Monday, June 05, 2006

What to Do on a 19 Hour Plane Ride?

I took the longest commercial flight in the world these past two days--- Singapore to Newark N.J. non-stop. Its supposed to take a mere 18 and a half hours. Ours went a bit longer. Singapore Airlines is justly famous for its comfort and service and so I was well cared for. But what to do with the huge amount of time. Rest of course, but there was plenty of time to read and watch movies as well. I finished Wendell Berry's sleepy southern novel about a sleepy mythical Kentucky river town called Port William. It is beautifully written and well reflects Southern life in a small town and farming area during WWII. Berry stands in the tradition of southern writers like Walker Percy and Flannery O' Connor, not to mention Ferrell Sams, Doris Betts and Thomas Wolfe. He is well worth the time to read. The novel I am referring to is "A Place on Earth."

I also watched three movies-- Matchpoint, the recent much praised Woody Allen film (which is, unlike most of his previous movies not an exercise in comedy or whimsy), The Matador (think Pierce Brosnan as aging hit man who is losing his edge and needing a friend), and Crash, the multiply Oscar nominated film. While all three of these films have their pluses, and all share a common subject matter of violence, Crash is the film I would most commend for all Christians to view due to its serious and at times profound probing of the issue of ethnic prejudice in America. The film is noteworthy for showing prejudice in various forms-- whites vs. blacks as well as blacks vs. whites. Whites or blacks vs. new immigrant groups, and new immigrant groups vs. other minorities. It shows what an endemic and pandemic problem this is in our society. Matt Dillon and an all star cast put in some memorable performances. One of the major themes in the film is the role that fear and sheer ignorance plays in producing ethnic prejudice of this sort. We might want to add human falleness and sin as well. One could speak at length as well about the big difference between tolerance and actually learning to love one's neighbor who is different from us. The movie shows the futility of using violence to resolve ethnic disputes.

Recently, in a long over due court decision, it was decided in regard to my mother's home town of Wilmington N.C. that the descendents of the victims of the race riots of 1898 should be compensated for their familial losses. Some have of course asked whether the statute of limitations should not have run out on such crimes a long time ago. This is the wrong question.

We should have asked, should there ever be a time limit put on the need to atone for sin? Of course we cannot atone for it-- only Jesus can and did. Reparations are not the same as atonement, even though they are needful for healing. But imagine if Jesus had said--- "well, I don't need to atone for the sin of Adam, because that was so long ago. We should just forgive and forget."

You will notice that that is not how God deals with sin. Instead of just forgetting it even if it was long in the past, he atones for it. I suspect this is how Jesus would have us to act as well. "If your brother has something against you, and you are going to lay a gift on the altar, first go and be reconciled to your brother......"

I would suggest that the reason that racial resentment simmers and boils over with regularity in America is precisely because we fail to do the hard work of reconciliation and the actual seeking of forgiveness. At least in South Africa there has been a truth and reconciliation commission that has persued a just and fair resolution of the damage the apartheid system did to both black and white south Africans. We in the U.S. settle at best for reparations and general cries for forgiving and forgetting. But this is forgetting that forgiveness must be sought out, not assumed, and it must be freely offered by the offended party-- and it is a sign of recalcitrance when the wounded have to seek legal means to force offenders or their descendents to do what they ought to have done in the first place. Crash, is at least a good conversation starter on this subject for Americans. But it has miles to go, and does not even raise the issue of grace and forgiveness in any meaningful way. But we as Christians must talk about these things. One good resource to start such discussions is Miroslav Wolff's powerful award winning book "Exclusion and Embrace."

24 comments:

RC said...

I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Crash.

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com

massivetruth said...

I have to say that Crash was a real eye opener for me. If there is one thing that gets under my skin, it is racism. I can't wrap my brain around it. Never could.

Ben Witherington said...

In one sense it is the human version of survival of the fittest. Humans are notably insecure. When something visceral rattles their cage suggesting that someone is going to take their place, their chance, away from them, prejudice is possible, even with intelligent persons. As I said it has to do with both the fear and the sin factor i.e. self centered survival instincts,

Ben

Celucien joseph said...

Dr. Witherington,

I am glad you blogged about this reality. My wife and I watched the movie "Crash" some months ago; both of us were stunned at the intensity and level of racial prejudice in the american society. Racial prejudice is something that we, as christians must deal with first. It is indeed "a problem of the hearts". I believe we need to look in our own hearts to see if we love people who are different from us.

Blessings,

CJ

Bill Barnwell said...

I'm not so sure the comparsion between Jesus bearing the punishment for our sins and modern Americans bearing the punishments for the sins of those over 100 years ago is valid. All humans are sinners. All humans stood guilty of sin from birth and needed redemption. All who put their faith in Christ are indeed eternally blessed for His sacrifice. With the sin issue, all are guilty.

