By Wendell Griffen
What will Christians—notably theologians, pastors, religious educators, and other expositors of the religion of Jesus— do about the Jesus who strolled in Jericho on his final trip to Jerusalem to observe Passover, and invited himself to dine at the home of a fellow named Zacchaeus. Before you answer, allow me to put my question in a context you may find interesting and, hopefully, challenging.
In her Preface to The 1619 Project, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones observed that historian and journalist Lerone Bennett, Jr. documented that African people had lived “on the land that in 1776 would become the United States” since 1619, when a ship named the White Lion arrived at Jamestown, Virginia a year before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock.
For the next 246 years, Black people in this society were enslaved, kidnapped, transported, sold, whipped, raped, castrated, terrorized, and abused in other ways. Their descendants have received nothing to repay. repair, or otherwise account for the legion of wrongs they suffered. That is a colossal moral, ethical, social, political, economic, and humanitarian issue. Yet, it is one about which theologians, pastors, preachers, and other commentators about the religion of Jesus have seldom commented.
I have been a follower of the religion of Jesus since my parents and other Black elders introduced me to it during my childhood. My faith, like that of my Black parents, elders, ancestors, was forged by the religion of Jesus taught and preached from the Bible, set to music in Negro Spirituals and gospel songs, and pondered in Black congregations.
I turned away from Eurocentric Christianity almost forty years ago when I dropped out of seminary extension studies sponsored by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The prospect of being credentialed by the religious system that gave moral, ecclesial, and ethical approval to invasion of indigenous societies, land theft, genocide, chattel slavery, imperialism, white supremacy, militarism, wealth privilege, patriarchy, sexism, bigotry, and terrorism of LGBTQI persons, techno-centrism, and xenophobia was intellectually, morally, and ethically disgusting to me.
Instead, my theological perspective is bottomed on how the religion of Jesus has been interpreted by Negro Spirituals and gospel songs. My theological luminaries are Howard Thurman, James H. Cone, and South African liberation theologian Allan Boesak.
My ethics is inspired by Henry Highland Garnett, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Katie Cannon, Emilie Townes, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Cornel West.
My pastoral theology is guided by writings from Peter Paris and the examples of Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., J. Alfred Smith, and Amos Brown.
My hermeneutics and homiletics are built on the writings by Walter Bruggemann, Walter Rauschenbusch, William Sloan Coffin, William Augustus Jones, and by the work of Gardner Taylor, Samuel DeWitt Proctor, and Henry and Ella Mitchell.
These people rescued my faith in the religion of Jesus from Eurocentric Christianity with its devotion to personal, commercial, social, and geopolitical empire. I mention their names to emphasize that my exposure to their work and ministries happened outside any seminary context.
In Scripture, “righteous” and “righteousness” are words about honesty, truth, and justice. So, when Jesus pronounced a blessing on people who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” at Matthew 5:6 he was commending people who have a passion for honesty, truth, and justice.
He was not commending people who cheat, steal, lie, and misuse power to oppress others. The encounter between Jesus and the chief revenue commissioner of Jericho named Zacchaeus recorded at Luke 19 clearly makes this point. People remember Luke’s account of that encounter for different reasons. Some people are impressed by the fact that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so much that he – a wealthy man – went to the trouble (and humility) of climbing a tree. Allan
Boesak has written that Zacchaeus was so despised that being in a tree was probably the one place he felt safe. It was not just because he was a man of small stature. The people knew him. He knew he would not be welcomed by them. Why would anyone give up their place in the crowd, and their chance to see Jesus, for someone like him? Amongst the crowd, the hostility would have been palpable and perhaps physical. That tree was the safest place for him. It is also a symbol of his isolation. Amongst the poor and oppressed, those extorted by men like Zacchaeus every day of their lives, but expectant and hopeful that day, Zacchaeus would not have been made to feel welcome. 1
Some people point to the fact that Jesus addressed Zacchaeus by name, invited himself to dine with Zacchaeus, and was welcomed into the home of this rich fellow. How did Jesus know Zacchaeus? The narrative is silent on those points. We also don’t know how long the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus lasted.
But Luke’s narrative indicates that Jesus and Zacchaeus talked long enough and deeply enough for Zacchaeus to reconsider how he became so wealthy. Zacchaeus promised to refund four times the value of any of his wealth obtained through fraud – meaning through dishonest means. And Zacchaeus promised to give half of his possessions to the poor. Zacchaeus committed to transfer half of his wealth to impoverished people. The result of the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus was that the rich man voluntarily pledged to divest himself of half of his wealth and redistributed it to people who were poor.
