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Reparations: Justice or Theft?



The idea of reparations has been gaining traction in the wider culture and was even advocated by some former presidential candidates. I have seen a growing number of evangelical leaders also call for reparations. The topic of reparations has entered the news again. Several people have asked for my opinion about this issue. 


The current idea of reparations is a bit nebulous. But the general idea is to take money from an entire group of people and redistribute it to another group of people — to take resources from the “oppressors” to give to the “oppressed.” There are various ways about how this would be implemented. Some are voluntary and some our compulsory, like a tax. But, what is this based on? Where is the connection? Is it all based on skin color? Do we all submit DNA tests to see who links back to the lineage of slaves (not all blacks in America were slaves or have a slave lineage) and who links back to slave masters? 


To gain clarity around the idea of reparations (or any concept, for that matter), I first want to understand what Scripture says. If we look at an issue from a cultural perspective without a biblical framework, we’re treading dangerous waters.


To help solidify a biblical case for reparations, I’ve seen some Christians point to Luke 19. Zacchaeus, a tax collector, gave half his possessions to the poor and declared to repay anyone he had cheated 4 times the amount. 


Zacchaeus' decision to give back to the poor sprang from his own conviction. Jesus didn't instruct him, nor gave him an amount to repay. It appears that upon meeting the Lord, Zacchaeus' heart was changed. As a Jewish man, he likely would have understood that God’s justice required him to give back what he’d stolen (Lev. 6:1-5). His decision to give back four times the original amount actually goes beyond what God’s justice required. Zacchaeus was expressing the depth of the conviction of his sin.


I’ve also seen a case made by appeals to Deut. 15:12-15, “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, sells themselves to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today."


This passage refers to people who bound themselves contractually, probably for economic reasons, to a master. This is called indentured servitude. We must be careful not to conflate indentured servitude with American slavery. Today, the reference in Deut 15 might be compared to signing a work contract. An indentured servant contract had expressed terms/limits—one of which was that after 7 years the contract could be “re-negotiated.” If a servant chose to leave  their master (some did choose to stay), then their master was expected to help them be able to provide for themselves. In our current culture, I consider this to be the Old Testament version of a severance package. Again there is no set amount of how much or how little a servant was to receive. This was left up to the master’s heart. 


In considering these passages, one of the themes that sticks out to me is that these acts were motivated by compassion and/or conviction, not compulsion. This is an important distinction when considering the biblical precedent for reparations. 


Both passages also show a direct connection between the person offering and the person receiving: the master offers and his servant receives, the tax collector gives and those he collected taxes from gains. This concept of direct repayment is a biblical principle that deserves important consideration. 


Now, you might ask, “What about Scriptures where it’s clearly stated, ‘he [the Lord] punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation’”? Yes, it is clear there are some sins where the consequences extend beyond the initial responsible party (i.e. the parent). My understanding of these verses is that the Lord appears to be speaking of are the sins of wickedness, idolatry, and rebellion. This is a description of judgement that God brings upon his people, not an action that believers take upon each other. It is the Lord who issues the consequence for these sins.


In fact, Deut. 24:16 states, “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin.” This verse is part of a larger passage about how Israel should live and treat one another in the promised land. It is a design for Godly justice. Justice holds each person accountable for their own sin, equally. Further, this idea is reiterated in Jer. 31:29-30, “In those days people will no longer say, ‘the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge’. Instead, everyone will die for their own sin; whoever eats sour grapes—their own teeth will be set on edge.” Again, we see this idea of every man being responsible for his own sin in Galatians 6:5, “Every man shall bear his own burden” and 2 Cor. 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” I honestly can’t find an accurate biblical warrant for today’s concept of government-collected, race-based reparations.

The only credible, biblically based, case I can see for something like reparations would be a voluntary situation. If Christians want to follow in the example of Zacchaeus, then we must remember three things: First, loving our neighbors and enemies is a unique call for Christians. It is not a call the world is obligated to follow. Christians should not use Zacchaeus as a warrant to advocate for the world to pay a government-collected reparation tax. I think it could be argued that such compulsion would amount to theft. Second, our giving should always come from a place of compassion, not from compulsion. If the Holy Spirit leads a Christian to share resources with someone else, as an expression of their own obedience, then there is certainly freedom for that. Lastly, each person is held accountable for their own sin. May our giving reflect our freedom and bring others freedom as well.