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Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair

DUKE KWON AND GREGORY THOMPSON. Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021. Pp. 253. $19.39 US.

Picture this: You sit down in your reading chair with a book and expect to internally be saying, “Yep, I know . . . ,” but instead hear yourself saying, “I had no idea, so glad I now know.” Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair is that kind of book. I thought I knew why reparations should be a celebrated repair model for the wider church. However, this book clarified what I knew and strengthened my understanding of why this matter should be important to the church. Using a framework of church history and biblical stories, Kwon and Thompson argue that systemic repair is not simply a kind thing to do, but rather a Christian call to repair the damage done by white supremacy, both personally and systemically, throughout the history of the United States.

Kwon and Thompson make a well-studied, well-worded, biblical case for reparations while not shying away from the popular criticisms of the practice. They outline a call to action for Christian churches, understanding that “becoming a people of repair and engaging the practices of repair are to be done simultaneously (196).” First, the authors ask the church to see racism and white supremacy as sin (Chapters 1 and 2). Then they ask white churches to own their part in these systemic sins (Chapters 3 and 4). Lastly, Kwon and Thompson showcase how the church can look to biblical examples of restitution, restoration, and repair (Chapters 5, 6, 7).

Surveying how theft is treated in the biblical text, Kwon and Thompson illustrate ways that reparations can also be seen as a Christian call: “We believe that the Bible commands us to return our neighbors’ stolen things when we are guilty of their theft, and we believe that the Bible also commands us to restore their stolen things even when we are not (161).” Using examples from Leviticus and Numbers, the authors show that when theft was committed, repair was needed and expected (141). In an incredibly eye-opening exegesis of the story of Zacchaeus, who was famously involved in “institutionalized robbery” (138), the authors point out that he repented and then made restitution to both the poor and those from whom he had stolen (138-139). Kwon and Thompson point out that it seems clear in the Zacchaeus narrative that restitution must have been an accepted part of repentance. “Jesus, after all, did not challenge, qualify, or reject Zacchaeus’s appeal to the law of restitution and his promise to fulfill it (142).” Additionally, giving a nod to historic African American interpretation of the Good Samaritan parable—that is, how the thefts of white supremacy have left people of color by the side of the road—the authors outline how this famous parable portrays a complete arc between theft and wholistic restoration to the community (162).

In outlining historical movements, Kwon and Thompson do a fabulous job of bringing to light stories of people working to restore the harm of slavery and white supremacy throughout US history. Importantly, they illustrate that the moral worldview when the United States was formed would have called for restitution after theft occurred (152). However, during slavery, “the problem was that they didn’t believe they had stolen anything or anyone (152).” The authors show how seeing slavery and white supremacy as acts of theft helps us apply these important biblical narratives to our understanding of current issues. The stories that Kwon and Thompson exegete offer the white American church a path forward.

This path forward is outlined in ways that allow readers to not only learn but also act. The authors suggest, “Reparations is, at its most basic, a call to be a neighbor (178).” This description allows a relatability to reparations that I found inspiring. Neither I, as a Christian, nor my church, as a faithful body of believers, needs to wait for society to start repairing the harm done by white supremacy or systemic racism. Instead, we can be good neighbors in this very moment. Brethren in Christ churches are often quite conscious of the specific context in which they minister; in other words, they know their neighbors. If Brethren in Christ churches can see reparations as an outgrowth of loving our neighbors, we as a church might be able to take restitution and restorative measures in new ways.

Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair is deep, thorough, and rich. Having a group read it together, to process theological understandings and practical steps, would be recommended. This is a book filled with biblical exegesis, church history, and a call to action that allowed me to see the work of repair, restitution, and restoration in new, faith-filled ways. It strengthened my understanding to see how the biblical text speaks into creating a world of wholistic repair and restitution as a way to stand against white supremacy and racism.

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