The Call to Own

What would reparations look like if the church led the way?

Gregory Thompson
Gregory Thompson (PhD, University of Virginia) is a pastor, scholar, artist, and producer whose work focuses on race and equity in the United States. He serves as executive director of Voices Underground (an initiative to build a national memorial to the Underground Railroad outside of Philadelphia), research fellow in African American heritage at Lincoln University (HBCU), and visiting theologian for mission at Grace Mosaic Church in Washington, DC. He is also the cocreator of Union: The Musical, a soul and hip-hop-based musical about the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike. Thompson lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Duke Kwon
Duke L. Kwon (MDiv, ThM, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) is the lead pastor at Grace Meridian Hill, a neighborhood congregation in the Grace DC Network committed to building cross-cultural community in Washington, DC. Kwon is active in public conversations around race, equity, and racial repair in the American church, and he lectures on these topics around the country. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Christianity Today, and The Witness.

Whose responsibility is it to address white supremacy’s centuries-long theft of African Americans? Ask anyone this question today and the most likely response will be that this responsibility, if it belongs to anyone at all, belongs chiefly to the US government. This popular focus on the government is understandable. White supremacy could not have been birthed or sustained in American culture apart from the plundering policies, interests, and practices of the state. Any honest account of our nation’s racial history will lead to the conclusion that the government bears tremendous moral liability for its perpetration of mass cultural theft.

Notwithstanding the public’s broad resistance to the notion of reparations, the government has already proven its willingness and capacity to enact reparations programs. For example, in 1946, Congress created the Indian Claims Commission, which awarded approximately $1.3 billion to 176 tribes and bands for land taken by force or deception. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 provided Alaskan native tribes with nearly $1 billion along with the return of 44 million acres of land. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 provided $1.65 billion in compensation to Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. And what about reparations for the enslavement of African Americans? Eight months before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 freed enslaved people in the District of Columbia and, in a troubling twist of irony, compensated slave owners who had been loyal to the Union up to $300 for each freed slave. The question is not whether it is legally or economically feasible for the government to enact reparations; history clearly demonstrates that it is. The question is, and always has been, whether the government and the citizens it represents can muster the moral and political will to own our collective past and to devote ourselves to its repair.

Even so, the work of repairing the ravages of white supremacy is not the burden of the government alone. We believe that the Christian church in America bears a singular responsibility to address the historical thefts of white supremacy, for three primary reasons. First, the church’s fundamental mission should compel God’s people to become agents of repair in a world ravaged by theft. Second, the church’s complicated history, which tells of both its faithfulness and its failure in the face of white supremacy, demands an honest reckoning and furnishes the church with both hope and humiliation before the call to repair. Third, the church’s moral tradition, particularly its ethics of restitution and restoration, equips it with the spiritual resources with which to address this history and to begin the work of repair. Indeed, we believe that if the church were to wholeheartedly embrace this responsibility, it could serve as a servant, catalyst, and forerunner to other institutions, including the government, that may endeavor to enact reparations. The church, after all, is called in all things to be a “sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”

Blinded with the Love of Gain

In 1684, John Hepburn departed Great Britain and settled down in East Jersey, where he made a quiet living as a tailor. He arrived in America as an indentured servant and a Quaker. Both of these attributes, each in its own way, would arouse within him a moral disquietude over the enslavement of Africans—the former by fostering personal empathy for those laboring under lifelong bondage, the latter by embedding him in a religious community on the front lines of the abolition movement. Initially, however, Hepburn’s convictions, not to mention his pen, lay dormant.

But year after year Hepburn’s disdain for slavery deepened as he studied abolitionist writings from both sides of the Atlantic and witnessed an alarming number of his neighbors purchasing slaves. He also gained firsthand knowledge of the cruelties of the slave trade during frequent visits to Perth Amboy, the port city that became the center of the slave trade in New Jersey. As slavery was increasingly woven into the colony’s political economy, and as local slave codes created increasingly unbearable conditions for enslaved Africans, Hepburn grew more troubled in conscience. Finally, after thirty years of waiting silently—mistakenly, he would later confess—he could bear it no longer. Hepburn decided to publicly contend for the truth.

The result was a strongly worded pamphlet, The American Defence of the Christian Golden Rule, published in 1715. Writing out of a sense of “Christian duty,” Hepburn condemns slavery as “an abominable Anti- Christian practice” and “an Affront upon the ever blessed Messiah, and his glorious Gospel.” He enumerates the cruelties of slavery, critiques the greed of slave merchants, bemoans the hypocrisy of Christians, and calls slave owners to repentance. But the most remarkable feature of American Defence is its argument that the Bible requires a particular expression of repentance for the “inriching sin” of slavery—namely, restitution. Not only does slavery “rob men of their Liberty and Labour”; slavery also, by forcing and compelling God’s creatures against their will, entails the “Manifest Robbery” of human agency itself. “Blinded with the love of Gain,” enslavers continue this inhumane practice of robbery only in order to “highly inrich themselves by the Bargain.” Thus, Hepburn concludes, slave owners not only must repent of these sins but also must return to their enslaved image-bearers all that they had stolen from them:

I am of Opinion, that such Sins cannot be repented of without Restitution made to them that they have wronged; for until the Cause be removed, I know not how the Effect should cease. But they that live and dye without making Restitution to them that they have wronged, how they can expect the Forgiveness of God, I leave this to the Reader to judge, and then they cannot blame the Writer for a false Construction. . . . It cannot stand with the Justice of God that the Negroes or the wronged shall have no Restitution at all; and seeing then that they must be restored of the Wrongs that they have suffered, it must be restored out of the Property of him that hath wronged them; and this Property is his Interest of Eternal Life; and such a proportion of this as will be equivalent to the Wrongs done unto the Negroes or any others, must go to make up this Restitution; for they will have it.

With these words, Hepburn issued an extraordinary call. Many of his predecessors in print had urged Christian slave owners to treat their slaves kindly and to ensure that they had been evangelized. Some had begun to condemn the evils of slavery and call for the manumission of slaves. But none had publicly argued, as Hepburn did, that the Bible requires not only the emancipation of slaves but also their compensation through restitution. And yet Hepburn explained that the basic argument wasn’t original to him. He enthusiastically credits his firm belief in the necessity of restitution to two widely published sermons by John Tillotson, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury from 1691 to 1694. Entitled “The Nature and Necessity of Restitution,” Tillotson’s exposition of Luke 19:8–9 defines restitution as “making Reparation or Satisfaction to another, for the Injuries we have done him,” and restoring “a Man to the good Condition, from which, contrary to Right and to our Duty, we have removed from him.” Although Tillotson’s study was without specific reference to slavery, Hepburn maintains that the archbishop’s teaching could be soundly “applied to the wrongs done to Negroes.” He declares confidently, “I have Bishop Tillotson on my side”—by which he meant, of course, he had the bishop’s Bible on his side. Hepburn passionately urged Christians who had been “blinded with the love of Gain” not simply to see but to own—to own their self-enriching sin and to own their Scriptures. For it is in those Scriptures that they will—and we will—discover, perhaps for the first time, the call to restitution.

Owning Our Ethical Heritage

Today, over three hundred years since John Hepburn declared that enslaved Africans were owed recompense for their manifold injuries, many Americans mistakenly believe that reparations is a relatively new idea—one that originated perhaps during the height of the Black Power movement in the 1960s. Some have attempted to improve upon this historical error by demonstrating that, while it is true that many white Americans were first introduced to reparations during the civil rights era, the movement dates back to the days immediately after the Civil War when Americans sought to hold the nation to its promise of furnishing every freedperson with land and self-determination. During the Reconstruction era, organized efforts to secure compensation from the federal government soared, even as they gradually evolved into an exclusively black endeavor. However, as Hepburn’s trailblazing tract demonstrates, the belief that slaves were owed restitution was publicized fully 150 years before General William T. Sherman’s promise of “forty acres and a mule,” and 250 years before James Forman demanded recompense from the American church. Restitution for the thefts of white supremacy is an old idea. Indeed, it is older than America itself.

What is more, American Defence also demonstrates that the early call for restitution in America, like abolitionism as a whole, was originally a distinctly Christian endeavor. That endeavor remained, for the most part, in the realm of pamphlet and pen; only a small number of Christians subsequently compensated their manumitted slaves. Alas, it is also true that Christians would later be among the most vociferous opponents of reparations. Even so, we must recognize that the earliest public cases for reparations in America were made on the basis of the Bible, and thus reparations has a distinct, if forgotten, place in the history of American Christian thought and practice. Over three hundred years ago, our Christian forebears, both black and white, began to identify a theological kernel that never fully sprouted into mature, collective conviction or action among non-black (and non-Native) American Christians. For Christians today, reparations begins with a call to return to that kernel, acknowledge its arrested development, and cultivate the Christian idea that restitution is owed to those despoiled by the scourge of white supremacy.