Zacchaeus wasn’t talking about making a charitable donation to the Salvation Army. He wasn’t talking about setting up a Zacchaeus Foundation for the study of poverty. He was talking about giving away half of what he owned so that he and his poor neighbors would know income security.
The pledge to give half his wealth to the poor demonstrates what Bryan Stevenson (founder of the Equal Justice Institute) has said about poverty. According to Stevenson, the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.
Justice always is about the fair use and distribution of power and resources.
Justice always is about the fair use and distribution of power and resources. A society where some people are extraordinarily wealthy while others are poor is unjust because resources – including but not limited to money and other possessions – are unfairly withheld by the wealthy few and not redistributed for the numerous poor.
It is unjust for wealthy people to have much more than they need while poor people suffer because they do not have what they need. It is unjust for wealthy people to use their extraordinary wealth to enrich themselves rather than redistribute wealth to benefit their impoverished neighbors.
It is unjust for wealthy people to control land and refuse to share land with poor people who need housing. But that was not all. Zacchaeus also pledged to refund four times the value of anything he obtained by dishonest means. In doing so, Zacchaeus demonstrated another truth: Wealth obtained through injustice can never be justly retained; instead, it produces damage that must be repaired and wrong that must be remedied. Zacchaeus admitted that some of his wealth – including the comfortable lifestyle and the lavish hospitality he could extend to Jesus – was based on dishonest gain. To hold onto that wealth was to persist in dishonesty. To trade that wealth for more wealth amounted to earning a profit on dishonesty.
When Zacchaeus pledged to pay back four times the value of anything he had obtained through fraudulent (meaning dishonest) means, he was pledging to make reparations! Both the pledge to divest and the pledge to make reparations resulted from the deliberate encounter Jesus had with Zacchaeus.
Jesus did not go to Jericho on a whim. Jesus did not invite himself to dine with Zacchaeus for personal privilege. Jesus did not invite himself to dine with Zacchaeus to be featured in the society section of the Jericho News. Jesus went to Jericho and invited himself to dine with Zacchaeus – the chief revenue commissioner in the prosperous Jericho region – because Jesus was hungry and thirsty for justice!
Jesus shows that hunger and thirst for justice requires that we challenge the ways that wealthy people have come to control so much. What unjust conduct, policies, and practices are in place that produced the land holdings of a few and the homelessness of so many? What unjust labor practices result in so many people working so hard and remaining in poverty while a few people live in luxury without lifting a finger?
What labor was stolen? What land was obtained through oppressive methods? What water rights are held because people were cheated, or because wealthy people preyed on the vulnerability of their less fortunate neighbors? How much should be returned because it should never have been taken? How much should be restored?
What Zacchaeus said about restoring four times what he had obtained through dishonest means was based on principles of restitution and reparation. Consider these passages from the Hebrew Testament.
Exodus 22:1: When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. The thief shall make restitution, but if unable to do so, shall be sold for the theft.
Leviticus 6:5: or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt.
Numbers 5:6-7 6: Speak to the Israelites: When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the LORD, that person incurs guilt 7 and shall confess the sin that has been committed. The person shall make full restitution for the wrong, adding one fifth to it, and giving it to the one who was wronged.
We are finally witnessing people wrestling with racial injustice in ways they have not done before. However, Zacchaeus shows that, like people in a desert, they need help. They need prophetic people to show up like Jesus did and challenge them.
Jesus, the itinerant preacher from Galilee, showed up in Jericho to confront the chief revenue commissioner about being unjustly wealthy. Jesus showed up to confront Zacchaeus about having twice as much as he needed to have aplenty. Jesus showed up to confront Zacchaeus about being wealthy through dishonest gain. Jesus showed up to challenge Zacchaeus to take on a life of economic repentance that involved downsizing, restitution, and wealth redistribution.
This shows that people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, like Jesus, should confront the holders of unjust wealth. In obedience to the example of Jesus, we should challenge people like Zacchaeus to divest themselves of wealth obtained wealth through dishonest means. That includes challenging Zacchaeus people to understand that holding onto unjustly obtained wealth is a sign of moral and ethical depravity, not financial health.
In the racial justice context, this means that people who hunger and thirst for righteousness will challenge Zacchaeus people with the imperatives of restitution and reparation. That requires admitting that the wealth of our society was built on racial injustice, the original sin of this society that is embedded in its moral, ethical, religious, commercial, political, and social DNA.
It also requires that prophetic people be forthright – whether they are clergy or not – about the debt created by that injustice. Relief and rescue from the moral desert of racial injustice will not come without the kind of prophetic intervention and interaction Jesus had with Zacchaeus. It is up to prophetic people to recognize this truth and live into it.
