Jim Wallis Discusses Reparations
Green has earned an undergraduate degree in Religious Studies, an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He will receive his Doctorate in Theology and Ministry this fall.
February 22, 2016
As part of the promotional tour for his new book, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America, Jim Wallis conducted an interview with Religion News Service (RNS) to discuss the content and thesis of his book. The interview touched on why Wallis wrote his latest book in addition to a number of other issues including, oddly enough, reparations.
As mentioned in my review of America’s Original Sin, I think Wallis’ definition and “proof” of racism, including his approach to ending – or at the very least, mitigating the practice and effect(s) of racial discrimination – are shortsighted and thoroughly one-directional. For Wallis, and other Christians who share his perspective on race, the task of ending racism and minimizing racial disparities – the mere existence of which, despite any and all nonracial variables that blacks contribute to these disparities – is the sole responsibility of white people.
In my view, this assessment is condescending as it stigmatizes all blacks with the narrative of perpetual helplessness. It places blacks in continual need of white intervention to do for blacks what blacks are, as the narrative intends, incapable of doing themselves. But it also maligns all white people, including white Christians, as racists who are fully invested in the maintenance of white supremacy and “privilege,” regardless of any and all actions that contradict such disparagement. To view blacks as lacking ingenuity and self-determination, while castigating all whites as racial supremacists bent on the continued racial subjugation of blacks, offends common sense and isn’t very Christian.
During the interview, Wallis takes several steps further away from common sense but more importantly, away from a Christian-infused platform that leads to racial reconciliation. Wallis’ perspective does very little to help the church, or the country, transcend racial divisiveness. As a matter of fact, I think much of what he’s encouraging Christians to do actually increases white resentment and contributes to black grievance entitlement, neither of which has offered anything meaningful to the “conversation on race.” Christians should want serious and consequential conversations about what the church can and should do to overcome racial bigotry where it exists, not wasting time with the pretense of looking busy while accomplishing very little or nothing at all.
The answers Wallis gives during the course of this interview, similar to much of what’s written in his book, gives the impression that Wallis seeks applause and congratulations for saying the right things about “racial justice,” rather than contributing to the much needed, difficult and honest conversations that both black and white Christians need to hear in our pursuit of racial unity.
For example, when Wallis was asked about why racism is the central problem in America, Wallis responded in part by saying:
“When privilege and punishment are the results of skin color, our stated values and culturally captive religion are revealed as our greatest hypocrisies. And the marginalization of people of color in our society, including millions of children who remain our poorest in the world’s richest nation, would still make the biblical prophets scream.”
You know what else would make the biblical prophets scream? The millions of parents, regardless of color, doing irresponsible things that contribute to the high numbers of children living in poverty. I think the prophets would also be concerned about the numbers of black children born to irresponsible and unmarried black mothers and fathers. The biblical prophets might also express unease in regards to how our country discourages marriage among poor people, relegating the unmarried poor, including the children they will have, to a prolonged experience in poverty, supplemented by government dependence.
I agree with Wallis. There are too many children subjected to poverty in this country. But I suspect he explains this by blaming racism or some other external forces rather than, at the very least, a combination of both external forces and individual choices and behaviors.
Wallis offers the obligatory lament of “privilege and punishment being the results of skin color” to explain and condemn the racial demographics of those imprisoned. But his complaint doesn’t carry much weight. So “privilege” and “punishment” have nothing to do with attitudes, thoughts, ideas and behaviors of those deserving of each?
In this distorted worldview, whites have privilege only because they’re white and blacks are punished only because their black. What privilege do poor whites in West Virginia, Mississippi and Oklahoma have that Asian Americans or African immigrants don’t? Reducing privilege and punishments to skin color and nothing else is silly and insults the intelligence of those listening.
As a parenthetical, I don’t understand this trend of using the phrase “people of color” in reference to blacks and other minorities. Notwithstanding word order, this is the same as referring to minorities, specifically blacks, as “colored people.” This is part of the incoherency of the racial language used by the political and religious Left. “People of color” is noble and virtuous, but “colored people” is an epithet.
