(Sunday Homily) Zacchaeus, White People, and the Case for Reparations to African Americans

reparations

Readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 11: 22-12: 2; PS 145: 1-2, 8-11, 13-14; 2 THES 1: 11- 2: 2; LK 19: 1-10.

In the June 2014 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an article called “The Case for Reparations.” There he argued that the United States owes a huge debt to African Americans. It’s a debt compounded by 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal and 35 years of racist housing policy. Until those debts are paid, Coates wrote, America will never be whole.

Today’s gospel story about Zacchaeus, the tax collector, relates to Coates’ concern.  It addresses the problem of unjustly acquired wealth and reparation. As such the reading opens a question very much on the minds of our country’s African American community as described in Coates’ Atlantic piece.

White people probably disagree. Surveys show that nearly 75% of us oppose reparations. Slavery happened so long ago, the dissenters argue. They deny that slavery constitutes a factor contributing to the contemporary wealth gap between blacks and whites. At any rate, they think reparations are impractical and even impossible. Needless to say, Christians in that group see no connection between their faith and the reparations Coates was writing about.

Today’s Gospel reading calls such convictions into question.

There Jesus invites himself for dinner to the home of Zacchaeus, a tax collector. The latter is so overjoyed by the invitation that his very first reaction is to divest himself of his wealth and to make reparations for his ill-gotten affluence. He exclaims, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”

The first part of Zacchaeus’ promise (“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor”) represents recognition on the tax collector’s part that his extorted wealth constitutes a crime against poor people in general. So it calls for general divestment on his part. He’s going to give away half of his property – half to the poor of Jericho where he’s been overseeing tax collection for years!

The second part of Zacchaeus’ promise (“And if I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over”) is directed specifically to identifiable victims of his extortion. He’ll return to them four times what he defrauded – four times!

Luke’s remembering and repeating a story where wealth divestment and reparation are the very first reactions of a rich person to Jesus’ offer of table fellowship is significant. It seems to suggest that such rectifications are not only recommended for those deciding to join “The Way” of Jesus; they constitute a requirement of discipleship.

All of this suggests that in today’s Gospel we find an invitation to open our eyes to the fact that, far from impractical, reparations are not only possible but required from people of faith. In fact, they have already been proven to work. For instance, in 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act that recognized the need to redress the wrongs suffered by Japanese-Americans unjustly interned in World War II concentration camps. Cash payments were made to survivors.

But slavery and its aftermath have been far more hurtful than that particular instance of wrongful imprisonment. Consequently, much more than one-time payments seem due to the descendants of the millions of slaves whose unpaid labor contributed so mightily to the building of America.

Reparations are also due for Jim Crow, low wages, glass ceilings, denial of loans, and segregation’s practices of red-lining. All such measures have prevented the descendants of slaves from participating in the American Way of Life that has remained largely closed to blacks.

As shown by police killings from Ferguson to Baltimore and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, as shown by the resistance of heroes like Colin Kaepernick, by the brave example of the Black Panthers (whose 50th anniversary we celebrate this year), it’s time for a national conversation on race – for a Peace and Reconciliation Commission to consider the form that long-overdue reparations might take.

Suggestions for spending the estimated $14.2 trillion owed the descendants of slaves include:

  • A federal employment program offering well-paid jobs to all our country’s poor.
  • The provision of state-of-the-art day care centers to help newly-employed parents.
  • A housing program providing decent dwellings for African Americans in urban centers now being gentrified.
  • Major upgrading of public schools attended by black children – to make them equal to those in affluent white suburbs.
  • De-militarization of urban police forces and the introduction of community controlled policing.
  • Release of non-violent offenders from prison and the restoration of their voting rights.
  • Transformation of prisons from places of punishment and degradation to centers of education and personal reform.

All such reparations are clearly possible. They will not happen without the national conversation just mentioned and without a Peace and Reconciliation Commission.

However, as Ta-Nehisi Coates says, absent such measures our country will never be whole.

Today’s Gospel reading seems to endorse his observation. It invites Jesus’ followers to lead the way.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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