First, we should understand the difference between “restitution” and “reparation.” Restitution refers to an obligation owed by a person orparty to repay a debt owed to or repair a wrong inflicted on another person or party. Reparation refers to an obligation owed by a society or government to repay a debt owed or repair a wrong inflicted on persons or parties. At the heart of both ideas – restitution and reparation – is the fact that wrongful conduct has caused harm, loss, injury, or suffering to another person or party (restitution) or to a group of people (reparation). Then why has no reparation been made to Black people for slavery and the racial injustice that continues from it?
One reason is explained at Isaiah 59:1-11.
See, the Lord’s hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue mutters wickedness. No one brings suit justly, no one goes to law honestly; they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies, conceiving mischief and begetting iniquity. They hatch adders’ eggs, and weave the spider’s web; whoever eats their eggs dies, and the crushed egg hatches out a viper. Their webs cannot serve as clothing; they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their works are works of iniquity, and deeds of violence are in their hands. Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.
White supremacy – the actual theology followed by this society – has shamelessly condoned and justified the greed, robbery, violence, deceit, and other injustices associated with slavery and racialized oppression of black people since its inception. When European colonizers cheated, lied, and robbed the indigenous people in this land of their land, water, and wages, white supremacysacralized the operation. European governments set up colonial governments that licensed land theft, cheating, and murdering indigenous people. People who called themselves followers of Jesus condoned it and supported it.
Then the colonizers kidnapped Africans. They set up shipping companies to transport and trade enslaved Africans. Insurance companies and banks financed the whole operation. Slavery of black people was continued openly in this society for 246 years. People who called themselves followers of Jesus condoned it and supported it.
The cover story in the June 28, 2020, issue of The New York Times Magazine is titled “What Is Owed,” and is written by Nikole Hannah Jones. She began the story with these words: “If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must take seriously what it owes black Americans.” With that introductory statement, Hannah-Jones argued that this nation must move beyond slogans and undertake deep conversation about reparations for black Americans and added this truth. “A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right.”
One job of religion is to challenge society to confront its sins and work to do right by people who have been wronged. However, religious people have shown no interest in engaging in conversations about reparations.
For example, the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845. During its 150 th anniversary meeting at Atlanta, Georgia in 1995 – almost 30 years ago – Southern Baptist messengers adopted an eloquent resolution admitting that slavery played a role in formation of the Convention. The resolution admits that Southern Baptists “defended the right to own slaves, and either participated in, supported, or acquiesced in the particularly inhumane nature of American slavery.” The resolution also laments that racism and “historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest … [have] separated us from our African American brothers and sisters” and resolves to apologize “to all African Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime…” 2
Yet, the 1995 resolution, that was drafted and presented by some of the leading theologians of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, was conspicuously – and suspiciously – silent about healing the damage, injury and harm African Americans suffered from 246 years of chattel slavery, another century of legalized segregation, and continued systemic practices and policies in every aspect of American society that are the legacy of that wicked history. The 1995 resolution did not contain a word about reparations to people whose ancestors were enslaved, dehumanized, defrauded, terrorized, and marginalized, and who continue to suffer from that blatant violation of divine love, truth, and justice.
Baylor University, the largest Baptist institution of higher education in the world, was also organized, founded, and funded in 1845 – almost 185 years ago – by white men who owned enslaved persons. Baylor is home to the George Truett Theological Seminary. But when the Baylor Board of Regents issued a unanimous resolution admitting its slaveholder sponsorship and purporting to apologize for it, the resolution did not mention anything about reparations. 3
Greed and robbery are root causes of racism and racial injustice. Slaveholder religion did not create the greed, robbery, and racism. Slaveholder religion, including religion practiced by white people who called themselves followers of Jesus, was developed to justify kidnapping, robbery, rape, torture, lynching, terrorism, human trafficking, and the other evils associated with slavery.
Greed and robbery are root causes of racism and racial injustice. Slaveholder religion did not create the greed, robbery, and racism. Slaveholder religion, including religion practiced by white people who called themselves followers of Jesus, was developed to justify kidnapping, robbery, rape, torture, lynching, terrorism, human trafficking, and the other evils associated with slavery.
We will never have a serious conversation about racial justice in this society until we talk about reparation for the moral, ethical, political, and monetary debt this society owes descendants of African people who were enslaved, robbed, raped, cheated, terrorized, kept illiterate, and dehumanized. But we will not have that conversation about reparation until and unless prophetic people insist on it.
