A conservative Christian book ignites debate over reparations — and faith itself

Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
·8-min read
Photo illustration: Yahoo News, photos: https://www.reparationsproject.com, Getty Images (2)
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: reparationsproject.com, Getty Images (2)

A pair of Christian ministers have provoked a debate inside conservative white evangelical Christianity with a new book about reparations to African Americans for the injustices of slavery and systemic racism.

And one of their primary points is that they don’t think the place to start is with logistical questions such as who would get reparations — and who would pay for them.

“People are saying, ‘Well, how are we even going to do reparations?’ That's the equivalent of saying, ‘Well, how are we even going to solve this coronavirus?’ Well, we're going to solve it. We're going to figure it out,” said Gregory Thompson, co-author with Duke Kwon of “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair.”

“Because this is pretty complicated, and so what we do is we have to just be willing to get in the lab together and figure it out. That really is where we are in this conversation culturally. And I hope that people will step into it.”

Thompson said he and Kwon wrote the book for two reasons. The first is that they want American Christians — including the conservative and mostly white evangelicals for whom they have pastored — to help lead and shape the debate over reparations. The other is that conservative evangelicals are still broadly resistant and often fiercely hostile to even considering the topic, even as the Episcopal Church and other more mainline denominations are grappling with it and in some cases embracing it.

Kwon is a minister at Grace Meridian Hill church in Washington, D.C., which is part of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). Thompson pastored for 20 years — most of it in Charlottesville, Va. — in that same denomination, which is decidedly on the conservative side of American Christianity in terms of its theology. The PCA itself was formed by congregations that objected to the civil rights movement.

Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. (Courtesy of the authors)
Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson. (Courtesy of the authors)

“It's very interesting that this reparations conversation is coming from, in some ways, the least likely place: a denomination that was founded because of segregation, which is historically true about the PCA,” Thompson said. “And yet the only way that's possible is because the two of us have basically opened ourselves up to various forms of African American literary and theological traditions that have showed us ways that our own training and our own tradition were actually blind to elements of the Gospel.”

“What we're trying to contribute to is to make it plausible to the American church … that we ought to be leading the way in putting something like this in place in our local communities and then in our nation at large,” Thompson said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.

Kwon added: “You might say, in some ways, we're trying to redeem the word itself — 'reparations' — and give it its appropriate meaning and help people understand what the moral heart of it really is instead of just getting freaked out by it.”

It’s a tall order within conservative, largely white evangelical Christianity. On Thursday, the first major rejoinder to their book came from a conservative evangelical pastor with a significant national following. Kevin DeYoung, senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, N.C. — another PCA congregation — wrote a negative review for the Gospel Coalition, a prominent evangelical website.

DeYoung’s broadside won’t be the last. Thompson said he expects “a multifront engagement” with some from conservative corners who think that “what we've done is insane.” He also thinks the book will be criticized by some liberals “because we've broadened the notion of reparations and not rooted it primarily in government.”

The book itself argues that the idea of reparations itself is “uniquely Christian” in the sense that it springs out of the faith’s calling to restore what is broken and in that it requires a “self-disinheriting love” that is not possible without spiritual resources, which the authors believe come from one’s connection to and communion with God.

“The goal of reparations is not to punish the ‘offender.’ It is to restore the offended. And so that really is the moral emphasis of reparations. I think we have to be clear on this. That the goal is not punishment. The goal is repair,” Kwon said.

And they cast the work of racial justice as not only central to the call of Christian individuals but also critical to the credibility of Christian witness in America’s unique historical context. They use the term “white supremacy” without reservation, charging into what is a minefield among most white Americans, including evangelicals.

“The Christian church in America carries out its mission in one of the longest-standing White supremacist social orders in the history of the world. For this mission to have integrity, the church has to take this context seriously,” they write in the introduction. “Our hope is that the language of White supremacy and reparations, now so unfamiliar and awkward, will one day become as fixed in the church’s imagination and fundamental to its vocation as the language of repentance and reconciliation is today.”

In broad strokes, the book spends its first half defining its terms and making a case for why reparations are needed, building an argument for how dignity, power and wealth have been stolen from African Americans in ways that endure today, and asserting that the nation must give itself an honest reckoning with its history.

The latter half makes the case for restitution and repair, but does not delve too deeply into details. And as Thompson said, it calls on individuals, churches and religious institutions to take the lead, particularly at the local level.

The last chapter gives some recommendations for what this might look like. The authors discuss the work of supporting artists to give a more honest accounting of American history, and of churches supporting things like affordable counseling in low-income communities, leadership development and “other forms of political and institutional empowerment,” along with the actual transferring of wealth.

They argue that much of this can happen only with what Martin Luther King Jr. described as “the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable. The government can only do so much to bring about racial justice, in other words, because there must be a willingness by individuals to embrace the work of repairing the damage caused by white supremacy.”

The book spends little time discussing government solutions. However, Thompson did say he would “advocate for government reparations of the kind that would be derived from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of some sort,” borrowing a term from the South African committees that were set up following the fall of apartheid.

Congress this month passed a reparations bill out of the House Judiciary Committee. The legislation does not propose specific solutions either, and instead would establish a commission to study the issue. President Biden is supportive of a commission and may come under some pressure to establish one himself, since the bill in Congress, if it passes the House, does not have sufficient support in the Senate to become law.

“I do know that two major initiatives are emerging out of evangelicalism right now towards pressing the Biden administration for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Thompson said.

DeYoung’s critical response treats the book seriously, even though he rejects most of its arguments on theological, historical and practical grounds.

“The work of reparations outlined in the book is so expansive and so nonspecific as to be impossible to ever fulfill,” wrote DeYoung, who is a professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and a prominent national author and speaker.

But it’s DeYoung’s theological critique of the book that illuminates the central fault line between Thompson and Kwon and their conservative evangelical critics.

That’s because it’s an argument that goes to the most fundamental parts of what each side understands Christianity to be. “Kwon and Thompson call ‘the Christian church in America to embrace reparations as central to faithful Christian mission in this culture,’” DeYoung writes. “This is the key theological and ethical claim — one that I find ultimately ambiguous, unworkable, and unpersuasive.”

Thompson and Kwon represent a corner of evangelicalism that parts with liberal Christians in significant ways in how it reads and interprets the Bible and in how it understands the faith’s core teachings. Yet evangelicals like them also believe that true fidelity and orthodoxy require a much broader understanding of what the Christian Gospel means than the narrow interpretation that has dominated much of conservative evangelicalism for a long time.

“The Christian Scriptures and the story of Christianity are much broader than this largely forensic, ‘my debts have been paid by Jesus, how long do I have to feel guilty?’ account of the Christian faith,” Thompson said.

DeYoung, he argued, is “in some ways the inheritor of and the promoter of a way of understanding the range of applications of the Gospel that is a feature of Southern evangelicalism in this country, which primarily privatizes the Gospel. This a tradition that is not normative, certainly across Christian history and certainly not around the world, but it is normative in this particular culture, and this is the tradition that Martin Luther King critiques in his letter from the Birmingham jail.

“Part of the argument we're having is not simply against white supremacy but also against an evangelicalism that continues to shelter that white supremacy by reducing the things that we can and cannot talk about when we talk about the Gospel of Jesus. I think that that is part of what this argument is about,” Thompson said.

“Evangelicalism is a cultural project that consistently mistakes itself and presents itself as a theological project. We have to come to terms with that.”

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