Fifty years ago a puzzle box was opened and its contents poured out on a table. The title of the puzzle—Does the Gospel of Jesus Support the Concept of Reparations?
Church leaders have tried to solve the puzzle in different ways, but without much success. In light of the House subcommittee hearings for H.R. 40 on June 19, 2019, there has been renewed interest in this puzzle. As people on both sides of the table once again arrange the small pieces, but something has caught my eye—there is a piece that never left the box: an abstract cutout on the distinction between citizenship and inheritance.
Both sides of the table agree that fealty to God’s representative ruler (i.e. faith in Jesus) is how someone becomes a citizen of God’s people.
In Genesis 17, God made a covenant to begin establishing his nation. At that time, Abraham was God’s representative ruler. For someone to swear fealty to Abraham they had to be circumcised. Thus, circumcision is equated with citizenship in God’s kingdom.
Abraham’s genetic descendants were not the only ones with access to this citizenship. According to Genesis 17:13, “They must indeed be circumcised, whether born in [Abraham’s] house or bought with money.” Also, Numbers 15:15 says, “One statute must apply to you who belong to the congregation and to the resident foreigner who is living among you . . . You and the resident foreigner will be alike.”
Today, God’s representative ruler is Jesus. Under the new covenant, swearing fealty and being counted as a citizen of God’s people is no longer based on physical circumcision but is still accessible by anyone. Citizenship, however, has never been the only part of God’s covenant.
There was a second part to God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17—land-ownership. Unlike citizenship, land-ownership was something reserved for the genetic descendants of Abraham. It was their inheritance. The concept of inheritance is almost universally left out of conversations about the gospel. It is the puzzle piece left in the box.
The sons of Abraham were the land-owners in God’s kingdom, giving them a status of authority. Gentiles, however, had no access to land-ownership even when circumcised. They were not sons. They were servants and aliens under the authority of the land heirs.
In Deuteronomy, God prophesied the future rebellion of the heirs. His response to this rebellion was spoken in 32:21 where he said, “They have made me jealous with what is not God . . . So I will make them jealous with those who are not a people.” How is an heir made jealous? Someone else gets their inheritance.
Paul references this idea repeatedly, but he is most succinct in Galatians 4:
“ . . . the heir, as long as he is a minor, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything . . . So also we [Israelites / heirs], when we were minors, were enslaved under the basic forces of the world . . . And because you [Galatians / servants] are sons [adoption / transfer of inheritance], God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts who calls “Abba! Father!” [the original heir is made jealous]. So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if you are a son, then you are also an heir through God.”
The original son in Paul’s description still resides in the father’s house, but the land inheritance that gives him authority is transferred to the adopted sons. The former servants become the land-heirs.
The land inheritance associated with authority is an important piece of the gospel-and-reparations puzzle because the gospel is not about citizenship alone. Just because someone is a citizen does not mean they have authority. So far this puzzle piece has remained unconsidered by those on both sides of the table.
In her article titled No, Christianity Does Not Support Paying Reparations 150 Years After Slavery, Laura Baxter rejects reparations when she says, “. . . America can never pay the moral debt it owes for its history of slavery . . . This is the very heart of the Christian gospel: atonement for sin must be made, but human efforts are woefully insufficient.” Baxter’s argument is based on the notion that reparations are about seeking citizenship in God’s kingdom rather than, as kingdom citizens, seeking to accurately represent the philosophy of our authority.
On the other side of the table, Wyatt Massey, in his article ‘We are therefore demanding …’ : Reparations in the Christian church, quotes Ekemini Uwan when she said, “Jesus dying on the cross repaired the break between God and humanity . . . That is the reparation.” In Uwan’s argument, reparations are about reflecting the grace shown to us by our authority. This notion is far closer to my own statements than Baxter’s, but even Uwan lumps citizenship and inheritance together.
Citizenship in the kingdom of God is a free gift of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a posture that can only be taken on by the abused towards the abuser. Reparations, however, is about transferring power from abuser to abused. When the land-owners of God’s past kingdom abused their status of authority, their land inheritance was transferred to the recipients of the abuse.
The gospel contains grace for abusers and justice for those abused. Citizenship is grace. The transfer of authority is justice.
The distinction between citizenship and inheritance in the gospel of Jesus is a single piece of a complex puzzle. As kingdom citizens with authority in the United States continue to assemble a full picture of how the gospel relates to the concept of reparations they have an opportunity to reflect on some difficult questions of their authority, abuse, and response. I do not offer answers to those questions. I only offer one more piece for consideration.
Cover photo by The New York Public Library.
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