There is a case for reparations throughout the Bible. The Israelites believed in reparations for slaves in Israel. Jesus believed in reparations for second class citizens in Rome.
Ever since the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites – the Bible took on a very anti-slavery message.
The Jubilee laws stated that every 50 years someone would blow a horn and everyone who was working as an indentured servant/slave (due to a debt) were to be freed.
And all the land that had been bought or sold over the last 50 years was returned to its original owners.
So if your father sold the family land to pay for a camel,
you just had to wait until the next Jubilee year
to get your family land back.
Basically these laws prevented generational poverty, or at least that’s how it was supposed to work.
The problem was, that Israelites never enforced these laws. There is no Biblical or historical evidence to suggest that Israel actually enforced a Jubilee year.
The next generation never got their land back so generational poverty persisted in Israel.
But based on this biblical principle alone, is there a case for Black Financial Reparations in the 21st Century?
There are a set of Biblical laws that gave financial assets (in this case land and wages) to a new generation of children who were economically disadvantaged by the past.
And if we work from the definition of Reparations: making amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged, then yes, there are biblical laws that provide reparations.
Think of reparations from the root word “repair.” Reparations are the mechanism of repairing a relationship.
And that sounds very Christian to us.
But is it likely to happen today?
Let’s examine what this Jubilee law might look like in 21st Century America.
Reparations for Slavery
In the case of Black Americans the “wrong” that needs to be “repaired” is two hundred fifty years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow,
sixty years of separate but equal, and thirty-five years of racist housing policy for African Americans.
By calculating the number of hours all men, women and children enslaved in the United States worked from 1776, multiplied by average wage prices at the time, and finally assessing a compounding interest rate of 3 percent per year to overcompensate for inflation over the last 200+ years, the most fiscally fair estimate to date of what reparations for slavery could cost is between $5.9 trillion and $14.2 trillion.*
A Jubilee year of reparations would amount to a $14.2 trillion investment in the black community.
That should be enough to reverse generational poverty.
But alas, much like the ancient Israelites, it is highly unlikely that a reparations of this magnitude will ever be given out.
Reparations for This Generation
Now for all you Christians who are thinking: “Well hey now…there are a lot of laws from the Hebrew Bible (OT) that we don’t follow anymore;”
One of Jesus’ first major speeches was on the Jubilee year. Jesus stood up and read,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Isaiah 61)
“The year of the Lord’s favor” is a clear reference to the Reparations Laws the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 in the Hebrew Bible.
In 30 AD, the Jewish people were no longer in charge of their own land. They lived in a Roman Occupied territory. So Jesus does something clever. He quotes the prophet Isaiah (and our bible nerds will remember that Isaiah was also writing under the Persian Occupation of Israel).
Jesus suggests a more limited Jubilee year for those who are still alive. Prisoners, poor people, the sick – sound familiar? Mass incarceration, mass poverty, and health disparities disproportionately impacting the black community?
But Jesus gives no mention of land for slavery – a Diet Jubilee Year as it were.
So we ask the question again: What might this type of Jubiliee look like in the 21st Century?
Craemer’s estimates only accounts for slavery, and even that math is short 100 years – but at least he makes an academic attempt at moving the needle on economic reconciliation with Blacks.
However, many of the modern day opponents of reparations ground their argument against payback for slavery in the opinion that reparations should be paid only to those directly wronged and not their descendants. The thought therefore is since there are no living survivors of slavery, there’s no need for reparations.
Writer and thought leader on Black social commentary Ta-Nehisi Coates doesn’t let America off the hook so easily.
He writes extensively* in the The Atlantic on “The Case for Reparations,” not beginning with slavery, but starting in the 1920’s rather – long after slavery had officially ended but well into the era of Jim Crow which was highlighted by unfair and racist housing policies.
Coates writes of the often celebrated post-WWII G.I. Bill that it,
“failed black Americans, by mirroring the broader country’s insistence on a racist housing policy. Though ostensibly color-blind, Title III of the bill, which aimed to give veterans access to low-interest home loans, left black veterans to tangle with white officials at their local Veterans Administration as well as with the same banks that had, for years, refused to grant mortgages to blacks.”
Coates is saying that most black WWII Veterans did not benefit from the G.I. Bill due to systemic racism, and he’s right.
The Black veterans from the Greatest Generation did not get their house or an opportunity to earn a college degree.
The men who we built this big ass monument for in Washington D.C. did not get their money when they came home.
So is there any wonder why so many black families didn’t join the middle class?
While white families were getting jobs, earning educations, and planting roots in the suburbs, black families were struggling to put their lives back together without a college degree or guaranteed housing.
So what if we start there?
What if Christians declared a year of Jubilee and gave reparations to all black families whose grand/great grand-father served in WWII but didn’t benefit from the GI Bill?
A free college education and a house!
If we use the Jubilee math…it works out about right. The average lifespan of an ancient Israelite was about 40 years (that’s what makes that such a popular number in the Hebrew Bible). So the 50 Jubilee year was meant to kick in just as the next generation was coming of age.
As the average lifespan is now about 80 years, a Jubilee year for “wrongs” of the last 100 years sounds about right. But you don’t have to look back that far even, just look to the last 5 years.
Coates concludes his “Case for Reparations” by reminding us of the multi-million dollar settlements of Bank of America and Wells Fargo in 2011 to predominately people of color who had been awarded subprime predatory housing loans regardless of their creditworthiness, paving the way for loan default and subsequently ushering the United States into its greatest economic recession since the Great Depression.
We conclude our Biblical Case for Reparations where Coates began his case – the bible:
And if thy brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing today.— Deuteronomy 15: 12–15
As faith, specifically Christianity, was a key component in both the enslavement and liberation of Black people in America, Coates’ use of biblical scripture as his very first reference in a conversation about payback affirms our initial question: is there a biblical case for Black reparations?
Yes. Yes there is.
*Thomas Craemer University of Connecticut researcher published in 2015 in the journal Social Science Quarterly. Craemer determined this dollar amount to be a range because the hours worked varied between U.S. official establishment in 1776 (even though slavery dates as far back as 1619) until 1865 Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery.