Question: "How should Christians view the idea of reparations for slavery?"
Answer: A reparation is a compensation paid to make amends for a wrong done. The issue of reparations for slavery is a rather thorny topic. Questions rise about the morality of reparations, who should pay, who should be paid, how much should be paid, and what form the payments should take.
Proposed slavery reparations include affirmative action, monetary settlements, scholarships, waived fees, apologies, acknowledgements of injustice, and the removal of monuments and renaming of streets and buildings. International reparations for slavery have mainly consisted of public recognition of the injustice and apologies for various countries’ involvement, but not material compensation.
Many believe that slaves and their direct descendants deserve reparations because of the mistreatment they endured and how slavery has set them back. Economist Robert Browne states that the goal of reparations should be to “restore the black community to the economic position it would have if it had not been subjected to slavery and discrimination” (https://defendernetwork.com/news/national/the-case-for-reparations, accessed 5/16/22).
Some apply the idea of restoration on an intercontinental scale. In 2001, the UN-sponsored Durban Review Conference issued a resolution stating that the West owed reparations to the people of Africa because of the “racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance” that the transatlantic slave trade had caused (https://www.apa.org/pi/oema/programs/racism/taskforce-statement.pdf, accessed 5/16/22). In 2002, campaigners called on European countries that had been involved in the slave trade to pay off African debt. And in 2013 and 2014, several Caribbean countries called on the UK and other former slave-trading nations to pay reparations to their governments.
As recently as 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, reported, “Measures taken to address the past should seek to transform the future. . . . Reparations help to promote trust in institutions and the social reintegration of people whose rights may have been discounted, providing recognition to victims and survivors as rights holders” (https://www.procon.org/headlines/reparations-for-slavery-top-3-pros-and-cons, accessed 5/16/22).
Those who speak against reparations for slavery often cite the fact that those being compensated were never slaves themselves. Journalist Kevin Williamson argues, “The people to whom reparations are owed are long dead; our duty is to the living, and to generations yet to come, and their interests are best served by liberty and prosperity, not by moral theater” (https://www.nationalreview.com/2014/05/case-against-reparations-kevin-d-williamson, accessed 5/16/22). Also, many countries, including the UK, have already apologized for their role in the slave trade, expressing regret that it ever happened.
A related argument against reparations for slavery is that those who will pay for the reparations—taxpayers—were never themselves slave owners. So, people who never owned a slave will pay money to people who were never slaves, and it’s difficult to see how that will right the injustice of slavery. Do monetary reparations truly address the problem of racial inequality? What amount of money could possibly make up for the wrongs done in slavery?
The Bible does not address the issue of paying reparations to freed slaves or their descendants. The concept of making restitution was part of the Mosaic Law (Exodus 22:12; Leviticus 6:4–5; Numbers 5:6–7). Also, when the children of Israel left Egypt on the night of the first Passover, God seems to have arranged reparations for them: the Israelites “asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:35–36). In both passages, the ones paying the compensation were the actual offenders, not their relatives, generations removed. But the fact remains that restitution, as a principle, is fair and clearly taught in the Bible.
The Bible also teaches the concept of personal responsibility. God said, “The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them” (Ezekiel 18:20; cf. Jeremiah 24:16 and Deuteronomy 24:16). The Lord promises to “repay each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6, CSB). Each of these passages emphasizes individual guilt, not a collective guilt. The Lord holds the individual sinner responsible for his or her own actions.
Paul tells the church to “be of one mind, live in peace” (2 Corinthians 13:11, NKJV). Other translations say, “Aim for restoration” (ESV) or “Live in harmony” (NLT). Christians are called to restore relationships, and they should value harmony. No Christian today thinks that slavery was good; rather, believers see it as a grievous sin and acknowledge it as such. Biblical models promote restitution, and Christians should work toward healing and closure. Because of this, most Christians do not have a problem in principle with reparations for slavery. The debate centers on the particular form(s) those reparations should take—what specific policies a government or institution should enact. That is a matter that Christians should deliberate with grace, wisdom, and love.