Interestingly and confusingly, Wallis was asked about the idea of paying reparations to blacks. He says:
“Isaiah 58 instructs us to be the ‘repairers of the breach’ and ‘restorers of streets to live in.’ We should lift that biblical language of ‘repairing’ into the conversation about ‘reparations.’ The terrible breach of racism in America must be repaired and healed. We can’t just be sorry about what has happened and still does; we have to fix and heal the continuing racial inequities. So we should have a national conversation about what that could mean—specifically.
“… So reparations would certainly involve repairing our racialized and broken criminal justice systems, and the incredible racial disparities in our educational and economic systems… That is a conversation we urgently need to have.”
“Repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets to live in” involves, of all things, government-led monetary redistribution in the form of reparations? I could be wrong, but I don’t think that’s exactly what Isaiah had in mind. Wallis is taking a biblical passage out of context and transparently applying it to a social movement that truncates some form of “justice” to curry favor with likeminded people and to sell books.
Wallis did the same thing several years ago on his publicity tour for his book, On God’s Side when he suddenly realized the biblical understanding of marriage between a man and a woman changes for the sake of a narcissistic and morally confused culture infatuated with sexual license under the guise of “marriage equality.” He’s also used Matthew 25 as the pretext for condemning the government shutdown several years back. While labeling the shutdown, “unbiblical,” Wallis appealed to “the least of these” in Matthew 25 to justify the continuance of the welfare state as a “biblical responsibility to help the poor.”
In any case, no topic is more time wasting than the issue of paying reparations to blacks. It’s a considerable waste of time because it’s never, ever, going to happen. Nor should it.
In reality, Wallis only wants to have a “conversation” about reparations because he knows how pragmatically unfeasible paying reparations to blacks would be. Why should blacks get reparations? Who decides? Why them? How much should blacks get? Whatever the amount that’s decided, why that amount and not slightly more/slightly less? And what blacks get reparations, all blacks or just some? Why? Do African immigrants get reparations too? After all, they’re “black.” What about president Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan and mother was white? Should Obama – a man who successfully integrated one of whitest institutions in American history, the presidency, with the help of white people, and himself a millionaire – get a reparations check as well? Technically, he’s black too, so why or why not? If so, how much?
Then comes deciding the morality of who pays reparations. Will all white people be forced to pay into this reparations scheme, including poor whites? Why? What about recent white immigrants from Eastern Europe who’ve come to America over the course of the past few decades? Are they responsible too? What about Mexican immigrants or immigrants from Central and South America? What about Asian immigrants and immigrants from Armenia? Should they be required to pay into a monetary scheme to receive absolution from racial sins they aren’t guilty of committing? Or, are they also guilty of benefiting from “privilege,” thus obligated to pay? Will all of these people be forced to have their income and wealth confiscated and redistributed to atone for America’s original sin, to ease white guilt as a costly gesture to compensate blacks for racial discrimination and oppression?
What about the social welfare system that has routinely redistributed money and other resources to blacks for more than fifty years with little success? Many would call this ritual of national penance a system of reparations, and we still have racial disparities in too many socio-economic quality of life indicators. How will diverting more money and resources to blacks in hopes of (re)reshaping their collective destiny, without the necessary values and behavior modifications to accompany such a vast wealth transfer, be any different or better than what’s already been tried?
This is what happens when economic solutions are the only solutions offered as answers to moral problems. Moral problems need moral solutions.
No Christian should be talking about reparations because it’s a distraction. The effort and energy wasted on contemplating reparations should be put into commonsense ideas of what can and should be happening to rectify social and economic inequities blacks face. Much of it starts with black self-determination and responsibility, not romantic notions of coercing non-blacks to pay for alleged racial criminality and oppression.
