DeYoung involves the parties responsible for making restitution. DeYoung is troubled by “the notion that restitution might be based on skin color.” Reparations loses its moral coherence, he argues, when “Whites like Thompson” are held responsible for past sins for no other reason than that they were committed “by people who look like you.” But our book doesn’t make the argument that White people writ large are responsible for reparations. Our attention is firmly fixed, rather, on the church.
We argue that the Christian church—because of its social history (its historical role as perpetrators of, accomplices to, and negligent bystanders before the plunder of Black image-bearers and their communities), its ethical tradition, and its missional mandate—bears a singular responsibility to address this tragic history of theft (Chapter 4). Reparations is an enduring obligation of churches in America, not “by virtue of their corporate identity as Whites” (as DeYoung claims we argue) but by virtue of their corporate identity as followers of Christ. Perhaps this is why DeYoung finds it so puzzling that I (Duke), as an Asian American, see myself as implicated in the multigenerational thefts of white supremacy. What could be the basis for this? Not racial pigmentation but ecclesial, corporate identification.
We’re aware that this point of correction may prove unsatisfactory for DeYoung and others. As we observe in our essay, after all, one element that is defining to their view of reparations is the impulse to evaluate and critique it through a narrowly individualistic lens. White people, churches—no difference, no matter. DeYoung is frustrated that we are not “absolved of guilt just because we were not personally the slave traders, the slave owners, or the Jim Crow era oppressors.” He denies the corporate dimensions of restitution almost entirely, repeatedly reducing its scope to the concerns of the individual.
In doing so, however, he places himself at odds with our Christian (and Reformed) ethical tradition. Baxter, for example, spoke of restitution for the injuries of “whole nations, countries, or communities.” Hopkins and Calvin viewed the Israelites’ plundering of the Egyptians in Exodus 12 as mass compensation for 430 years of toil. And these and numerous other divines taught in their expositions of the Decalogue that the descendants of thieves—not just those who personally committed past thefts—are bound to make restitution. So are accomplices, they insisted, including even those not personally present at the scene of the crime.
Alas, responsibility is never merely individual and personal; it is also, in many cases, corporate—shared. This is true of the Reformed tradition’s view of the biblical practice of restitution. And, as DeYoung knows well, this corporate dimension of ethical practice is a hallmark of our covenantal faith.
Absence of Moral Closure
Reverend DeYoung also argues that our book’s ethical claims are fatally undermined by an absence of any possibility of forgiveness or moral closure for those owing reparations. According to our account of reparations, he claims, one “can never in this life truly be forgiven of the debts they owe.” And on numerous occasions, he asks: “When and how can that debt be discharged?” DeYoung wants to be done.
As stated explicitly in our book, we believe that divine forgiveness is manifestly available to even the most repugnant perpetrators of racist plunder. And we affirm, as DeYoung does, that the remission of sins lies at the heart of the Christian faith. But our theological tradition has more to say about forgiveness and restitution than just that. Notably, one’s stubborn refusal to make restitution is viewed as an emblem of unrepentance (“unjust possession is a continual and prolonged theft” —Hopkins). Thus, Augustine declares decisively: “No restitution, no remission.” Also emerging from this same ethical tradition: If you are overwhelmed by an unpayable debt, you must tirelessly strive to do all you can to satisfy it—even to the point of poverty (Bullinger). And if you still cannot, you may “crave forgiveness and cast yourself on the mercy of” your neighbor (Baxter)—and on the mercy of God.
It is important to note that DeYoung is concerned about this alleged denial of forgiveness in part because of what he believes it represents—namely, the unqualified embrace of a secular metanarrative (popularized by the “woke”) that has much to say about complicity and confession and nothing to say about redemption. (More on this below.) He is also concerned about what the neglect of forgiveness does—namely, it deprives the guilty of any possibility of obtaining moral and psychological closure. This is one of DeYoung’s chief and most repeated concerns. His case for closure, however, is flawed in a few ways.
First, he tends to overstate the specificity and finality with which restitutionary debts are discharged in scripture. One example: In DeYoung’s reading, Zacchaeus knew definitively “how he had sinned, whom he had sinned against, and how to make it right.” True enough, as far as the how’s are concerned. The whom? It’s far more historically plausible to assume that a tax collector could not have personally known or identified every one of the many travelers he had previously defrauded along the roads of Jericho. This is why one interpretative tradition understands Zacchaeus’ relinquishing of half his possessions to the poor not as a spontaneous act of charity, but as a fulfillment of Mosaic requirements in instances when repentant thieves are completely unable to locate those to whom they owe restitution (Num. 5:8).
DeYoung’s need for absolute closure not only at times exceeds the text of scripture, it also exceeds historical Christian thought on restitution. For example, in a sermon entitled, “The Nature and Necessity of Restitution” (1711), William Beveridge poses the question: “What must they do, who are conscious to themselves that they have wronged many, but know not who they were?” He responds with boldness and clarity:
This is the case of many tradesmen, who by false weights, or measures, or other unjust dealing, defraud and cheat persons that come accidentally into their shops or warehouses, whom they never saw before nor since, and perhaps could not know them again if they should see them; so that it is impossible for them ever to make restitution to the persons themselves, or to the families they have wronged; but they must of necessity live and die in debt to them: and it is very difficult, if not impossible for them, ever to extricate themselves out of that miserable condition which their own covetousness hath brought them into; which should make all men very cautious how they deal in the world, lest for the sake of a little money, they contract that guilt which can never be wiped off. The best advice that I can give such is; first, to leave off such wicked courses, and then to compute as well as they can what they have gotten by such unjust dealings, and to make full restitution of whatsoever they have wronged those of whom they know, and to pay the overplus all to the poor.