The second reason reparations have never been paid to the descendants of enslaved Black people is that we who are black have been timid about demanding reparations. Black deference to white privilege and fear of white terrorism has produced Black self-censorship about reparations.
Black people demonstrated, protested, preached, and engaged in active measures to desegregate schools, restaurants, hotels, theatres, and other establishments. Black religious leaders joined similar efforts concerning voting rights. But Black religious leaders have not talked, boycotted, protested, demonstrated, or otherwise made demands for reparation. Religious and fraternal organizations have not made reparations a subject at local, state, and national meetings. In the same way that white religious leaders deserve criticism for failing and refusing to address reparations, intellectual honesty requires that we charge Black religious leaders for being prophetically derelict on that subject.
Randall Robinson is a notable exception. In his book titled The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, Randall Robinson makes this point unmistakably clear. The issue here is not whether we [Black people] can, or will win reparations. The issue is whether we will fight for reparations, because we have decided for ourselves that they are our due…Let me try to drive the point home here: through keloids of suffering, through coarse veils of damaged self-belief, lost direction, misplaced compass, shit-faced resignation, racial transmutation, black people worked long, hard, killing days, years, centuries—and they were never paid. The value of their labor went into others’ pockets—plantation owners, northern entrepreneurs, state treasuries, the United States government.
Where was the money?
Where is the money?
There is a debt here.
..Jews have asked this question of countries and banks and corporations and collectors and any who had been discovered at the end of the slimy line holding in secret places the gold, the art, the money that was the rightful property of European Jews before the Nazi terror. Jews have demanded what was their due and received a fair measure of it.
Clearly, how blacks respond to the challenge surrounding the simple demand for restitution[reparations] will say a lot more about us and do a lot more for us than the demand itself would suggest. We would show ourselves to be responding as any normal people would to victimization were we to assert in our demands for restitution that, for 246 years and with the complicity of the United States government, hundreds of millions of black people endured unimaginable cruelties—kidnapping, sale as livestock, deaths in the millions during terror-filled sea voyages, backbreaking toil, beatings, rapes, castrations, maimings, murders. We would begin a healing of our psyches were the most public case made that whole peoples lost religions, languages, customs, histories, cultures, children, mothers, fathers… And they were never made whole. And never compensated. Not one red cent. [Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, (Dutton, 2000, the Penguin Group, pp. 206-208)
That is what makes the encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus so hermeneutically compelling. Jesus did not shirk his moral and ethical duty to confront Zacchaeus about his greed. Jesus was not afraid to call Zacchaeus out. Jesus refused to pass through Jericho without meeting Zacchaeus, confronting Zacchaeus, and calling on him to make restitution for anything he had obtained by dishonest means.
Jesus refused to practice a religion that turned a blind eye to robbery. What about us?
Jesus refused to practice a religion that condoned wage theft. What about us? Jesus refused to back down. What about us? What are followers of Jesus doing to confront this society about the unpaid and constantly mounting debt owed to the descendants of people whose lives and labor and culture and language and ancestry and religion was robbed?
What are the descendants of those robbed workers doing in God’s name to make this society face its moral and ethical duty to make reparations for 246 years of stolen labor, another 100 years of legalized segregation, and the ongoing harms and losses associated with racial injustice?
In the summer of 2020, I preached about reparations to Black people for harms, losses, and injuries caused by this society, intentionally, persistently, and openly, because of 246 years of legalized chattel slavery, another 100 years of legalized segregation, and ongoing violations of God’s love and justice from effects of that injustice. Beginning with Luke’s account about the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus, the rich chief revenue commissioner of Jericho, I emphasized that the divine imperative that we love God with our whole being and love one another as neighbors requires that this society make reparation for the harms, losses, and injuries inflicted by this society upon Black people. And I argued that followers of Jesus have a moral and ethical duty to lead the call for reparations.
One sermon in that series pondered reparations by looking at Mark’s account about the encounter between an un-named wealthy man and Jesus that is found in the Gospels of Matthew (Mt. 19:16-30) and Luke (Lk. 18:18- 30). People have termed this the story of Jesus and the rich young ruler.” However, one of the early Christian theologians (Origen of Alexandria) recorded in his commentary on Matthew that two rich men approached Jesus as he traveled.
The lesson has several remarkable features. The passage states that a man of wealth and influence (ruler) approached Jesus, humbly knelt before him, and addressed him as “Good Teacher” before asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” The man did not appear discouraged when Jesus rejected his flattery. When Jesus reminded him about the obligation to honor God in inter-personal relationships (“You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother”) the young man declared that he had faithfully kept those requirements from his youth.
