By Mary Hess
I am writing this post as the trial of Derek Chauvin unfolds in the Twin Cities. There will likely be a verdict in that trial by the time this article is published. This trial has demonstrated that the problems we face around race, around law enforcement, around the deep inequities of our society, are profound, deep, and structural. That means that they are problems that have existed long before a given incident in which a police officer kills a Black person. The verdict definitely will matter to the people most directly involved, but the deeper structural problems must matter to all of us.
How are we to engage these structural problems? And what might our role as Christian Public Leaders, pastors, congregations and organizations be in doing so?
To start with, it is important to remember that we confess, we know, that God is a God of justice. Justice is a strong, powerful word. Yet there is no one word in the Bible which easily translates into “justice” in English. There are three, in particular, that appear in multiple biblical texts associated with justice: sedāqāh , mishpat and shalom.
Sedāqāh can be translated as “righteousness” and here we have to notice how “right” combines with “relationship.” This is not judgmentalism. This is not about determining who is right and who is wrong; that task is God’s work and God’s alone. Instead, this word is about how we orient ourselves towards the whole community.
Shalom also carries important connotations in this discussion, for shalom is the peace that comes along with and through justice and right relationship. Justice in this deep and holistic sense is about restoring to community, putting things right, repairing and healing our relationships with each other. Surely there is recognition of wrongdoing, and a call for repentance and forgiveness, but both lead to healing and repair. Already, I hope you can hear how sedāqāh and shalom are inviting us to think about the world we currently inhabit.
Mishpat is also a word which lays claim to the fundamental wholeness of the world and to what God does when that wholeness is ripped apart, torn by neglect or violence or any violation of right relationship. We might speak here of rectifying justice or restorative justice. God intervenes to restore right relationship, pursuing mishpat to bring God’s people back to God.
All three of these words tell us that justice is a deep and thorough form of right relationship. This is what God is calling us into; this is God reminding us that we are all part of one body, we are all interdependent. When one part of the body hurts, all of the body is in pain. When God chose to become incarnate, and then when we, human beings, executed Jesus in the most brutal way possible, God continued to call us into deep relationship. In the Incarnation God demonstrated that love has a call on us, places demands on us, well beyond the fear or risk of death.
For me, the word “reparations” is a fundamental call I hear from God; it is an ancient and future demand that we live in right relationship. And it is a promise that doing so brings peace and healing and wholeness.
So, how are we to confess, repent, and seek forgiveness from our sinful history, sinfulness that continues to be embodied in varieties of current action and current inequities? How do we build back and restore our whole body? What role might each of us, and each of our congregations, play in that repair?
There is far more that I could write here, but I want to emphasize that the process of reparations is a process well understood in government affairs, and indeed is a process the US has engaged in previously, in seeking to repair the harm caused to Japanese Americans during the internment of WWII. There is right now a bill pending in Congress, HR40, that seeks to begin this process in relation to those who were enslaved and their descendants.
We must continue to push our government towards reparations, but many of us are unwilling to wait for the government to act. One powerful example comes to us from our partner church, the PCUSA. The Presbyterian church in the US is not waiting for the government to act, the PCUSA is moving towards developing what they term “restorative action.” Restorative action is born from the intersection of theology, justice, and economics. As they write, “restorative action allows U.S. Americans who benefit from institutional racism, to provide credible witness for justice by surrendering ill-gotten gains toward the establishment of just relationships with our African American & Indigenous communities.”.
Their work has created a calculator by which each of us can consider our role in these inequities, and it invites a concrete response by which we contribute some of that wealth to a fund led by people who have specifically been harmed by this injustice. It is a process each of us can participate in to restore justice, and lean into the right relationship God is calling us to.
In doing so we step into deeper relationship, we respond to God’s command, and we are enveloped by peace and healing: sedāqāh , mishpat and shalom.
(Note: Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd and is awaiting sentencing.)
Some resources for further learning:
“The case for reparations,” The Atlantic Magazine, Ta-Nehisi Coates (2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/)
From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century, William Darity, Jr. and Kirsten Mullen (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee (Random House, 2021).
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books, 2016).
America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America, Jim Wallis (Brazos Press, 2016).