Understand that when DeYoung critiques our view as too “nonspecific” and “impossible to ever fulfill,” his point isn’t merely that it’s too hard or unworthy of the effort. He knows that some of the most worthy endeavors in the Christian life are “not in this life to be accomplished” (Owen). His point, rather, is that a “nonspecific” and “impossible” restitution is ethically invalid. Not so, according to Beveridge. In Beveridge’s view, the impossibility of specifically identifying one’s victims or fully discharging one’s restitutionary debt—even in an entire lifetime—neither undermines the cogency of restitution nor releases one from the obligation to earnestly seek to fulfill it.
There is yet another serious flaw to DeYoung’s case for closure that bears mentioning. As noted previously, he approaches the forgiveness of alleged thieves as an abstract principle almost entirely stripped of its original historical and moral context. And that context is, of course, generations of repeated and unrepented instances of diabolical abuse—broken teeth, cracked bones, ravaged bodies, trafficked children, and more. It is only against this moral backdrop that DeYoung’s interest in forgiveness can be properly evaluated. And it is against this backdrop that it becomes clear that DeYoung is expecting (even demanding) a preemptive offer of absolution by an abjectly and generationally abused party before the accused party admits that the sins to be forgiven have been committed in the first place.
It remains unclear how long Reverend DeYoung expects it should take to address the unspeakable harms of millions of acts of theft that have been sheltered by millions of Christians and their churches across hundreds of years—an unfathomable and incalculable moral debt. Truly, how long? And how long must our Black brothers and sisters endure these agitated demands for forgiveness? These repeated interjections are reminiscent of the mindset of abusive spouses that we have pastored (and that DeYoung likely has too) over our years of ministry. Upon being confronted with their destructive, cyclical behavior, they prove to be far more furious that they are not already forgiven than they are penitently undone by the untold evils they have committed and the lives they have destroyed.
In short, the relentless focus on moral closure for the perpetrator is terribly misplaced. The prioritization of exonerative relief for the guilty and the protection of White people from an “unjustified and unrelenting condemnation” represents an audacious reversal of the reparations conversation—the very aim of which is to seek healing, if not a kind of closure, for Black people in America and in our pews. What ever happened to unrelenting concern not for the swift and final discharge of our debt to African Americans but for the debt itself? Indeed, as we have already observed, the extent to which DeYoung centers the psychological and spiritual condition of White Americans to the utter neglect of Black Americans is not only stunning at times; it is revealing.
Incompatible with the Gospel
This brings us, finally, to DeYoung’s claim that the moral vision of our book, while sincere, dangerously traffics into the church a secular religion that is fundamentally incompatible with the Christian gospel and the redemptive narrative of scripture. We will comment only briefly here. Ours is a “religious vision,” he insists, that—apart from occasionally cherry picking from the Christian tradition and its scriptures—is “not clearly shaped by the gospel,” does not inherently depend on “Christian categories or the Christian story,” does not require a “Christian accounting of the world,” and is not, in the final analysis, “distinctively Christian.”
At this point, we could offer a lengthy rejoinder detailing how our book does in fact rest upon a singularly Christian foundation of faith, hope, and love. But as many of our readers have already witnessed for themselves, it’s all there in the book—the nature of racism as sin and corruption, the emancipatory power of true repentance, the possibility and promise of divine forgiveness, the radical cruciformity and supernatural source of neighbor love, the redemptive story that frames the work of reparations. We won’t at this time tire you with our redundancy.
We will, however, invite you to consider this with us: What precisely is this “distinctively Christian” vision that leaves not one moral inch of room for reparations? What articles of faith and what account of the world lead Reverend DeYoung to dismiss the arguments of our book so decisively? We argue in our previous essay that, while this “distinctively Christian” project is perceived to be exclusively scriptural and theological, it is actually more accurately described as a cultural project that merely justifies itself theologically.
For this reason, we believe that had we answered all of these aforementioned questions (among others) satisfactorily—even flawlessly—DeYoung still would not change his mind on reparations. How do we know? He told us so in his concluding paragraph:
Suppose American history is as bad as Kwon and Thompson aver. Suppose our corporate guilt is everything they say it is. Suppose everything they want to see under the banner of reparations would be good for our country and good for our communities. The religious vision is still one that I find more in line with a community organizer’s dream for America than a distinctively Christian one.
A stunning admission, to be sure. Reverend DeYoung will refuse to loosen his grip on his predetermined assessment that reparations is insufficiently “distinctively Christian,” and will persist in rejecting—wholesale—the call to faithfully seek racial redress even if we were proven correct in our evaluation of America’s “bad” history, namely, that White supremacy is original to America, pervasive across its institutions, and enduring to the present day; even if we were proven correct that the animating energy and social effect of White supremacy on African American life was—and still is—a hellish, multi-dimensional, multi-generational theft, a mass and grotesque violation of the 8th commandment; even if we were proven correct that the church bears corporate responsibility for these thefts, having served as perpetrator, accomplice, and willfully silent bystander before the plunder of African Americans; even if our exegesis of scripture and our appeal to centuries of Christian reflection on the ethics of restitution and restoration we were proven sound; and even if all this proved to be not only true but also good for our nation—morally, spiritually, socially, materially—and our local Black communities, not to mention Christ’s church; still Reverend DeYoung will refuse to loosen his grip on the predetermined assessment that reparations is insufficiently “distinctively Christian.” Still he will persist in rejecting the call to its faithful engagement. He has told us so. We should believe him.
Indeed, his is a cultural vision rather than (as he perceives it to be) an exclusively theological one. Here is a mode of reasoning and an approach to racial redress that is demonstrably neither “clearly shaped by the gospel” nor “distinctively Christian.”