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David Brooks, Reparations, and White Christian America

David Brooks, an opinion columnist at the New York Times, has written an opinion piece describing his slow conversion to the cause of reparations. Brooks, who describes his initial interaction with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article on the case for reparations around five years ago as “mild disagreement,” has found himself as an unlikely convert and advocate for reparations as a way to begin healing the deep spiritual wounds of the nation.

In terms of having a platform with influence, Brooks is no small potato. In addition to garnering the respect of the political and cultural commentating elite over several decades of writing, commenting, and editing, Brooks has also caught the attention of Christians who lean into intellectual engagement with the world and culture around them. Although Brooks is regularly coy about discussing the exact nature of his own spiritual or religious affiliation, his engagement with Christian thought and figures has been observed with a keen eye. 

To several Christians who have been convinced of the need for a deep reckoning of the historic injustices in our nation toward people of African descent and Native Americans, Brooks’ conversion to the cause of reparations seems like the perfect convergence of divine providence. 

Yet, while Brooks’ change of heart toward the idea and need of reparations in our country is encouraging for Christians who have been “in the fight” of racial justice for innumerable and exhausting years, this quick optimism may need to be balanced with a cold splash of “This is America” realism — or perhaps more fittingly, “This is White Christian America” realism. 

‘Another One Bites the Dust’

Like the overly catchy and well-known refrain from the Queen single, White Christian America may just sing, “another one bites the dust” when events like this happen. Figures once respected as “sound,” “helpful,” or “good” to the cause of White Christian America who have become convinced of the cause, necessity, and urgency of matters of racial justice and equity will be discarded as “traitors,” “apostates,” or another victim to the wide-mouthed behemoth called “liberalism,” “secularism,” and “anti-Christian humanism.” 

Elijah Parish Lovejoy (d. 1837) was an American Presbyterian minister who became convinced of the cause, necessity, and urgency of abolitionism. Because of this, he edited and ran abolitionist papers while serving in the pastorate, hoping to spread the cause of abolitionism through both pulpit and print. His views were easily a minority position in the Presbyterian church, and a considerable number of Presbyterian leaders would have considered his abolitionist views as contrary to biblical fidelity. His support for the cause of abolitionism led to his untimely death at the hands of an anti-abolitionist mob that considered him to be a lost cause to (White) society. Yet, his death at the hands of a mob only came after his fellow Presbyterians considered him no better than dead. “Another one bites the dust.” 

While 21st century White Christian America may not express itself as a bloodthirsty mob, it nevertheless is as quick as it always has been in disowning, disavowing, and revoking respect and support for those who have become convinced of the cause of racial justice and equity. We should not be surprised if Brooks becomes disavowed like a contemporary Lovejoy in the eyes of White Christian America.

‘My Way or the Highway’

Another possible response by White Christian America is to use Brooks as a way to name and claim the cause of reparations. Reparations, of course, is a course of action to repair wrongs committed. Those who commit the wrong do not — and should not — ultimately set the terms for what it looks like to repair the damage done to those who have been wronged. Some corners of White Christian America may be sympathetic to the cause of reparations, but may end up putting it into their own corner, monopolizing the terms of repair, and setting themselves up as little saviors of America’s spiritual malaise. This “gentrified” form of reparations is just that — an influx of White Christians taking over the conversation of reparations, developing the “Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods” of Christian books, curricula, conferences, sermons, and community development for reparations while pushing out the voices that need to be at the center of the conversations — African Americans and Native Americans. 

When push comes to shove, it’s simply “my way or the highway” for this wing of White Christian America. Reparations will be done on their terms, at their timing, and at their level of comfort, security, and safety. Rebranding reparations as the new “rock & roll, jazz, and rap” of White Christian America, reparations will be the new fad until… it’s not.  

‘I Would Do Anything for Love… But I Won’t Do That’

Lastly, White Christian America may not consider Brooks as a new Lovejoy. It may not try to gentrify reparations. But, those who claim to be the most sympathetic to the cause of racial justice would do anything for love… but won’t advocate for ecclesiastical reparations. 

There is enough in American Christian thought regarding the role and the mission of the church as an institution. A sizable conviction that has roots in the founding of our country is the idea that the institutional church has no inherent or ordinary role in the civil sphere. This “spirituality of the church” gained the most development in the pro-slavery South, but found sizable — if not overwhelming — support in the North as well. 

But even if we were to be in full agreement that the church as an institution has no role in the civil sphere, the cause of ecclesiastical reparations will never gain any traction in White Christian America. 

Ecclesiastical reparations is an entirely church sphere issue, and the need for this is thoroughly documented. Churches and denominations in existence today physically barred African Americans from entering Sunday worship. Several of these institutions were created to protect the institution of slavery and the practice of segregation. African Americans — and people of color as a whole — have historically been barred from positions of leadership and full membership in the church, an issue so horrendously anti-Christian that it led to the founding of historic Black churches like the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion (A.M.E.Z.)  denominations. “The Black church exists because of the White church,” as those familiar with this ecclesiastical history would say.

White Christians in America served as elders in churches while serving on the White Citizens Councils and the Ku Klux Klan. Churches were planted, located, and relocated in areas that were statistically wealthy and White, and today, churches are strategically being planted in gentrifying areas, further exacerbating the issue.

The list of ecclesiastical sins and injustices are piled high. If Brooks can have a change of heart about the need for reparations in American society, surely the church of Christ in America can agree that we need reparations within our own ranks and to soberly address our own history. 

But, the realism of what White Christian America is and always has been leaves us with a sense of bleakness. “I would do anything for love… but I won’t do that.” Ecclesiastical reparations has long been “too radical” for much of White Christian America. 

This ultimately gets to the crux of the matter. If White Christian America can’t even be faithful over the little placed right under their nose by Jesus — the ecclesiastical reparations for racialized injustice and oppression done in the name of the church and its Lord — why should we expect that David Brooks or any other influential voice will be enough to make them faithful over much regarding reparations in our nation as whole?

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Timothy I. Cho
Timothy I. Cho
Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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