On the reparations issue, not all are guilty of race crimes, racism, etc, though there certainly is too much of this today (any amount is too much). In fact, most people are insulted they owe anybody anything for injustices they had nothing to do with. Reparations and similiar issues actually do more to whip up racial resentment than solve it. You can't simply blame this on people being insensitive or ignorant either. Plus I doubt it would even put the issue to rest. For those screaming for revenge and "justice," I fear nothing will be enough for some of them and no amount of wealth redistribution and groveling will suffice. More will continue to be demanded.

Of course one can make the argument that Jesus was not guilty of any sin yet paid the penalty anyway for us, and likewise we should be willing to bear the consequences for historical injustices. But where the atonement brings with it peace, reconciliation and love, the reparations issue seems to bring with it division and resentment. Again, I'm also not sure the atonement of Christ can be adequately compared to a peculiar American social/economic proposal with many valid troubling implications. Thomas Sowell, a black intellectual and economist outlines some here, but there is much more that could be said:

http://www.issues-views.com/index.php/sect/2000/article/2003

In sum, while one could make an altrustic political, and I guess theological case for reparations, the bigger picture casts doubt on its moral, social, and political sense. The theological worth attached to it is loose and debatable at best.

Chong Choe said...

Not only do we have a “forgive and forget” mentality (hoping to resolve racial conflicts by ignoring them), but also we often forget too quickly. It was only about forty years ago in the 1960s when this country began to ensure equality for blacks in a meaningful way with the passage of major pieces of federal legislation. It always amazes me how people assume that centuries of institutionalized oppression can be reversed within such a short period of time.

With discrimination and sin in general, there are repercussions that last throughout time. Even something long forgotten still has consequences today—like Adam’s sin. We don’t begin with a clean slate. The current state of affairs reflects generation upon generation of sin—hence, we have wars, disease, famine, poverty…. No one has to remind us that we indeed live in a fallen world.

Scott said...

hi ben, what a great site. i've really enjoyed reading another Christian's perspective on popular culture among other things.

do you think that justice between people groups is something that Christians should seek? when i think of the really grievous and longstanding international conflicts of the world--Jews/Palestinians, Indians/Pakistanis, whites/blacks--i realize that justice for one group is abuse to the other. how can we expect demographic groups to reach consensus on what is just when they cannot agree on what is historical fact? if they cannot agree on what is just, can a discussion about atonement really take place?

perhaps Christ did not demand justice of the political powers of His day because He saw something fallen in the human concept of social justice. i see the importance of encouraging individuals to seek genuine atonement in Christ; but the idea of social progress to me seems imbedded in layers of humanism--too complex for even the best of us to discern.

Bill Barnwell said...

Let me clarify one thing, certainly Jesus calls us to restore broken relationships, and I am positive He wants us to right historical wrongs. The issue for me is not whether the above objectives are worthy it is whether reparations are the vehicle to achieve this. I can think of a horde of reasons why it is probably not.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Bill:

Thanks for this thoughtful response. I understand your caveats but I can think of several good reasons why reparations can be a good thing, as they have helped at least some people to put their lives back together (e.g. in South Africa) and others to begin to trust that society does indeed care about the issue of righting wrongs and rectifying injustices. It also sends a message to latter day racists that they should not expect to get away with it with impunity or forever. I am less worried about the angst of the oppressors after the fact.

In the case of apartheid, I have had occasion to spend a good deal of time both with the victims and with Afrikans who were complicit with the system, who would still be in denial if both the world and finally the South African government had not said and done things to rectify this horrible sinful situation. When sin is structured into the very fabric of government it is no good to appeal to individualism and claim "I had nothing to do with it" if one was complicit with the system and even benefited from its prejudicial practices. This applies just as well to the Jim Crow laws of the old south as it does to the apartheid situation as well. It also applies to the Enron scandal that ruined so many people's life work and savings accounts.

And you did not response to the rhetorical question at the heart of the matter--- what if Jesus said, "well Adam's sin was a long time ago, it doesn't need to be dealt with any more." I am un- convinced of individualistic approaches to guilt when there is also such a thing as sins of omission and complicity.

John Donne was right when he said "No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away from Europe, Europe is the less.

Any man's death diminishes me for I am a part of mankind. Therefore do not seek to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee."

Blessings,

Ben W.

Bill Barnwell said...

Hi Ben. Before I begin to offer more counter arguments let me first say that I'm currently in the middle of reading both your Revelation commentary and "Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World" and am thoroughly enjoying both works. In response to the reparations issue, I approach this from a variety of angles. First and foremost reparations are a social/political issue. I ask myself, "Is this good economic policy"? It would be a major expense where there is already out of control social, military and other economic spending. Like most redistribution policies it enriches some at the expense of others, in this case it would be even more divisive than the most controversial welfare programs the nation has experimented with and I maintain it would do more to hamper race relations than repair them.

