When we care passionately about an issue, it can be tempting to take a short cut. Don’t. You will cut yourself off from all correction, exhortation, and admonition from your brothers and sisters in Christ. And you won’t like where you end up.
A few months ago, Gregory Thompson and Duke Kwon published Reparations, a book calling for Christians to repent and to enact reparations for Black Americans. A few weeks later, Kevin DeYoung reviewed the book on his blog, prompting a response from Thompson and Kwon entitled “Sanctifying the Status Quo.” Since I haven’t read Reparations, I won’t offer any commentary on whether the book’s arguments are correct or incorrect or whether DeYoung’s review is accurate or inaccurate. I won’t even weigh in on the question of reparations for slavery.
Instead, I’d like to examine Thompson and Kwon’s response piece, because it is instructive and troubling. I hope to convince Christians that even if we fully and vocally endorse reparations to American descendants of slavery and are in complete agreement with Thompson and Kwon’s book, we must –must– reject the reasoning of their response article. Let me say that again: no matter how deeply you support reparations, no matter how much you deplore DeYoung’s review, you must not accept Thompson’s and Kwon’s argumentation.
At the outset, Thompson and Kwon affirm that “DeYoung raises important questions about reparations.” They even “happily acknowledge” that they themselves “have not fully resolved some of these questions—either in print or in private.” This is an odd admission, since DeYoung’s questions include issues as fundamental as the “nature of reparative obligation [and] when that obligation is met.” If the authors aren’t prepared to elaborate on these basic considerations, what are they prepared to elaborate on?
It also concerns me that Thompson and Kwon criticize DeYoung for being inappropriately focused on theology. In contrast, they argue that “historical, sociological, and economic realities” –rather than theology– “serve as the primary justification for reparations.’” This claim is, in itself, quite startling, since orthodoxy (right belief) must logically precede orthopraxy (right action). Before we can act rightly on our beliefs, we must have the right beliefs. Consequently, it is exceptionally dangerous to wave away theological objections on the grounds that our practices have some other, non-theological justification. Imagine dismissing the question of whether it is theologically appropriate to worship idols on the grounds that we have good sociological reasons to worship idols!
However, the most troubling element of Thompson and Kwon’s piece is their claim that DeYoung’s errors are a consequence of his “centering white theology.” Rather than answer his questions or demonstrate his theological mistakes, they focus on the ways in which DeYoung’s review “redeploys prejudicial methodology with deep historical roots in white supremacy.” I will simply quote Thompson and Kwon at some length from various parts of their article:
Put most simply, our view is this: While Reverend DeYoung’s subtitle indicates that he believes his review to be an expression of a theological project, we believe his review actually to be expressive of a cultural project that seeks perennially to justify itself on theological grounds. And that cultural project is, in one inelegant and highly disturbing phrase, white supremacy.
While Thompson and Kwon are very clear that they “don’t mean—in any way—that Reverend DeYoung, in his private views, personal relationships, or public ministry believes or behaves out of the conviction that “white” people are inherently superior” they go on to make statements such as these:
Like King’s opponents in 1963, [DeYoung] consistently privileges white theological voices, minimizes white supremacy’s tragic impact on the lives of “non-white” persons, and prioritizes the comfort of white people. And in this respect, while he does not argue for white supremacy, he nevertheless performs its most basic impulses.
The pursuit of white comfort is, in other words, the very raison d’etre of white supremacy’s existence. Given this fact, it was more than disappointing to see the prominence of this instinct in Reverend DeYoung’s review. In truth, it was distressing.
in reviewing a book whose central theme is the unjust cultural victimization of African Americans, Reverend DeYoung conjures—indeed centers—a new victim: white Americans. And in evoking white victimization he willingly deploys one of the most historically reliable tropes of American white supremacy.