On Responsibility, Guilt, and Reparations
Kevin DeYoung’s review of Kwon and Thompson is charitable in tone, but not in substance
Before I got the chance to read Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson’s new book on reparations, I saw murmurs across the internet about Kevin DeYoung’s review in The Gospel Coalition. I was curious enough to give the review a read and then proceeded to read the book. Whatever might be flawed with reading the review first, it certainly set me up with certain expectations for what I’d find in the book. It was those expectations — and just how the book differed from them — that brought me to write a bit about what I see to be DeYoung’s major objections with the text. Many commentators have raised eyebrows at DeYoung’s charge that White supremacy is a “nebulous” sin, and Jake Meador has issued some initial critiques of DeYoung’s engagement with primary sources. However, I want to zoom in on DeYoung’s objections about culpability and guilt, both because these are very common Christian objections to reparations and because I think they are the most egregious misreadings of Kwon and Thompson in the review. If it did not contain this misreading, the force of DeYoung’s review would be severely curtailed. I will also make some remarks on whether reparations (or other serious undertakings for social justice) constitute a rejection of the orthodox Christian story for a counterfeit eschatology.
The first pivotal quotation from DeYoung’s review I want to draw on is this: “Is it a workable ethic, for anyone, to insist that any connection to human sinfulness, past or present, renders us culpable for that sin?” I think what is particularly wrong with this quotation is the use of the term “culpable.” Kwon and Thompson were, throughout the text, quite clear that the question of reparations is much more about responsibility than it is about culpability.
To use an example drawn upon multiple times in the text, if my parent stole something and passed it down to me without my knowledge, and this was brought to account after my parent’s death, I am not to blame for the theft. I am, however, responsible to return what is stolen. The fact that this is only analogous and does not contain all answers to what is complicated about reparations is not, in the end, the purpose of this example. The purpose is to demonstrate exactly how responsibility continues to very much pertain even without culpability. Where I would argue we are culpable is when we are made aware of our responsibility and we shirk it. Of course ongoing harm creates culpability, but so, too, does seeing our responsibility to repair past evil and refusing it.
Related, but not identical, is DeYoung’s objection about guilt. He concludes his review commenting on what he calls the eschatological vision Kwon and Thompson present:
It is a vision where sin is White supremacy and salvation comes from a lifetime of moral exertion. It is a vision where the church’s mission is to change the world and heaven is a world of art studios and co-ops. It is a vision where urban renewal feels central and the grace of the risen Christ feels peripheral. It is a vision filled with many noble aspirations, but one ultimately that depicts a future where the White guilt never dies and the reparations never end.
This, in my mind, is the most dishonest thing DeYoung says in the entire review. The idea that Kwon and Thompson are advocating never-ending feelings of White guilt is only possible if you collapse responsibility into guilt. It seems to me the height of projection to say that the ongoing, long-term work of repairing very long-standing injustices means undying White guilt. Given how strident this conversation can be and what DeYoung had written here, I was personally shocked at how little there was in Reparations there was that could be honestly construed as “White guilt.”
In addition, I find the overall insinuation that Kwon and Thompson are furthering a non-Christian version of sin and eschatology to be a potshot. This is not a book of systematic theology, but one dealing with a particular social issue. Of course it’s going to speak about sin primarily in terms of the particular social issue the book is focused on. Of course they’re going to present a vision of what reparations might mean in the world. Does any of that amount to an immanentized eschatology devoid of Christ’s resurrection?
This is a charge I find particularly needling because it’s one leveled all the time at Christian socialists (of which I am one). I don’t hope to speak for Kwon and Thompson personally, though knowing they explicitly say they have hope for reparations precisely because of the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Christ, I want to perhaps draw out what I mean when I say my desire to do earthly justice is rooted in Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension—particularly the “grace of the risen Christ.”
Here, we ought to move beyond only imagining sin as a culpable act to imagining those culpable acts to be a participation in the spiritual power of Sin (Paul especially emphasizes this in Romans). When Christ died, he not only served as the perfect offering for our culpable acts: he defeated the powers of Sin and Death, the spiritual monsters that stand behind every regime of injustice. Christ, through his death and resurrection, has put us right in advance to be his putting-right people in the world. He ascended to heaven, declaring that he now has all authority in heaven and earth, and sent his Holy Spirit to indwell his putting-right people in advance of the last day wherein he will complete the victory and restore all things.
The crux is this: we know we can stand against the powers of Sin and Death in the world because they are already defeated. We are not without hope both because Christ’s resurrection is the first flower of spring out of the snow and because he has promised to fulfill his righteousness in the age to come. Our “lifetime of moral exertion” is not a burden to achieve salvation. It is how we respond in joy when we realize that we have been put right in advance. It is our charge into battle when we see that God has sent in reinforcements and the enemy will be overwhelmed. The battle is not over yet, but the victory is secure. God will take all of our work against evil and for his justice and complete it in his coming and final reign.
In short, we do not combat injustice in the structure of our society because we believe that our actions somehow guarantee the eschaton—or, worse, that we believe that our actions are the eschaton themselves. It is precisely because no matter how desperate things seem, no matter how faltering and slow we are to see God’s image in our fellow human beings—yes, even if things get worse, God in Christ has sealed the fate of Sin and Death. We imagine a just world even when it seems foolish because we remember God’s salvation in ages past and we know his restoration will come in the future. We labor toward repairing the most intransigent oppression and the most tangled history of sin because we know we battle a defeated Enemy, and that even our feeble work is empowered by the risen Christ, who by his mighty power will bring every good work to completion. Thanks be to God!
Now, do I know for certain that Kwon and Thompson were thinking all this when they claimed their hope for reparations was in Christ? Of course I cannot see inside their hearts. But the response of charity to two orthodox Christians is to assume that they are thinking more in the terms of what I’ve said above than in terms of trying to undermine our faith with an alternative religion. And it is precisely this that lingers with me after reading both the review and the book. I’ve seen many commend DeYoung for a charitable engagement with Reparations. What I see is an engagement that avoids the screeching defamation that has become increasingly commonplace among Christians critical of social justice, but nevertheless falls short of charity. The most forceful critiques he offers are built on misrepresentation and implicit accusation. Reparations is not a book immune to critique—I certainly think there are problems with the analysis it presents, particularly toward the end. But we should aim to have more, not less, at the end of our criticism than we did at the beginning. I fear that DeYoung has left us with less.