In your response you said you weren't worried about the "angst of the oppressors after the fact." Surely you can't mean that everybody who would be opposed to reparations under a hypothetical implementation was an oppressor. I don't think you do, but that's part of the problem in this debate also, is that reparation proponents tend to see all dissenters as indifferent people at best and bad—even racist— people at worst. This doesn't foster any understanding and just perpetuates bad feelings on all sides. I also think I'm just more skeptical than you are of the government's ability to (1) implement this program, (2) implement it effectively--think how well they've run so many other programs--and (3) bring about any lasting social change. This isn't just indifferent libertarianism, from a realist and practical perspective; I just don't see federal (and state) governments making any significant strides in solving the race relations problem by taxing the country into an expensive racially divisive entitlement which would probably be administered poorly anyway if their previous record on a whole is any indicator.

The practical issues aside, the prime issue is “Is this the right thing to do” and you ask if we as a society owe anything collectively for past societal sins. That depends how one approaches the Scriptures. There are places in the OT where those in ancient Israel were judged for the sins of their fathers (familiar passages being Ex. 20:5; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9). Other places in Scripture would indicate that this is no longer the norm. Ezekiel 18, for example, seems to heavily shift away from this thinking. Probably both sides are still spiritually valid to some extent and the attitudes in which the Decalogue and Ezekiel are trying to correct should not be pressed to either extreme without recognition of the other lest we destroy all sense of individual responsibility, or on the other side, destroy all sense of collective ties to one another. Also, in the NT, we have a collection of Scripture that do indeed demonstrate the importance of community and social ties, but when it comes to temporal and final eschatological judgment, the emphasis appears to be each being accountable for their own deeds (I Cor. 3:10-15; Rev. 20:12; ect).

Of course we are judged for how we treat others (Matt. 25:31-46) but this doesn’t assume justification of economic reparations, a complex issue with various angles. As to what you say is the heart of the matter: “what if Jesus said, "well Adam's sin was a long time ago, it doesn't need to be dealt with any more." This works if we assume that reparations are the best and/or only way to deal with the issue. It certainly isn’t the only and it’s probably not the best. We could also spend time talking about other angles to this issue: (1) What about those who had no familial tie to slavery, and have not been socially affected in the here and now, should they collect as well? (2) Should poor whites who are socially and economically stigmatized in other ways be forced to contribute to reparations, especially if they could prove their bloodline had no historical connection to the past problems? (3) Who determines the answers to these questions and how? (4) Should all contribute equally into such a program, should it be staggered based on some set of criteria, etc? All this begins getting very sticky.

In sum, while individual responsibility is not the only aspect to this issue, reparations arguably would not do much to promote individual responsibility. Second, spiritually speaking, there is an aspect of collective thinking that needs to be considered, but (a) is this the only and best collective approach and (b) would this maybe do more harm than good for the collective good and relations of already polarized groups (likewise, would this act as a deterrent to would-be racists in the future or spark more feelings of animosity)? Third, would such a program be financially feasible and economically responsible and could it be implemented in an orderly and effective fashion? Fourth, is this truly fair to all parties involved? Again, I can think of many more reasons why reparations is a bad idea than reasons I can think of why they are a good idea. Of course, if one accepts that reparations are a bad idea, then what are some better approaches? This is something American Evangelicals (particularly the comfortable, well-to-do middle class and upper middle class white Evangelicals) need to ask themselves more—many of whom take an equally bad approach—pretend no more racial problems exist.

You should be commended for starting this discussion. Regardless of the means in which to reach the goal of racial reconciliation and social justice, all of us should strive towards such a goal and be able to talk about it. And those like myself who oppose reparations better not just be naysayers on this issue, but be proactive in other ways to demonstrate and promote equality and the love of Christ.

Chong Choe said...

Although I have never studied or focused on issues of race or social justice, as a first generation Korean-American, I can’t help being sensitive to others who are similarly situated and I tend to have a different perspective than most evangelical Christians on issues involving race.

I think Bill and I must have pressed the “publish” button at the same time, I had not read his comment before submitting mine.

Bill, you speak of a reparations program as if it was a realistic possibility. Institutionalized racism that lasted for so long and was so pervasive cannot be remedied by handing out a bunch of checks. Aside from people’s reluctance to adopt such a plan (for various reasons, including that racism continues to be a problem for many people), the logistical concerns, as you mentioned, would make it nearly impossible.

But what I find problematic is your description of the need to make amends as some sort of welfare program or “an expensive racially divisive entitlement.” You said, “Like most redistribution policies it enriches some at the expense of others, in this case it would be even more divisive than the most controversial welfare programs the nation has experimented with and I maintain it would do more to hamper race relations than repair them.”

