Are reparations for Black Americans who descended from enslaved people biblical? It is a question that has different answers depending on who you ask. Despite varying interpretations, many theologians and clergy workers argue that the scriptures provide clear evidence the answer is yes.
In an Aug. 2021 article published in the Miami Times, Rev. Alfred B. Holt lays out his position that Biblical scriptures support paying reparations to oppressed people. Holt is a minister at the Church of Christ in Perrine, Florida, located between Miami and Homestead, and holds a Master of Divinity.
“Does the Bible teach reparations? Yes, within the covenant community that was just common sense,” Holt wrote. “A more immediate issue is should the descendants of chattel slavery in the United States receive reparations under the principles of the Bible.”
Holt gives specific examples that support his case, including Exodus 12:35-36, which states, “The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so they let them have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.”
“We can follow the principle of paying reparations to the oppressed. The Egyptians paid restorative justice to the Hebrews (Ex. 12:34-35). The restorative justice that the Egyptians paid was also for the descendants of slavery,” Holt continued. “Only two of the original slaves (Joshua and Caleb) entered the promised land. The other people who entered the promised land were descendants of slaves. However, they carried silver and gold with them (Deut 8:7-18).”
It is one of the most popular scriptures used as a reference by those who share Holt’s belief that reparations are biblical. Dr. Eric Mason — founder and senior pastor of Epiphany Fellowship in Philadelphia — is one of them.
He pointed to Numbers 5:5-8 and Luke 19 to show why he believes there is biblical proof of reparations. In Numbers, the Lord commands Moses to instruct the Israelites to pay restitution to those they have wronged. The New Living Translation says:
“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: If any of the people—men or women—betray the Lord by doing wrong to another person, they are guilty. They must confess their sin and make full restitution for what they have done, adding an additional 20 percent and returning it to the person who was wronged. But if the person who was wronged is dead, and there are no near relatives to whom restitution can be made, the payment belongs to the Lord and must be given to the priest.”
This shows if the wronged person is dead, their relative should get the restitution. Mason also said this is reinforced in Luke when Zaccheus, who is a known shady tax collector, tells Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (NIV)
David Lincicum is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. He agrees with Holt and Mason, noting many ancient Christian thinkers also made the case for reparations.
“As a professor of theology who teaches about Jewish and Christian antiquity, I have studied how the logic of reparations has roots in the Hebrew Bible and in early Christian biblical interpretation,” Lincicum wrote in an article published in The Conversation.
Lincicum also uses text from the book of Exodus.
“I will bring this people into such favor with the Egyptians that, when you go, you will not go empty-handed; each woman shall ask her neighbor and any woman living in the neighbor’s house for jewelry of silver and of gold, and clothing, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters; and so you shall plunder the Egyptians,” Lincicum quotes from Exodus 3:21.
To further underscore his point, Lincicum quotes a few very famous ancient Christian thinkers including Irenaeus.
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“He [Iraneus] writes that the Egyptians held the Israelites in ‘abject slavery’ while at the same time contemplating their ‘utter annihilation.’ Meanwhile, the Israelites built them ‘fenced cities’ and made them even more wealthy,” Lincicum wrote. He quoted Iraneus as directly saying, “In what way, then did the Israelites act unjustly, if out of many things they took a few?”
Author and Pastor Thabiti M. Anyabwile concurs. In an article simply titled “Reparations Are Biblical,” Anyabwile refutes the opposite school of thought which he describes as painting “reparations as one of the tell-tale signs of ‘cultural Marxism’ and other ‘godless ideologies’ wreaking havoc on the society and entering the church.”
Making it clear his intent is to argue for the “principle [of reparations] rather than a specific policy or program,” it should be noted he does not specify his position on the latter.
Anyabwile said he defines reparations as “material and social repayment made as acknowledgment and restitution by an offending party to an aggrieved party for wrong(s) done in order to repair the injuries, losses and/or disadvantages caused by the wrong.”
Anyabwile gives credit to renowned reparations scholar William “Sandy” Darity for informing his definition. Darity and several other experts will be presenters on May 19, 2022 at The Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary 2022 Colloquium. The theme of the event is “Reparations: What Does The Bible Say?”
With this in mind, Anyabwile says restitution is indeed biblical as shown in Exodus 21-22; Leviticus 5 and Luke 19:1-10. “A grievous wrong was done in the American practice of slavery,” he said. He further noted that reparations were, in fact, owed at some point, citing Special Field Orders No. 1, , issued in 1865 –more commonly known as President Abraham Lincoln’s promise of 40 acres and a mule to freed slaves.
To show the case for reparations, specifically, Anyabwile cites Ezra 6:6-12, when King Darius “passed a law decreeing that taxes be paid by people who did not conquer or abuse Israel in order to restore Israelites who themselves were not alive during the Babylonian conquest of Israel.”
Anyabwile said, “If the Lord God himself caused a state head through taxation to require later generations of people who committed no crime to pay monies to their contemporaries who did not suffer the original crime, then it cannot be unjust (quite the opposite!) for state actors to do the same today.”
Photos: Reparations Scholars Dr. Sandy Darity and Kirsten Mullen (Justin B. Cook, photo provided) / Bible: Stock Catalog, https://www.flickr.com/photos/stockcatalog/