Friday, July 19, 2019

Justice and Reparations: Personal Responsibility vs. Inherited Guilt

While not one of the biggest stories in America, the contentious issue of reparations for the enslavement of people of African descent has been receiving some attention this year. The concept has been explored a number of times in the past but has never served as anything more than a way to attack opponents as being racist. It has never had a hope of being seriously considered or passed into law, and it stands no chance now, either. It did not happen when Barack Obama was President and the Democrats had near supermajorities in both houses of Congress in 2009-2010. Why it should be successful in 2019, with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of the Senate, is something none of its proponents can explain. They do not seek to explain it. It is a club for hitting enemies with, not a policy.

At the risk of being inanely accused of racism, I would like to explain why reparations do not work as policy. Ultimately, that is what a biblical perspective requires us to conclude. It has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with justice.

The Historical Illiteracy of Reparations

In the first place, the bill currently under discussion does not actually provide for any type of reparation. It would merely create a commission to determine whether reparations are owed and what form they would take. This is not something Congress should need a separate body to decide, making the play here a transparent one. They want to talk about the issue without having to do anything about it because they know nothing can be done.

The reason nothing can be done is because it is absurd to look for redress to something so far in the past. To begin with, H.R. 40 says that the commission would look into the effects of slavery beginning in 1619. That was the first year that African slaves were sold in what would become the United States. Seems rather important that we focus on the “what would become” aspect of that statement. Is the government seriously expected to answer for crimes committed 157 years before it came into existence (168 years, if we are talking about the formation of the Constitution)? Or are we going to demand that the British crown offer to pay for what was allowed to happen under James I?

For the sake of argument, let’s limit things to 1776 and the years that followed. Four score and five-to-nine years after that, a substantial cost was paid for the evils of slavery. It was paid in the form of more than 600,000 Americans brutally killing each other, a million more who were injured or made into prisoners of war, and the total annihilation of the American South. Note, I am not saying this price was undeserved. It was certainly a just compensation for our nation’s original sin. The point is that it was paid.

The Injustice of Reparations

But the most important issue is not in the ridiculousness of expecting the American government to pay for what was done under the British crown, and it is not in the great cost that eliminating slavery exacted in the 1860s. It is in recognizing how deep in the past these things all occurred. Bring them to the present and see what you find. Who are the living victims of slavery? There are none. Whatever lingering effects there might be, they are not determinative. No one is bound to any state of existence as slaves actually were. And who are the living perpetrators to be punished? Again, there are none. No one today is guilty of having caused slavery. Why should we then be held accountable for it?

I will use myself as an example. I am the product of Polish, Irish, Welsh, German, and Italian immigrants who all came to this country after the Civil War was over. The only relative I know of who lived here before that was an Irishman whose honorable discharge from the Union Army has been passed down through my family. So my only personal connection to slavery is having a distant relative who fought to end it. Why should I then be expected to pay anything to repair something I had no part in breaking?

Who is going to be doing the paying? All Americans? Why should Chinese-Americans, Native Americans, and, yes, African Americans have their taxes go toward reparations? That would seem to be utter nonsense. But should European Americans alone have to pay? I’ve shown why I do not think I should have to. Most white people in this country have a similar story of ancestry. Should it be just those of English ancestry? How much? Should it be only Southerners? Or maybe it should be limited to the descendants of slave owners? Bear in mind, they were the “1%ers” of their day. You would be severely restricting the tax base. And, ironically, you would be involving the government in racial discrimination.

Let’s also not forget that black and white people can be in the same family. Should a husband be required to make these reparations to his wife? Should a mother have to pay them to her child? This is all madness, but that is the point. If the government is going to do anything to repay slavery, then it is going to take money that someone will have to provide. And there is no just way to do that.

The Biblical Principle Against Reparations

As I said earlier, this all comes down to a biblical principle. In Eze. 18:2–4, 19–20, the Lord says,

“What do you mean by using this proverb concerning the land of Israel:
‘The fathers eat sour grapes,
and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?
“As I live”—this is the declaration of the Lord God—“you will no longer use this proverb in Israel. Look, every life belongs to me. The life of the father is like the life of the son—both belong to me. The person who sins is the one who will die….
“But you may ask, ‘Why doesn’t the son suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity?’ Since the son has done what is just and right, carefully observing all my statutes, he will certainly live. The person who sins is the one who will die. A son won’t suffer punishment for the father’s iniquity, and a father won’t suffer punishment for the son’s iniquity. The righteousness of the righteous person will be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked person will be on him.”

This is the principle of personal responsibility. You cannot blame an innocent child for something his father does. How much less can you blame someone for what his great-great-great-great grandfather’s contemporaries on another continent did!

Personal responsibility is a cornerstone of our system, as it is of every system that is not tyrannical. Each of us stands or falls on our own. That is the truth before God. How could it not be true between each other? Reparations are, by nature, a punishment. They can only be required of the guilty. It is not right to punish today’s people for actions taken centuries ago.

People need to open their eyes. God does not care about race. “Humans see what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). The Lord judges on the basis of sin and righteousness, not on the accident of skin pigmentation. He sent His Son to be the Savior of all people, not people of a certain complexion. That is what made slavery wrong, and it is also what makes reparations an ill-conceived concept. This has nothing to do with black or white. It has only to do with good and evil. And it is proverbial that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Reparations would not provide justice. They would only be an act of long-deferred revenge. Rather than providing healing, they would bring further division. Saying otherwise is unreasonable, dishonest, and ungodly. Hiding behind the shield of calling people like me “racist” does not change the truth. Nothing good can come of these sour grapes.

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