Here are my thoughts:

(1) Justice is not always easy. Sometimes implementing what justice requires is the most difficult alternative. If our objective is to do justice for past wrongs, then it matters little whether we can afford it or the effect it will have on our other obligations (granted, there must be a balancing of interests and a certain alternative may do more harm than good). But, simply stated, if we committed a wrong, we owe a debt. Justice requires that the debt be paid.

But I think we all recognize that we can never repay the debt owed for slavery in this county. All of the money in the nation’s treasury would not suffice. It forever will be an outstanding debt.

So speaking of a reparations program is a purely hypothetical exercise.

(2) In my opinion, racial reconciliation is less about repaying what is owed (which is impossible) and more about changing how we think about and treat each other. As Bill said, promoting equality and demonstrating the love of Christ. And I don’t think we’re there yet. I think that we still perceive each other differently purely on the basis of race. I think that we still consider our own interests more than we consider the interests of others. On an individual and societal level, I think we need to reexamine our views and truly love each other as Christ loved us.

(3) Bill’s description almost suggests that a “reparations” program would be like a handout—and the government can’t afford another welfare program. As already stated, we could never do justice. But any efforts to help those who have been wronged should be considered as “restitution”—that which is paid to put the person in the position that he would have been in had he never been wronged in the first place. The attitude should not be that we’re simply giving, but that we’re repaying what is owed.

Consider the Japanese Internment Camps during WWII. During the war, the federal government placed Japanese citizens into these camps, forcing them to forfeit their homes, their property, and all that they’ve known and had. Based on a view against “reparations” programs, we're essentially suggesting that it would be enough to close down the camps and say, “go home, you’re free.”

I know, it’s a different situation and it is easier logistically to afford more relief.

Still, many of the same issues are involved. Was it enough to issue the Emancipation Proclamation? Was it enough to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Sometimes it seems that we’re simply saying, “go home, you’re free.”

But what does that mean when you don’t have a home to go to or when you’re now at such a huge disadvantage socially, economically, politically--that freedom and equality by name means nothing in reality.

Although I think all efforts to remedy past wrongs should be considered on a case by case basis, I think we should not be so quick to reject them outright.

Generally speaking, I think all of us need to reevaluate our thoughts, prejudices, attitudes…and proactively seek to promote true equality.

Ben Witherington said...

Perhaps reparations are not the best possible way to show some accountability for the sins of our forefathers, but I have heard nothing in this discussion that suggests a more feasible alternative.

And Bill I think you are far too skeptical in a general way about government programs, and they should not all be lumped together anyway. No one is suggesting government is perfect, but this provides no valid excuse for suggesting that the government should do nothing to solve large social problems that are beyond the remedy of isolated individuals.

The recent Gulf coast disasters show of course that private citizens can help the rebuilding a lot, and indeed the church can do so. But frankly, it is not enough. The government needed to take action. Government mismanagement should not be used as an excuse for supporting a theory of government that favors the dismantling of centralized responses to pan-demics. Our country is too large for merely local responses or even volunteer responses to be sufficient unto the day. The cure for government mismanagement of resources is better watchdogging of the process, not a minimalist approach to centralized government.

Blessings,

Ben

Bill Barnwell said...

We are now dealing with two issues here now: (1) Should there be reparations for slavery (2)Does the government positively promote/create growth, either socially or economically.

I think a better solution on racial animus is not something a program can fix and it won't be solved with a reparations check. In fact, I can just picture that even if something like this ever happened, we would then be lectured how the reparations were just tokenism, and how nothing will ever completely right the wrongs of the past,that we shouldn't think racism is no longer an issue just because money was distributed and how it is insulting if people would want to "move on" after reparations, etc, etc. I think you'd find probably just more and more demands being placed.

Chong Choe, I think there's some differences in the examples you cite and the issue here. When it came to the Japaneese after World War II, restitution was being given to people who were actually directly affected by those injustices. That is not the case here. One can argue that descendants of slavery are indirect victims and that they should still be given restitution. However, see my last post for the problems in implementing and giving restitution in such an instance. Besides, it's hardly the fact that racism is the only issue involved in the plights of many individuals. It may be a issue but it not the only issue. That's where I argue the problem of this on personal responsibility grounds, because sometimes this debate is framed in a way that personal responsibility has nothing to do with a person's problems if they are of a minority group. Sending out checks will not change the underlying prejudices that so many people hold, and again, will probably make a large number of people more resentful that they had to pay up for something they and many of their descendants had nothing to do with.

