Christian Brooks of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Public Witness hosted the first event of a series entitled “Reparatory Justice: Atoning for Injustice and Building a Future Together.” Summarizing her main point, she said, “God is calling us to reparatory justice in order to fix relationships among ourselves and, quite honestly, fix our vertical relationship with God.”
To establish the necessity of reparatory justice, Brooks spent the bulk of the event going through the Racial Wealth Gap Learning Simulation, an interactive tool developed by Bread for the World. In the simulation, each participant begins as being labeled either “white” or “black,” with Brooks going so far as to rename each Zoom attendant in order to reflect this designation. While due to the constraints of a virtual event this assignment was done at random, ordinarily a participant would assume, for the purposes of the simulation, the opposite racial identity from their own.
The simulation then describes 13 various policies, including land seizures in the 1800s, redlining, exclusion of blacks from certain benefits like Social Security or minimum wage, school segregation, the War on Drugs, and voting restrictions. With each policy, “white” and “black” participants add or subtract a different number of “land” cards, “money” cards, and “lost opportunity” cards. After discussing all 13 policies, “white” participants should have 13 money cards, 7 land cards, and one lost opportunity card. “Black” participants, on the other hand, are left with no money cards, just one land card, 14 lost opportunity cards.
Such a simplistic presentation of the complex and serious matters of racial injustice and economic inequality is concerning. For one, the simulation is unscientific and subjective. Instead of being based in real, numerical data, the simulation adds or takes away arbitrary numbers of land and money cards. In fact, Brooks later presented data from the Pew Research Center which indicates that the gap in median net worth between white and black households is around 13:1. If the numbers in the simulation were believed, the gap would be 20:1.
Moreover, the simulation does not take other factors into account, effectively implying that these 13 policies are near-totally responsible for any success enjoyed generationally by white families or difficulties suffered by black families.
And even beyond that, the factual description of each policy was not necessarily historically accurate, and there was much unconsidered overlap between different policies. For example, no mention was made of pay disparities later in life having any connection to educational disparities or neighborhood segregation, but it was instead treated as a separate and merely discrimination-based phenomenon.
Furthermore, one of the stated objectives of the event was for participants to share about what they learned with their communities. Brooks said, “Share it with your family, share it with your churches, share it with your community, talk about it over Thanksgiving dinner.” While discussions about history and societal issues are important, they are also delicate and can aggravate disunity if not approached carefully. If divisive matters are to be brought up in churches and around Thanksgiving tables, and especially if these conversations are to be directly encouraged by church leaders, they usually ought to be matters with a greater level of historical and Scriptural clarity.
Finally, Brooks’s biblical ground for her argument is taken grossly out of context. After mentioning various policies, she says, “Because of these things, we are called to atone… We have an example of reparatory justice in our sacred text.” She then references Numbers 5:5-8, a passage discussing restitution when one Israelite wrongs another, as her basis for advocating reparations.
Now this is not to say that reparations is an anti-biblical position per se, or that there have not been great societal injustices that have done black people far more harm than whites over the course of American history.
However, Numbers 5 is written for God’s covenant people of Israel, and should be understood in the context of Israel’s call to be visibly different from the surrounding pagan societies. Even more contrary to Brooks’s point, the passage in Numbers 5 makes specific reference to one Israelite wronging another. Whatever way one chooses to view generational or cultural responsibility for unjust deeds, portraying injustices wrought by policymakers of the 1860s as if an individual today bears the same responsibility for those injustices as for his or her own actions is not a sustainable moral perspective.
In conclusion, while the racial wealth gap in America may be a problem to learn about and address, Brooks’s methods are not the most helpful way to do so. Brooks admits that she grounds her ideas in critical race theory, stating, “Critical race theory isn’t a theory; it’s a reality,” and regarding her presentation, “This was filled with critical race theory.” Churches must indeed strive to have a right understanding of race and inequality, but one that is filled instead with historical accuracy, Scriptural truth, and love of neighbor.