Reparations: Four Thought Experiments
Perhaps, but it is frequently more complex than that. When we talk about reparations today—in the context, say, of slavery and racism—we are often talking about situations where the wronger and the wronged have both died. This complicates matters significantly; no individual is “making amends for a wrong one has done,” and “those who have been wronged” are not there to receive payment. So, since neither slaveowner nor slave are still alive, and since Scripture tells us that we should not visit the sins of the fathers upon the children because everyone is accountable for their own sin (Jer 31:29-30), we should jettison the whole idea of reparations and just move on, right?
Perhaps, but it is frequently more complex than that. The effects of slavery and racism continue to be felt today, for the descendants of the owners (who often still benefit) as well as the owned (who still don’t). Whether we are talking about life expectancy, average income, home ownership, incarceration rates, educational attainment, experience of discrimination, healthcare statistics, representation in leadership or something else, there remain disparities—often very large ones—between the offspring of the wrongers and the wronged. Letting bygones be bygones, and moving on with our lives as if there is nothing to see here, is not an option for the latter, and therefore should not be an option for the former.
So there is a Christian obligation to seek justice (and appropriate restitution) for wrongs which have been committed, and at the same time there is a Christian obligation not to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children. How exactly that applies to reparations today—whether we are talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famous essay, or calls for the SBTS to grant free tuition to all African Americans, for example—requires careful thought.
So here are four thought experiments, to see if they help.
1. Marc Zuckerberg defrauds Eduardo Saverin of his share of Facebook. But imagine if when Saverin sues Zuckerberg, instead of winning the lawsuit and receiving an undisclosed sum (presumably many billions of dollars), as shown in The Social Network, he loses as a result of legal corruption, and gets nothing. Saverin’s children grow up with very little; Zuckerberg’s children grow up with billion dollar trust funds. Eventually, both the founders of Facebook die. If you were discipling one of Marc Zuckerberg’s children, would you encourage them to share their father’s estate with Eduardo Saverin’s children? Why / why not?
2. A Jewish woman, whose grandparents survived Auschwitz (and had all of their worldly possessions stolen), goes into business with a German woman whose grandfather was a member of the Nazi party, and whose inherited wealth enabled her to go to a private school and a top university. Both women put up 50% of the capital to get the business started, and before long it is turning a substantial profit. You are a friend of the Jewish woman. Do you think she should ask for more than 50% of the dividends (and if so, how much more)? Why / why not?
3. One ethnic group invades the land of another ethnic group, makes a deal with them and guarantees their right to remain, and then years later they renege on the deal and kill a substantial number of them. Three generations later, the descendants of the invading nation are challenged to make restitution to the displaced people, lest they face divine judgment. Do you think the descendants of the invaders are under the judgment of God for failing to rectify their ancestors’ transgressions? Why / why not? (And if the answer is no, why do you think your answer is different to that given in 2 Samuel 21?)
4. This one is not so much a thought experiment as a real world question: Should Britain give back the Elgin marbles? Should Europe give back some, or all, of the artworks stolen during the colonial period? Why / why not?
The fifth question is simpler: are your answers different from each other, and why? What factors would change your view on the reparations due (or not) in each case?
Unfortunately, however, they do not prevent the sixth question from being fiendishly complicated (though that is not a reason for failing to ask it). The sixth question is: so what?