People just need to learn how to love and respect one another. I preached this past Sunday on the dignity and worth of human beings who are all created in the image of God. Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination and denigration serve to dehumanize people and minimalize their importance and worth. People need to realize who they are in Christ and how God values them and in turn to see others through the eyes that Jesus sees them. These Biblical concepts digested on a wide-spread scale would do more to solve racial animosity than all the reparation checks combined. But just as the government cannot fix everyone's feelings about Jesus, it is not going to fix everyone's feelings about race. If this point is unsatisfactory since it does not involve a government mandate or program of some sorts, then consider a number of other areas. We aren't going to bomb Iraq into a Western style democracy no matter how much Bush & Co. seem to think that will happen, the drug problem doesn't seem to be getting any better with all the anti-drug money governments spend, and high school students sure don't seem to be doing a lot in math and science compared to many other students in other developed countries regardless of how much we spend on education. This doesn't mean I like terrorism, Muslim theocracies, poverty, bad grades, drugs, etc, etc, just that I'm not sure all our wars and domestic spending is doing the trick.

Does government have a role? Yes, to make sure that all people are treated equally and fairly, that individual and group rights are not trampled upon, and to support and promote the best possible climate possible for opportunity and growth. Ben, I am very skeptical of the government's ability these areas but not out of any hatred or animus. I'll leave it up to each interpreter of history to decide the track record of the State in its social and economic policy. I don't have some hatred towards governments, and I try to balance Rev. 13 with Rom. 13, I'm just trying to be realistic in what it can do effectively--effectively being the key word. It's not a knee-jerk reaction against authority, I'm just looking at the question, "Will this particular government initiative work in the real world?" If government proposes something that I think would work on this (or any other issue), I would support it. But also realistically speaking, I don't think my support or lack of concerns the power base too much :)

Bill Barnwell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ben Witherington said...

Well Bill I suppose my thinking on this has been colored by my work for VISTA, and I saw the good that came from that program to my home region in Appalachia. So I am less skeptical than you about such things I suppose. I have also seen how the OAP program in England works far better than the farce we have in the U.S. where old people have to give up their homes and all their life savings in order to move into a managed care unit. Maybe we just don't government as social manager that well in America.

Blessings,

Ben W.

Chong Choe said...

Bill Barnwell,

I think I agree with you regarding our inability to rectify all past wrongs and the need for personal responsibility in living out kingdom ethics.

However, I don’t agree with your assessment that government or society as a whole bears no responsibility for past discrimination. You provided several examples, including the war in Iraq, America’s drug problem, and education. These examples are not on point because someone else is directly responsible for some wrongdoing.

The question is whether the government (representing society as a whole) is responsible for past discrimination. The Constitution, particularly the Equal Protection Clause, prohibits the government from depriving citizens of certain rights or denying them equal protection of the laws. While we personally may not have owned slaves or mistreated blacks during the Jim Crow era, the government clearly was responsible for denying blacks equal protection under the laws.

For that reason, I would be open to supporting efforts by the government to right these wrongs (for example, restructuring congressional districts to ensure that blacks are not underrepresented or giving preferential treatment to blacks in government contracts—I’m not saying that I agree with these specifically, as I said earlier, I would make that determination on a case by case basis. My support would depend in part upon whether there is evidence of past discrimination in these particular areas.)

I understand that it seems that those who are harmless are made to pay for past wrongs, but then I wonder if we are conveniently isolating ourselves and not recognizing that we are part of a greater whole. And that we have chosen to be governed under a representative form of government and that government only advances the interests of its electorate. We are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Sorry for getting patriotic toward the end...it's election day in California.

Californians, please go and vote!

yuckabuck said...

"The question is whether the government (representing society as a whole) is responsible for past discrimination .... the government clearly was responsible for denying blacks equal protection under the laws."

I was going to comment on reparations earlier, but didn't. But Chong Choe made one of my points much better than I was set to do.

I think forcing individuals to make reparation for the "crimes of their forefathers" is unjust in itself. Two wrongs do not make a right, and would, as Bill pointed out, just inflame more racism. While the Hebrew concept of "corporate personality" (we are responsible for our forefathers' sins) was part of the cultural outlook of the authors of Scripture, that does not mean that it is "God's sanctioned way" of viewing individuals. (And I'm not saying that Western extreme individualism, where I am not my brother's keeper, is the divine view either! That would be the opposite extreme.)

However, the same government that was in existence in 1898 is still with us now, though being run by different individuals, and it IS responsible for past sins. Even though it is "welfare" of a sort, I had no problem with the court decision that Dr. Witherington referred to. It seemed eminently just to me.

(Before I am asked, in regards to Adam and Eve, and the controversial Romans 5:12--- I believe that God is just in transferring the sin of Adam and Eve to the rest of the human race, because He knew that each and every one of us would have acted the same way were we in the garden. I think that's one reason the Scriptures describe Christ dying for the sins of the world, and not just atoning for Adam and Eve's sin. Springsteen may have sang, "You're born into this paying for the sins of somebody else's past," but I think such an over-emphasis on the Fall loses sight of our personal guilt and need for atonement.