Then Mark 10:21 reads, Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Before that comment, the man seemed serious about being identified with Jesus.
But when he heard that direction from Jesus, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Mk. 10:22).
At that point, Jesus remarked to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were perplexed (the J.B. Phillips translation reads staggered, so Jesus repeated the point and drove it home with the proverb that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk.10:25).
Jesus told the young ruler to “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” Jesus did not welcome the man and “disciple him” to use his wealth to “sow” into his ministry. Origen of Alexandria wrote in his Commentary on Matthew that Jesus said to the perplexed rich man, “How can you say ‘I have fulfilled the Law and the Prophets when it is written in the Law: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’; and many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are covered with filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, none of which goes out to them?’”
What does this have to do with reparation and following Jesus? Jesus refused to allow flattery to blind him to the dramatic inequality between the rich ruler and the rest of society. He directed the man to "push back” from his wealth, to divest himself of it, and become one of the common people. Jesus directed this man to share his wealth with impoverished people. Instead, the man preferred to hold on to his possessions. The Gospels do not suggest that he ever returned to follow Jesus, despite having initially indicated he respected Jesus.
Like the rich young ruler, white Baptists who founded the Southern Baptist Convention were enthusiastic about “eternal life” and preaching the gospel of Jesus. But they refused to give up owning enslaved Africans. They refused to pay Africans for their work. They refused to treat
Africans as neighbors. To justify their greed, wage theft, human trafficking, kidnapping, rape, and the other violations of love and justice associated with chattel slavery, “rich rulers” in this society established the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. That was also the year tha slaveholding Bible quoting and preaching white Baptists who claimed to follow Jesus established Baylor University, the oldest and largest continually operating Baptist institution of higher education in the world.
Less than twenty years later, slaveholding, Bible quoting, and hymn singing white Baptists were at the forefront of what would become the deadliest war ever fought by the United States, and the last war waged on US soil, because they, like the rich young ruler, would not “push back” from slaveholder religion, slaveholder economics, and slaveholder social relationships. Let us be clear. Like the “rich ruler” who approached Jesus and called him “Good Teacher,” church folks stole the lives, labor, and livelihood of millions of their siblings for centuries.
Like the “rich ruler,” church folks were saddened about the thought of pushing back from that stolen wealth. Like the “rich ruler,” church folks since that time have tried to associate themselves with Jesus without redressing the poverty, sickness, and other results of systemic racism, slavery, and ongoing discrimination. Sadly, people who call themselves followers of Jesus court favor from “rich ruler” types to the point that congregations would rather not do what Jesus did and tell people who trust in wealth to divest and share with those who are poor. Unlike Jesus, who taught that it is hard for people who trust in wealth “to enter the kingdom of God,” people who claim to follow Jesus in this nation do not tell wealthy people to “push back,” divest their wealth, re-distribute its value to those who are poor, and live in solidarity with those who are not affluent.
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act, a law that called for $1 million reparations to be paid for emancipated Africans who had been enslaved in the District of Columbia – but the money was to go to the white people who enslaved them, worked them without pay, and kept the proceeds from their work. I do not know how many slaveowners received “reparations” from the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862. However, I have no information that any of the emancipated Africans received a penny.
The District of Columbia Emancipation Act included up to $100,000 to resettle formerly enslaved persons – but the resettlement was to be in Haiti and Liberia, not in the United States. Then, as now, church people with “rich ruler” religion weren’t told to “push back” from the stolen wealth this nation and its institutions garnered from enslaved persons.
Instead of following the example of Jesus, who confronted the unnamed “rich ruler” and later confronted the rich tax collector named Zacchaeus, church people who claim they are followers of Jesus refuse to challenge “rich ruler” religionists who do not “push back.” Perhaps that is why church folks are not “stepping up” about reparations. Perhaps we have people with “rich ruler” religion that pretends to follow Jesus while trusting wealth – even when the wealth has been obtained and is being held because of theft, not thrift. And perhaps “rich ruler religion” explains why the religion of Jesus is associated with concern for the wealthy rather than concern for the poor.
“Rich ruler religion” – religion that does not push back from unjustly obtained and held wealth – should not be associated with Jesus.
“Rich ruler religion” – religion that does not push back from unjustly obtained and held wealth – should not be associated with Jesus. And unless followers of Jesus confront “rich ruler religion,” “rich rulers” like the unnamed man in this passage and like Zacchaeus will never become people who embrace the divine imperative of reparations for the stolen lives, stolen labor, and fraud that continue to haunt our society.