Not only is the talk about reparations a distraction, it does significant harm to blacks. Besides allowing another fruitless vehicle for blacks to focus their attention and energies on which offers no alleviation from social and economic stagnation, the idea of reparations reinforces in blacks an identity centered in a collective sense of victimization. In no other racial group does the idea of being monetarily compensated for embracing an unproductive, self-defeating sense of victimization exist. It’s a sad reality, and truly heartbreaking, but blacks are the only group in the country, because of a distorted sense of justice, that has willingly allowed themselves to be manipulated as a group to the point of de-stigmatizing helplessness as the cornerstone of their identity. No other group celebrates a historical sense of helplessness and victimization to be used as leverage for a false sense of social power (which actually reveals powerlessness). Blacks should center their identity in Christ as co-bearers of God’s image rather than a racial identity submerged in victimization.
That Wallis, a self-identified Christian, would join in this racial scheme and racial manipulation undermines his professed concern for blacks. He simply and continually pretends to care about blacks with no regard for the consequences of his actions, or the fate of those he claims to defend.
The same goes for applying reparations to reduce the racially disproportionate numbers of blacks that are incarcerated because it is allegedly another form of slavery. How will monetary reparations prevent people with bad values from going to prison? There are a lot of people incarcerated who had acquired lots of money and wealth, legally and illegally, prior to being imprisoned. So the idea that money can cure bad values, hence bad behaviors, is foolish and only exists on the political and religious Left.
Slavery was an immoral system. Very few people dispute this. But what system of right and wrong deliberately equates the evil of slavery with rightly interning people who violate the law? Of course there are areas of the criminal justice system that need modification and repair, but Wallis and those who agree with him would deceive people into believing that the entire system is broken simply and only because so many blacks and other minorities are behind bars. They intentionally ignore the specifics of what these people did to deserve criminal detention.
Wallis’ should be encouraging blacks to start the process of moral regeneration as a cure for moral poverty, which would go a long way toward reducing the excessive numbers of black prisoners. But Wallis’ ignores black self-determination and self-reliance for passing the blame and dependency.
This leads to his comments about InterVarsity and Black Lives Matter. When asked why this controversy, Wallis responded:
“…organizationally, Intervarsity still lives in the white evangelical world, with constituents and donors who have a negative response to honest and gospel talk about racism in America. This will be a very important and revealing case — whether an evangelical group like Intervarsity can move out of their white cultural context and support a new generation that wants to embrace diversity as a gift from God.
“Of course, I support the movement. The compelling language of ‘black lives matter’ strikes to the heart of America’s Original Sin—which said at the founding of our nation that black lives and bodies matter less than white lives and bodies. That foundational sin is what white American Christians used to justify the cruelty of our most venal kind of slavery—which claimed that kidnapped African slaves were less than human.”
Black Lives Matter’s racial agenda doesn’t consist of ‘honest and gospel talk about racism’ by any stretch of religious imagination. Not even close. Wallis insinuated that if InterVarsity – and by extension, white Evangelicals in general – rejects the kind of “diversity” represented by Black lives Matter, they’re complicit in unilaterally trying to maintain racial and religious marginalization of blacks.
It’s no surprise that Jim Wallis supports Black Lives Matter. His glowing rhetorical compliments, like that which is found in his book, were delivered without a sense of irony.
At the beginning of our nation’s history, many white Christians used racism to justify slavery for numerous reasons, but white Christians were also instrumental in ending slavery as well. Shouldn’t they be given ample credit for it?
That Wallis, as a Christian, doesn’t spend more time on that inescapable fact – that his brothers and sisters in Christ were instrumental and unique in ending slavery – should be concerning to all Christians who seek racial harmony in the church.
To be clear, Black Lives Matter can continue their sleight-of-hand by using an all-inclusive phrase to fool people into thinking that it’s concerned with having a direct and immediate impact on improving the quality of all black lives. But there is no obligation for Christians to support this group as evidence that they are serious about ending racial discrimination.
Listening to progressive Christians, it becomes clearer that they are much more (politically) progressive than they are Christian.