H. Ray Dunning (in "Grace, Faith, and Holiness" the only systematic theology I have ever liked) spoke of the "inevitability of sin," in order to distinguish between the fact of original sin and the various theories as to its transmission. Of course the Open Theists would object to my view: "How is God just in sentencing us for a crime that we didn't commit, just because He knew we would if given the chance?" Oh well.)

St Pio said...

Professor Witherington, you wrote, "Of course we cannot atone for it-- only Jesus can and did. Reparations are not the same as atonement, even though they are needful for healing." Would you mind explaining the difference? Also, what kind of healing is needful? Thanks.

Rainsborough said...

If Vista is reparations, let us pay them. If there are houses needing repair or services needed, and the basis of provision is not race but need, fine.

The program should of course be cost-effective--for the sake of the taxpayer and of the beneficiary.

Reparation as keeping everyone's house in repair raises no problem. If the roof leaks, fix it.

Reparation as a species of compensatory justice generates two problems. Who owes? Who receives? Is it good morality or good policy to run about determining who's done the most racial wrong, extract money from them, and then determine who's the most racially wronged and give them the proceeds (the more wronged, the larger the payment)? Or is it good morality or policy to define groups by racial criteria and then go through a similar exercise? Reparations in this sense present many problems Mr. Barnwell well describes.

It's forgotten all too readily how deeply wrong has been the treatment of African Americans throughout most of American history. It's assumed by many that the gaps in resources and well-being between blacks and whites in America either no longer exist or are attributable to African-Americans' failure to take advantage of their opportunities.
But there are large gaps and they cry out for a remedy.

It doesn't follow, however, that the gaps are best reduced by race-conscious remedies. Black unemployment, poverty, infant mortality, incarceration, crime, crime-victimization exceed rates . Black families are far more likely to be headed by single mothers.Black test scores fall below white scores. All of these are statistics behind which lie considerable distress and suffering.

It's not beyond our capabilities to devise need-based programs--probably governmental--that address these problems. If we succeed in reducing these bad numbers, chances are we will incidentally also compress the gap between blacks and whites, since the greater need is found among blacks.

We can act to alleviate suffering and meet human needs--human needs, human suffering. Or we can try to determine who has sinned most grievously and who has been most grievously sinned against, and then reach into the pockets of the wrongdoer and put what we find there in the pockets of the most wronged. But it might well be the wrongdoer isn't the person who benefits most for the wrong done. It might well be that the person most wronged happens not to be as much in need as someone else, maybe of the same race, maybe not. The model of compensatory justice may not be best one to apply to the problems attendant to our history of racial injustice.

One other point. As Witherington and Choe observe, we human beings don't get on well. We look out for our community in such a way as to do injustice to others. But I think it's not only pointless but dangerous to reach back for wrongs done and seek to rectify them. Rather, it's better to concentrate, as Barnwell says, on restoring broken relationships. If this restoration requires looking back, look back. Look back as far as restoration requires. But the point is moving forward reconciled. Look back at all, look back as far, as the reconciliation requires. But to determine whether and how far back to look, look forward.

Well, one more point. Suppose in 1945 the communists evicted a bourgeois family from their apartment and turned it over to a working class family. Come 1989, would it be just to evict the grandchildren of the working class family so that the bourgeois could move in? Wouldn't that be a second injustice not much different from the first? More reason to be leery of simple understandings of compensatory justce.

Ben Witherington said...

This discussion is getting better all the time, and thanks especially to Rainsbrough for his thoughtful post.

I do think that reparations, the repairing of damage done by injustice is inadequate. I also think it is necessary, in order to show that society is not systematically structured so as to promote injustice. The fixing of laws and the enforcing of fair and just policy is important, but so is taking responsibility for our actions and those of our forebears. Let me give a personal example.

Some of my forebears fought for the South in the Civil War. Some of them also had slaves. It is no good for me to wash my hands of their sins and say, it has nothing to do with me. Of course it does. I have inherited the benefits of a culture that was systematically set up in a discriminatory fashion. I have a responsibility to help eliminate the remnants of racism, not by putting myself on an unproductive guilt trip (or anyone else for that matter) but by working to change the culture, the society, the law in more equitable ways. But there is more.

I also as a Christian realize that sin is pervasive, and therefore there need to be laws that protect people from predators, from prejudice, laws that at least restrain sin, if not help us be our best selves. And these laws need to be enforced, whether sooner or later. The movie "Crash" helped us a walk a mile in someone else's shoes for a bit. This was a good thing, and it reminded us that all of us have self-centered and self-protective ways of reading our culture. The remedy for this is multifaceted and it involves among other things the grace of God which makes us more self-sacrificial and other directed.

Blessings,

Ben

St Pio said...

Professor Witherington, so are reparations restricted to social and cultural significance? Do reparations have any theological significance?

James Boyd said...

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James Boyd
VP-PR, Singapore Airlines

TBE said...