I contend that the love and justice of God require that followers of Jesus join the demands for reparations for Black children of God who descended from enslaved Africans. Torah, the writings of the Hebrew prophets, and teachings of Jesus – especially the narrative in the Gospel of Luke about the encounter Jesus had with Zacchaeus, the chief revenue commissioner of Jericho – support the demand for racial reparations. I now must stress three things.
First, we must remember that reparation is a moral, ethical, and social requirement from God. Unpaid debts, unrepaired injuries, and unrequited harms and losses separate people from God and each other. That reality requires that we understand reparation for racial injustice to be a theological imperative. Wealth, privilege, and status based on violence, theft, deceit, hate, hypocrisy, and fear is never based on justice and peace. When wealth, privilege, and status are grabbed by those means the people who grab it must always depend on and resort to more violence, deceit, hate, hypocrisy, and fear to hold onto it. The Biblical lesson about Cain and Abel in Genesis 3 and the lesson about Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3 prove this point.
When Cain murdered Abel, he did not escape God. When the Egyptians enslaved and oppressed Hebrew workers, they did not escape God. In both instances, the Biblical message is that God witnessed the violence. God witnessed the theft of life and labor. God witnessed the willful disregard for God and others. And God confronted Cain and the Egyptian empire (through Moses) about that willful defiance of divine sovereignty, love, and justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the moral arc of the universe sweeps wide yet always bends towards justice. Justice requires that wrongs we inflict on others be made right. Justice requires that debts be repaid. Justice requires reparation. Because the universe “bends towards justice,” the universe bends toward reparation whether people like it or not. And until reparation is made, the relationship between wrongdoers and their victims is skewed, unbalanced, and untrue. Until reparation is made, wrongdoers must constantly fear vengeance from victims who have been robbed, brutalized, deceived, and otherwise wronged.
Until reparation is made, that fear drives wrongdoers to defend their wrongful privilege, status, and wealth by force. Violence begets more violence. The moral and ethical history of what we today call policing and law enforcement towards indigenous people in this society, African Americans, and Latino children of God is rooted in centuries of sacralized and legalized violence perpetrated by White children of God against people of color and the stolen wealth obtained and distributed on racial grounds across generations. White violence, theft, deceit, hate, and hypocrisy against people of color produced the racial inequities that ravage our society and account for white privilege. White people sanction the use of violence by law enforcement to protect property more than black, brown, and red lives because white wealth is bottomed on violence against black, brown, and red children of God.
The messages that God confronted Cain about murdering Abel and sent Moses to confront the Egyptian Empire about enslaving and oppressing Hebrew immigrants teach that wrongdoers cannot escape divine scrutiny. And those messages teach that God knows the truth wrongdoers try to deny. God knows the debt owed for taking lives. God knows the debt owed by stealing labor and land. God knows and requires that the debts be repaid, the wrongs be remedied, and the injuries be healed. Reparation is a moral, ethical, and social imperative from God, not an elective. Those who deny that truth defy the sovereignty and justice of God.
People whose greed drives them to lust after and violently grab wealth, privilege, and status must use violence to hold onto it. In a moral universe, that means they must somehow manufacture explanations to justify that violence. Greed and lust are not morally justifiable explanations for premeditated and otherwise indefensible violence.
Hence, throughout history and in every society, humans have tried to justify premeditated and indefensible violence by claiming that religion, law, manifest destiny, science (including education), and commerce uphold it. Racism and white supremacy are perversions used to justify the greed and lust of perverted religion, perverted law, perverted science, perverted history, and perverted public policy.
We should remember these things whenever we confront racial inequities and white supremacy. Religion, law, commerce, science, and every other institution have been perverted and corrupted by greed and lust for power, wealth, and status. Perverted religion, science, law, and other institutions operate to maintain and expand racism and white supremacy across generations, across cultures, and across political players.
Perverted religion, science, law, and other institutions are the “principalities and powers of spiritual darkness in high places” that followers of Jesus have wrestled against in every era and place. In the context of racial justice (both in the US and across the world), perverted religion, law, education, science, politics, and economics have always been used to justify greed and covetousness for the lives, land, and other resources of people from Africa, Asia, America, and Australia and continue to be religiously blessed and sanctioned.
This not only gives wrongdoers a false sense of merit. It tempts oppressed people to question the goodness and justice of God.
