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Reparations Talk Emerges During Global Baptist Meeting

Jamaican Baptist leaders raised the topic of reparations for slavery in multiple sessions of the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance last week in Nassau, the Bahamas.

Devon Dick, a Jamaican Baptist pastor, gave a presentation on the biblical case for reparations.

And Karl Johnson, general secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Union (JBU), introduced a resolution on slavery reparations that was tabled for a later year.

“The present challenge for Baptists is that there is no place to remain silent or neutral in relation to the issue of reparations,” said Dick, the immediate past president of the JBU, during a session of the BWA’s Commission on Mission. “There is even need for greater critical self-examination in terms of the role the churches played then [in slavery] and the role the churches play now.”

The title of Dick’s presentation, “God Has Done Us an Injustice,” came from a phrase uttered by a black Jamaican Methodist leader in 1835 after being told by whites that God supported the British decree that enslaved persons serve as unpaid apprentices for four years – from 1834 to 1838 – rather than gaining freedom from slavery all at once.

That system of apprenticeship, Dick argued, was worse than slavery because masters knew they only had a limited time to get free labor and thus did not care for the enslaved as much as when they thought those workers would remain in their labor force indefinitely under slavery.

“It is a tongue-in-cheek observation because the very idea of God has the inherent quality of being perfectly just,” Dick explained about the statement by James Beard. “This remark – ‘God has done us an injustice’ – is claiming that the ruling-class god has done an injustice.”

“If God could condemn them to the system of apprenticeship, then God would have been an unjust god,” added Dick, who serves as pastor of Boulevard Baptist Church in Kingston, Jamaica. “It was not a criticism of God, but rather it was a judgment on the ruling class’s concept of God. It was to mock the planter’s god; it was a statement of defiance toward the god of the masters who was made in the image of the master, an unjust master.”

“But, alas, God was a God of justice,” Dick said of the accurate understanding of God by Beard and other enslaved Jamaicans. “And they discovered that reality through their own reading of the Scriptures and understanding of God. They knew that God wanted them to experience full freedom; God wanted them to live in a just society.”

Similarly, Dick argued that for those who profited from “the outrageous wrong of trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery” to not pay reparations is to make God out to be a god of injustice.

“Reparations is about vindication for persons who are victims and not compensated. Reparations is based on justice, which presupposes the equality of all races and equity for the disadvantaged,” he explained. “It seeks a reasonable, effective and prompt remedy for gross violations of international human rights law – under British chattel slavery – through available and appropriate resources.”

He noted, however, that reparations is about more than just money or an apology – though it includes both.

Instead, he sees it as “the restoration of dignity and recognition of the immeasurable worth of each person.”

And it looks to “facilitate reconciliation” and “transformation of community” by seeking “closure on the indignities, the discrimination, the cultural genocide, the spiritual excommunication, the rapes and the killings.”

In explaining the “Christian case for reparations” that is “grounded in the Bible,” Dick noted multiple verses, including Exodus 22:1 and Deuteronomy 15:12-13, but he especially focused on the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10.

Calling Zacchaeus one who was enslaved to money and who had therefore become isolated from God and human beings, Dick explained that “justice is about liberating the oppressed and the oppressor.”

Referencing Zacchaeus’s two-pronged economic announcement of giving half his wealth to the poor and then repaying fourfold those he defrauded, Dick said this shows “a distinction between aid and reparation.”

Thus, he urged Baptists to join the cause of justice and advocate for reparations.

“Those who struggle for justice never struggle alone, but God struggles with you. God is on the side of justice,” Dick argued. “Because of the resurrection of Jesus, injustice is on the way out and justice is on the way in. Injustice carries the seed of its own destruction because Jesus has defeated, disarmed and disgraced the principalities and powers.”

While the BWA voted on two resolutions during the annual gathering – on affirming women in ministry and on condemning religious intolerance – the resolution on reparations was not brought forward by the Resolutions Committee.

However, that announcement came with the news that a BWA commission would study the topic more fully for a future year.

Dick unsuccessfully requested the rejected resolution be read publicly during a session of the BWA’s General Council, but the BWA’s parliamentarian ruled the organization’s constitution and bylaws did not permit the reading of a resolution not coming from the committee.

Dick’s presentation on reparations came just three weeks after the Angela Project gathering in Birmingham, Alabama, focused on that topic.

And in October, the eighth annual Sam Sharpe lecture in the United Kingdom will be on the topic of reparations.

The lecture series, a collaboration between British and Jamaican Baptists, is named for a black Baptist leader in Jamaica whose strike from 1831 to 1832 helped lead to the British abolition of slavery.

This year’s talk will be given by Verene Shepherd, a leading voice in Jamaica for reparations.

Brian Kaylor

Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.