Dr. Witherington, a pleasure as always to read your posts; and the recommendation of Crash is well-noted...I'll try to rent it when I can; you've hooked me!

You've got a fascinating discussion here, and I thank both you and mr. barnwell for giving me a great deal of pause this morning in thinking about this issue. Both of you make some terrific points, but I'd like to ask you, Dr. Witherington, about the following statement:

It also sends a message to latter day racists that they should not expect to get away with it with impunity or forever.

Exactly how would giving reparations send such a message? It seems to me that it would actually do the opposite; a 'latter day racist' could just as easily see that reparations mean ONLY that others in later generations will have to pay for his/her racism. In that case it would seem, then, that the 'latter day racist' is "robbed" (for lack of a better expression) of an important corrective or preventative: the sense of personal responsibility.

Everyone here is (rightfully) in agreement that racism proceeds fundamentally from a deep-seated heart perversion--with that in mind, it seems to me that offering reparations would send rather a message that "your actions and views may indeed be reprehensible, but let later generations bear responsibility for them."

I'm influenced in this by Chuck Colson, who mentioned (either in The Body or in How Now Shall We Live?, which I regrettably do not have on hand to reference) a similar social response to LBJ's Great Society. Colson mentioned that one of Johnson's cornerstones was (correctly, I think) the idea that minority communities could attribute at least partially some of their problems with poverty, addiction, etc., to their treatment as second-class citizens. Johnson's solution for this, however, was to (incorrectly, I think) offer 'entitlements'--which (as I understand them, admittedly not very well) seems to me to be remarkably similar to what the issue of reparations suggests. The response of the underprivileged communities, according to Colson, was an almost immediate (and rather dramatic!) plummet in what had heretofore been an exceptional work ethic...as soon as people began feeling that they were 'entitled' to something, they stopped taking personal responsibility for their situations.

Doesn't the issuing of reparations by the government lend itself to some similar result? If so, does it not rather make it imperative that we avoid doing so, even if no other immediate solution presents itself? I agree that America needs to do something drastic to make atonement; and I admit wholeheartedly that I don't happen to have a better solution, but I think that in a case like this offering reparations would actually be counterintuitive to our larger purpose of transforming the ingrained habit of the heart in many Americans that results outwardly in racism.

Again, I'm far from a social or economic expert, and I apologize if I've overstated or exaggerated anything here...I simply don't see that offering reparations gets us anywhere nearer to anything approaching real atonement, and indeed it seems to me that it may cause a great deal more problems than it solves.

"I would rather know contrition, than the definition thereof." --Thomas a Kempis

H-G said...

I too have had a few days to take pause and consider the points of view in this blog. I too saw the movie, Crash, and appreciate all that it brought out regarding race issues. There is more to race issues in America (and the movie) than the tensions between Blacks and Whites, but since our conversation focus on that, I'll limit my comments.

Let me first introduce myself. I am a black Jamaican female. Anyway you slice it, I'm a minority (at least by three categories). Over the years, I have taken both sides on this issue of reparations. In the past, I've said, "Don't give black Americans anything. For those who've lived here all their lives, and still have nothing, shame on them! We immigrants come to this country, don't ask anything from anyone, work twice as hard, teach our children to have a good work ethic, carry themselves with dignity and to always remember their cultural traditions. Though acculturation is a hard process, we go through it. So why should black Americans expect to get anything? They should just pull themselves up by their boot straps, work hard, stop expecting hand outs,and for God's sake, stop listening to ghetto music that denigrate them as a people group."

Over the years, I've met many people with this same view on reparations. I have, however, come to learn that the issue is much more complex. If I get fed up with American bureaucracy and its never ending race issues, I can just go back home. In my country, you never have to fill out forms that ask if you are African America, Hispanic, White, Asian, or Other. Life is more straight forward. If you're "Jamaican," then you're my brother.

But Black Americans have no where else to go. They're stuck in a land that sets its rules by white American (Eurocentric) standards. To some extent, they are a nation without a state. It has been (and probably will always be) that way. Those who do well, do so because they learn to play the game by white American standards. There are certain questions and issues that American whites ask, that other people groups living in this country simply don't ask. In order to fare well, others have to learn these questions, pretend like they even care about the answers to these questions; and generally, learn the lingo of the dialogue. Only then, might they get a seat at the table with the big boys. Obviously, not everyone is willing to make these sacrifices. Around some black circles, if a black person tries to cross the cultural divide so that he or she can get that seat at the table he or she feels is deserved, fellow blacks regard their actions as betrayal. They ask, "Why are you trying to act white?" To protect their honor, they stay in the hood and tell themselves, "I'm just keep'in it real."