When we speak of reparation being a requirement, we should also emphasize that it is morally, ethically, and socially required. This means there must be financial reparation, legal reparation, political reparation, educational reparation, cultural reparation, religious, medical, and emotional reparation for the harm, loss, and trauma inflicted across 400 years to Africans who were enslaved and their descendants. Remember that financial, legal, political, educational, cultural, religious, scientific, medical, and mental health institutions were complicit in and enabled the harm, loss, and trauma African Americans suffer. They must also repair the damage, harm, and loss associated with their premeditated and indefensible violations of divine love and justice.
But societal institutions will not meet, let alone fulfill, the moral, ethical, and public imperative for reparation without prophetic leadership. Notice that I said prophetic rather than religious leadership. Religious institutions and their leaders are so corrupted by idolatry to greed and empire that most pastors, religious educators, and religious bodies are morally, ethically, and institutionally compromised by white supremacy and racism. This is what Robert P. Jones meant when he wrote that White Christians are Cain and have been “White too long.”
We need look no further than Al Mohler and the trustees of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the president and regents of Baylor University to see that leaders of white religious institutions have served greed, covetousness, and white supremacy, racism, and empire too long to speak prophetically about racism and white supremacy, let alone provide prophetic leadership about reparation for the harm, loss, and debt associated with it.
When it comes to racial injustice, most white religious leaders (including pastors, religious educators, and denominational leaders) are “blind guides.” They should not be followed.
The so-called Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and the passage involving Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) highlight that reparation is resisted and that prophetic efforts toward reparation are resented. In both passages, religious people who suffered from systemic wrongs perpetrated by the “tax collectors and sinners” “grumbled” because Jesus socialized with them. We should remember that Jesus did not dismiss those “sinners” as moral monsters beyond the reach and power of prophetic influence. It is easy to criticize White people for being opposed to reparations, and we should do so. But it is somewhat disingenuous to criticize White people for opposing reparations by terming them moral monsters. Moral monsters should not be expected to tolerate demands for reparations, let alone consider themselves morally, ethically, and socially obligated to meet such demands. It is self-contradictory – if not unfair – to denounce people as inhuman and then blame them for not responding humanely to moral and ethical demands for justice.
Jesus illustrated in the Parable of the Gracious Father (Prodigal Son) and his encounter with Zacchaeus that God delights in restoring broken relationships. That was the point Jesus stressed in the lessons about the widow who swept her house to find one lost coin and the shepherd who left 99 sheep to find one lost sheep and the father who welcomed a wayward son back with a feast and party.
God is obsessed with Oneness. In the divine economy, all things add up to equal One. All things are part of the One. God is One wonderful Creator over all creation, One wonderful progenitor over all beings, and One who does not rest while anything violates the relationship of oneness between God and everything and everyone else. Jesus summed up this idea at Luke 19:10 in these words: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”
We should remember that reparation is about repairing a broken relationship. Something has happened to damage a relationship. In the Prodigal Son parable, a son broke ties with his family of origin. In the lesson about Jesus and Zacchaeus, the Jericho revenue commissioner had become the tool used by Roman colonizers to exact taxes from the indigenous Palestinians of Judea.
What chance did Zacchaeus have to come to his moral and ethical senses about reparations for the unjust wealth he gained from dishonest tax collecting if Jesus had not invited himself to dinner? What chance did the people who had been victimized by Zacchaeus have to get reparations if Jesus had joined the grumbling church folks who snubbed Zacchaeus? And what chance did Jesus have to prophetically challenge Zacchaeus unless Jesus met Zacchaeus where Zacchaeus was both comfortable yet also vulnerable – in the house Zacchaeus occupied because of unjust tax collecting? Jesus did not treat Zacchaeus and other tax collectors as moral monsters beyond redemption. Instead, he included Matthew, a tax collector, among his first followers.
Reparation can be demanded from privileged people only by people willing to make the demand. However, we will not demand reparation so long as we think privileged people are moral monsters, incapable of realizing their wrongful conduct and making amends for it. Grumbling about privileged people will not present them with a moral and ethical demand for reparation. This does prevent criticizing people who hold onto White privilege. Nor does it prevent us from denouncing White privileged people who refuse to support reparation demands. We should criticize and denounce White privileged people who pretend to be innocent or ignorant concerning racial inequities long suffered by Black and other people of color. But it is illogical to condemn white privileged people as moral monsters yet expect them to honor moral demands for reparations.
At Luke 15:1-2, we read that religious critic of Jesus “were grumbling” because Jesus socialized with “tax collectors and sinners….” In the Parable involving the Generous Father who welcomed a wayward son the elder brother grumbled and refused to join the feast and celebration the joyful father hosted for his returned son. And at Luke 19:7 we read that people “began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” as they saw Jesus go have dinner with Zacchaeus.