We believe that to construct a Christian account of reparations, it is crucial that we own not only the church’s fundamental mission in a world ravaged by theft, and its complicated history in regard to white supremacist theft, but also its scriptural and theological heritage in regard to the ethics of theft. That heritage raises a fundamental question: What is morally required of those who are guilty of stealing? And it offers an unequivocal answer: not repentance alone but restitution. Indeed, the two are inseparable.

Restitution and Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus was a thief in plain sight. All tax collectors were, at least that’s what everyone in Jericho would have told you. But as a “chief tax collector,” someone who had advanced in prominence and supervised other rank-and-file collectors, Zacchaeus was one of the best at what he did. He was an expert at plundering his neighbors for personal enrichment. Such ignominious success was achieved by skillfully exploiting the tax collection system, which operated in the Roman province of Judea in the following way: Tax collectors would offer to prepay the government the duties and tolls to be collected in a district for the coming year, and contracts were awarded to the highest bidders. While they were obligated to deliver no less than the agreed upon amount, the collectors were also afforded the liberty to collect a “surcharge” from the people—whomever they could prey upon and pillage—in order to turn a much larger profit.

As one can imagine, opportunities for abuse and corruption abounded. Stationed throughout well-traveled cities like Jericho, tax collectors would regularly overcharge passersby, pocket the surplus, and, if fraud was suspected, confiscate their goods with force and harassment. Statutes that regulated these practices did exist; and taxation rates were made public and penalties for corruption were threatened. But these laws were rarely or unevenly enforced, and tax collectors themselves were “often the only ones with precise knowledge of the relevant statutes.” Thus, not unlike oppressive systems in every time and place, the despoiling practices of tax collectors in Judea, while technically illegal, were permitted by uncodified social norms and facilitated by the control of knowledge. Theirs was a dirty job—synonymous with extortion and greed, and suited, according to one ancient observer, only for “the most ruthless of men, brimful of inhumanity.”

At this point, one might notice how little our portrait of Zacchaeus harmonizes with the image of the bumbling, even mildly endearing, character that popularly lives in the minds of modern readers—minds all too informed, perhaps, by children’s song and storybook depictions of this “wee little man.” We tend to imagine Zacchaeus to be something like Joe Pesci’s character in the holiday classic Home Alone. In reality, he was more like Joe Pesci’s character in the mobster classic Goodfellas. The ancient tax collection system promoted nothing less than “institutionalized robbery,” and Zacchaeus was one of its very best robbers.

This brief sketch of Zacchaeus’s life of theft prepares us for two important surprises that are promptly introduced in the narrative. The first is the surprise of Jesus’s radical kindness. He is expected simply to pass by, but instead he stops, looks up at the “sinner” perched in a tree, and addresses him personally. This is, of course, what divine love does. Love sees, stops, and calls us by name. What is more, Jesus, in a jaw-dropping, countercultural moment, invites himself over to the tax collector’s home: “I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). In the ancient world, the giving and receiving of hospitality was a sign of intimacy and solidarity, a wholehearted exchange of friendship. Any self-respecting Jew, therefore, would have been far more circumspect with his social commitments than Jesus apparently was. After all, tax collectors were widely regarded “almost as the moral equivalent of lepers”—condemned for their habitual stealing, shunned as ritually unclean because of their regular contact with Gentiles, and loathed for their collusion with Rome. In light of these strongly held social perceptions, it is utterly scandalous for Jesus to associate with so despised a figure with such intimacy and generosity. No wonder the crowd grumbles with sharp disapproval.

And no wonder Zacchaeus’s life is so dramatically changed. This brings us to the second surprise, the tax collector’s radical transformation. Both of these surprises are closely related. As Romans 2:4 and Titus 2:11–12 clearly testify, God’s kindness leads us to repentance, and his grace teaches us to renounce ungodliness. Surely it is the kindness and grace of Jesus that leads Zacchaeus to renounce his former way of life and pledge to redress his wrongs. He stands as if to make a public vow and boldly declares, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (19:8). With these remarkable and life-altering words, Zacchaeus makes two astonishing commitments. Acknowledging that he, as a tax collector, stood at the center of an extractive system designed to plunder the most vulnerable members of society, Zacchaeus offers half of his possessions to the poor. What is more, he commits to the monumental task of returning all that he had personally stolen from his neighbors. Once a despised thief, now a beloved son, Zacchaeus promises to make restitution.

Adapted excerpt taken from Reparations by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson, ©2021. Used by permission of Brazos Press. Visit for more information.