So what does this have to do with reparations? Well actually, I think the movie Crash goes beyond reparations and speaks to an endemic problem in American society that has to do with a racial divide created, unfortunately, by the country's white forefathers. Please forgive me if I see the solution to the problem in terms too simplistic, I'll discard personal responsibility and just blame it on my cultural leanings if I have to :). Here goes....

Ministry (and Christianity for that matter) has less to do with what I can store up for myself and more to do with repairing social, cultural, politcal, economic, emotional, spritiual breaches. It's no good just to lead people through "the sinner's prayer" to report the numbers at church annual business meetings. It is easy to say, "If we give THEM something, there are those in the oppressor population who will become indignant, and possibly counterreact." But it seems to me that America does a fine job sending money, aid and troops to other countries where deep seated resentment lies, yet it finds a way to deal with counterreactions through its military and political influence. It is also easy to say, "We have to teach THEM not to expect handouts." But do we really think that Black America needs to be disciplined further by white America? It is easy to say, "We have to promote individual responsibility." But what about personal responsibility? How about asking the question, what can I do to make amends? I think the culturally dominant group should be more willing to do what it can to repair the breach than it has already done. I think we should all give until it hurts. It is easy to say, "The reparations issue brings division and resentment." But doesn't division and resentment already exist? I don't think we can do much to worsen what resentment already exists. And, how does NOT giving reparations help to close the divide?

In one of my husband's seminary classes he participated in a small group where students were asked to consider how to deal with prejudice in the church. One student commented, "Sure there are race issues in the church, but we can't expect to tackle them immediately. We need to allow things to change slowly so that others will be comfortable with the change." My husband asked the student, "Why? Who's comfort are we most concerned with, that of the dominant group or that of the minority group?" Another student used the analogy, "Well, I teach my kids, that if you're bit by a dog once, you proceed with caution. There are just some people that you don't trust." My husband said he nearly fell over in his chair. He a black man, was witness to this discussion in a Christian seminary. There is an attitude that lies among the majority group that is endemic, yet has remained unaddress for years. It's not just an issue of prejudice, but of closing one's eyes, turning the other way, shutting one's doors, closing one's windows, and doing nothing to help the problem.

I personally prefer the open hands approach to ministry. Give, give, give. Give and it shall be given to you. I think starting off by saying, after all these years, it would be immoral to give reparations, is just the wrong attitude. Generally speaking, I think whites are the only ones of the opinion that "it's too late." The issue is talked about, written about, turned upside down and inside out, yet still, nothing is done. The longer we debate, the more reason is given for us to say, "Too much time has passed. It's too late." And time does keep on ticking Yet the wound remains. I'm not saying, "You MUST give reparations." I'm just saying, "Why not give?" I'm commenting on the attitude. I could do a biblical theological study on the issue, exegete all the passages and come to whatever conclusion on the issue that I started off wanting Scripture to say in the first place, but that's not the point. I could quote from the best sources and cite chapter, page, and web address. Still, my heart tells me, "Give."Make amends"

It was surprising to see how various people's comments quickly focused on what government responsibilty. But what about what I can do? Okay...fine, for the sake of the argument, I'll talk about the government. I think the government could allow even more creative incentive to individuals who give "X" amount of dollars toward low income communities, individuals and to educational funds for minority. I think better education and in grammer and seconday school could help Americans at an early age understand that you don't have to make over $100,000 to give. Proper programming could incentive everyone at every economic level with greater tax breaks for giving to specific civic projects. Of course, we then have to create the civic project. Churches can get together with municipal agency to organize "reparations" efforts (or call it by another name if you have to). The effort might be similar to faith based funding, but labeled specifically to right the inequities that exists between Black Americans and Whites.

I do think it is too late to give 40 acres and a mule. I do think that there are some Blacks who have overcome the tough barriers and are in such an economic position that they don't need or care about reparations. But I can name quite a few specific places in Boston, MA, St. Louis, MO and Miami, FL, heavily populated with blacks who could use reparations. And you don't have to ask if they are direct discendents from Kunta Kinte either. We can all clearly identify minority communities which are socially, educationally and economically poor. On a similar note, it is obvious from all the media coverage of the Katrina catastrophe that black Americans were affected and needed aid, right? We did not ask if they were direct decendants of slavery. Americans unquestioningly gave because they saw that people needed it.

It seems Americans find it easier to fly to Morelos, Mexico, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the Sudan and Somalia to hand out aid in order to brag about what has been done abroad, yet we are apprehensive and resentful about giving reparations for evils done for fear that Blacks will develop a dependency on white aid and that racist Whites will retaliate. The attitude and spirit behind this kind of reasoning is just not right.

I am not suggesting that the poorest of the poor among us give, although the Gospel does, commend this practice. In fact, I would argue that the people of Appalachia are historically more apt to give than to accept charity themselves. I am however suggesting a possible "better" solution is for us follow the Acts 2:45 model and just give.

Heather-Gail