Are prophetic people guilty of “grumbling” about the notion that the same love and justice of God that upholds the demand that reparations be paid to descendants of formerly enslaved persons also commands us to obey the example of Jesus regarding White people who enjoy undeserved privilege and the fruit of generations of societally approved oppression?
Are we guilty of writing them off as moral monsters? Are we the folks God must beg to rejoice when privileged people come to themselves and become agents of justice rather than hoarders of privilege? Are we following the example of Jesus or the “church folks” who grumbled about him socializing with “tax collectors and sinners?” We do not have a transcript of what Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about when Zacchaeus hosted Jesus for dinner at his house. But judging from the pledge Zacchaeus made about giving half his wealth to the poor and restoring four times the value of anything he had obtained dishonestly it is fair to surmise that Jesus didn’t spend the day talking with Zacchaeus about sports. Jesus talked with Zacchaeus about justice, love, and the reason Zacchaeus was scorned and considered an outcast by the Palestinian community. Jesus talked with Zacchaeus about the “great chasm” that existed between his affluence and privilege and the oppression and suffering experienced by other Palestinian Jews.
Jesus went to dinner with Zacchaeus as a prophet, not to obtain a personal favor or advantage. From that moral and ethical vantage point, Jesus pressed Zacchaeus to “come to himself” to use the words in the Parable of the Gracious Father (Prodigal Son). And like the father in that parable who restored the wayward son, and the shepherd who found the lost sheep, and the widow who found the lost coin, Jesus pursued Zacchaeus in the spirit of seeking community.
But the grumbling “church folks” behaved like the pouting elder brother in the Parable of the Gracious Father. They grumbled as Jesus dined with tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus. They grumbled about Jesus. They grumbled about Zacchaeus. Their grumbling did not induce Zacchaeus to pledge to give half his wealth to the poor and restore four times what he had unjustly taken.
We do not know if people who are “lost” because of their idolatry to White supremacy and privilege will follow the example of Zacchaeus or not in any given instance. What Jesus teaches in these passages, however, is that we who live according to the love and justice of God have no excuse for treating them as if they are moral monsters and beyond redemption. They are children of God as we are. God wants them to be in right relationship with God, with people of color, and with themselves.
The “Son of Man” came to seek and to save those who are “lost” due to idolatry to white supremacy, racism, and white privilege. Followers of Jesus have no excuse for failing to follow his prophetic example. We have no excuse for behaving as if we cannot or should not behave towards white privileged people the way Jesus did with Zacchaeus.
And we certainly have no reason to believe privileged people are going to behave as Zacchaeus did when we treat them as if they are moral monsters.
We should be encouraged by the Biblical lessons about God confronted Cain about murdering Abel, how God directed Moses to go to Egypt and lead the liberation of Hebrew immigrants from bondage, the Gracious Father who welcomed a wayward son in Luke 15, and Jesus who went out of his way to schedule a prophetic confrontation and dinner invitation with an oppressive Palestinian tax collector named Zacchaeus.
Taken together, these lessons teach us that God works on behalf of oppressed people. God works to confront oppressors like Cain and Zacchaeus. God treats them as moral beings, not monsters. And with God, they are not beyond redemption, restoration, and reclamation. With God, reparation is not only possible, but also required. With God, the lost can be found. The wayward can return. And the wicked can be confronted.
God believes in reparation. Do we? God believes that prophetic people can make a reparatory difference by confronting privileged oppressors. Do we? God believes that suffering people can be reconciled with people like Zacchaeus when people like Zacchaeus engage in reparations. Do we believe? Do we believe God can do through us what God did through Jesus with Zacchaeus?
Do we believe in God that much? If so, we should follow the example of Jesus with Zacchaeus. We should make a prophetic demand for reparation to privileged people like Zacchaeus. Like Jesus, we should make reparations part of the conversation and then watch what God does with our faithfulness to the example of Jesus.
But if we don’t believe in God that much, we should stop calling ourselves followers of the Jesus who deliberately stopped in Jericho, invited himself to dine with Zacchaeus, and stayed until Zacchaeus came to himself and resolved to make restitution for his wrongfully obtained and enjoyed wealth. If we are against reparations then we are against Jesus, and Zacchaeus, no matter what we call ourselves. So, I ask you, what will Christians do about that Jesus?
1 Allan Aubrey Boesak and Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2012), 66.
3 See https://www.baylor.edu/boardofregents/news.php?action=story&story=219403#:~:text=BE%20IT%20RESOLVED%20that%20the%20Baylor%20University%20Board,conversations%20about%20this%20aspect%20of%20the%20insti