On reparations

Jul 24, 2020 by

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The prevailing justice system of the United States (and many other countries) understands doing justice in terms of determining innocence or guilt and then applying appropriate punishment. In contrast, Mennonites, among others, promote and practice restorative justice.

Rather than defining justice in terms of punishment within a penal system, restorative justice seeks what is humanly possible to restore harm done. Restoration necessarily precedes reconciliation, for which the intended result is healing of relationships so parties can move forward in peace and equity. Calls for reconciliation without the effort to make restoration ask the victim to accept the harm without further acknowledgment.

Consider the story of Zacchaeus. We do not know what Jesus discussed with him. But after his confrontation by Jesus, Zacchaeus acknowledged his thievery, and promised to repay what he had stolen with generous interest — four times the amount stolen (Luke 19:1-9). Acknowledging wrong and acting to make it right, as Zacchaeus did, is restorative justice. In this act, Zacchaeus is reconciled to God and potentially to his community.

If white Mennonites take restorative justice seriously, they should take seriously the idea of reparations for theft of land from First Nations peoples, and for the practice of racism, white supremacy and white privilege in Mennonite history.

Like other white settlers, Mennonites from Europe settled on U.S. land “cleansed” of First Nations people on the basis of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. Mennonites ran schools that attempted to “civilize” native children by teaching English and white culture, washing out the native language and culture. Mennonite Church USA is still a largely white denomination whose institutions have functioned within the assumptions of American society’s systemic racism and white privilege.

The fact that such attitudes and actions, which existed at all levels of Mennonite churches and institutions, transpired without overt malice does not mitigate the fact that the attitudes and actions were wrong. When such assumptions and actions are considered within a framework of restorative justice, it is obvious that acts of restoration are called for.

Reparations by Mennonites should acknowledge harm both past and present, and should have real as well as symbolic value. Two suggestions come from the recent webinar by MC USA. Mention was made of a congregation that is paying rent to the First Nations people that originally lived on the land. A second suggestion was to supply scholarships for students to study their history that has been neglected in the received historical accounts. May these two suggestions stimulate a lively conversation among Mennonites about reparations.

Forebears’ sins

Some white people today will object to reparations because they did not commit these historic wrongs themselves, and thus should not be held to account for the sins of past generations. However, the description of past wrongs is not about taking people today on a guilt trip. Rather, the history exposes injustice that still exists. With that exposure, the question becomes, “How will we address the injustice that we see?”

There are welcome indications that our institutions have begun to change. However, Euro-American Mennonites must acknowledge that the sins of our forebears have implications for our present-day siblings of color. To ignore this link in a journey for reconciliation is to ask First Nations people to ignore their history — their loss of land, culture and traditions — a steep price for reconciliation with those who now occupy the land.

Reconciliation without acknowledgement of systemic racism and white privilege asks African Americans and other people of color to ignore decades of exclusion and second class status as the basis of reconciliation with white people. Perhaps most important, moves to reconciliation without acts of restoration enable the perpetrators of racial harm to avoid the acknowledgement of past sins.

In other language, the idea of reparations exists in our relationship to God as in relation to our churchly brothers and sisters. Jesus’ mission was to witness to the presence of the reign of God in a world that does not recognize the reign of God. While the witness against the powers of evil resulted in his death, God’s resurrection of Jesus validated Jesus’ life as the life of God. As we identify with Jesus and live in his life, we share in that saving moment of resurrection, beginning now and continuing in God’s future. God freely invites and welcomes us into participation in that saving element of resurrection. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, think of the father who waited for and welcomed home the wayward son.

What might be called reparations also appear in this parable. In order to experience the father’s welcome, the prodigal had to decide to leave his sordid life, return home and offer restitution to his father. From our side, like the prodigal, we need to make changes. In terms of our relationship to God, it means to repent and to make changes in order to align our lives with the rule of God.

Likewise, white Mennonites, many of whom I believe desire reconciled relationships with our siblings of color, must acknowledge past wrongs and our intent now to chart new directions. Offering reparations tangibly demonstrates this acknowledgement and commitment to transformation.

J. Denny Weaver is Professor Emeritus of Religion of Bluffton (Ohio) University. His recent publications are God without Violence, second edition (Cascade Books, 2020) which has a new chapter on nonviolent activism, and additions on black theology and the Doctrine of Discovery; and Nonviolent Word, co-authored with Gerald J. Mast (Pickwick Publications, 2020) which has chapters on how and why white churches should listen to black churches and on nonviolent activism. He is a member of Madison (Wis.) Mennonite Church.


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