On Pardon, Reparations, and a Politics of Penitence

[1] In this essay I want to ask how a person who identifies as white and Christian might live in the United States amidst the ongoing legacies of slavery.[i] There are countless other questions before us—questions about the shape of Black lives, not least!—and I do not want to pretend that the questions of this particular essay, and the perspectives from which I ask them, are anything but limited, partial, and particular. I won’t argue or assume that questions about how to live as white and Christian in America today are the most important questions we could ask. Decentering, denaturalizing, that white pathos is one of the most important things we have to do today. But while these questions are not central or universal, they still matter as part of larger conversations.

[2] In considering this question, I find myself moved to argue that slavery and its legacies have so disfigured our collective life that a default form of Christian ethics is not adequate to the work demanded of those of us who identify as white. In particular, we won’t be able to offer Christian warrants for particular actions that, if we take them faithfully enough, will let us get it right. The wrong runs too deep for that. We’ll have to learn to live without being able to justify ourselves.

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[3] All of us who identify as white and American are implicated in the legacies of slavery. Guilt for slavery runs beyond white American identities, of course, but not before running through them. In naming this collective and intergenerational notion of sin, I do not mean to articulate and apply an abstract principle. I think the witness of Scripture points us to more particular reasoning. That witness is plural and complex. The Book of Exodus clearly articulates a notion of communal responsibility that extends through a whole people across multiple generations. God’s justice “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (34:7). Deuteronomy echoes this line (5:9-10; 7:9). When Jeremiah (ch. 31) and Ezekiel (ch. 18) revisit this proverb, they stress the significance of each generation’s own actions. Jeremiah looks forward to days when “they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eater sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (31:29-30).

[4] The teachings of the Torah and the prophets are not easily reconciled into a single voice. But they do create a coherent conversation that readers of Scripture can join as we discern faithful ways forward.[ii] The wider context of the stories around the verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy makes clear that God is not arbitrarily deciding to extend punishment across generations, for it is not just responsibility, but the effects and habits of the sin that extend through time. The people find themselves in ruts cut by their parents, and they continue to move in those ruts. In continuing in these old paths, they renew their responsibility for the sin that defines them. Just so, the wider contexts of the verses from Jeremiah and Ezekiel make clear that they are not denying that the tendrils of sin run through communities and generations. Instead, the prophets are trying to prevent the people from evading their responsibility for their own, ongoing sin by hiding behind collective guilt. They reject the people’s attempts to say that the situation they are in is not their fault, but the fault of previous generations. Jeremiah and Ezekiel look forward to a day when the proverb from Exodus and Deuteronomy is no longer spoken. But in insisting on the present generation’s responsibility for its own choices, even while acknowledging the sins of past generations shape those choices and the contexts in which they are made, the prophets share a worldview with Exodus and Deuteronomy. We might follow Scripture’s lead in stressing different parts of this worldview at different times, as the situation demands. But the compound witness of Scripture suggests a coherent vision in which we are both caught up in evil that we did not initiate and responsible for the actions we take today.

[5] We know the truth of this in our own lives. And we can see it in the afterlives of slavery that still course through every part of American society. Sometimes these connections are very direct, as in the endowments of schools and churches that were built by fortunes made by enslaving other people. But even when the dollars or institutions cannot be traced back directly to slaveholding, the connections are there. As C.L.R. James, Sven Beckert, and Edward E. Baptist have argued, slavery was the engine that drove the development of capitalism in the United States and Britain. In the most basic sense, enslaved persons, counted as property, were the largest source of wealth in the United States in the antebellum period. And the cotton produced by their labor was the largest export of the U.S. from 1800-1860—at the peak, 75% of the world’s cotton came from the American South. It was cotton from Mississippi that fed the mills in Massachusetts and Manchester. Shipping, manufacturing, retail: a whole economy was built on the backs of enslaved people. This economy required the development of a financial infrastructure that included instruments for credit, insurance, and the multinational flow of capital. The seed money and the architecture of modern capitalism could have emerged in many ways, but in fact they emerged through the slave trade. That architecture let fortunes be made, and reinvested, sparking spirals of growth.[iii]

[6] As those economic spirals spun through the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, they gained additional momentum from the ongoing effects of slavery. Chicago’s emergence as an economic powerhouse, for instance, depended on the cheap, abundant labor of the children and grandchildren of enslaved people who fled the terrors of the Jim Crow South in the Great Migration, only to live in what Isabel Wilkerson called “slave cabins stacked on top of one another.” Ongoing exploitation of Black labor made possible the growth that attracted generations of immigrants from Europe. These immigrants were also exploited. And they, too, contributed to the economic growth of the city and the region. But the process never could have unfolded as it did without the legacies of slavery in the Great Migration.[iv]

[7] As the twentieth century rolled on, housing values were manipulated by racialized redlining and discriminatory federal subsidies. Those policies generated disproportionate wealth for white homeowners, including those who might not have consciously held racist sentiments. The wealth stored in our homes is the core of whatever generational wealth there is for the vast majority of white families. The policies therefore generated much of the massive wealth gap that persists across generations of white and Black Americans.[v] Attempts in the 1960s and 70s to reform redlining ended in what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has rightly called “predatory inclusion.”[vi] These policies compounded the wealth gap between Black and white households. They reinscribed the legacies of slavery on yet another generation.

[8] These examples are far from comprehensive. They only begin to suggest the larger trajectory. But they make clear that the quantity and distribution of wealth in the United States—along with the economic dynamism that has attracted generations of immigrants—is tightly connected with slavery and its afterlives. These connections are not just historical. They have been renewed in every age. Even if our specific ancestors were not directly involved in slaveholding—even if our family came to the United States to share in this prosperity after the Civil War—we live in a world rooted in the poisoned soil of slavery and watered by recapitulations of that original sin. Our sharing in this social and economic world involves us in an intergenerational responsibility for slavery and its afterlives. It puts us in need of pardon.

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[10] Any pardon for slavery would be unjust.[vii] It would be unjust because of the magnitude of the crime. Millions of people were seized. Millions more were killed. Millions more were born, came of age, and died in slavery. Rape was so common that social customs evolved to accommodate it; torture was so ordinary that its implements could be bought and sold in public markets. Every effort was made to destroy cultures, the better to force people into new roles. The crime was so deep that a list like this one, however infinitely extended, falsifies it by failing to recognize how deep it runs. For this crime, pardon is impossible, unthinkable.

[11] Pardon would also be unjust because, as I argue above, the dehumanizing violence of slavery continues today in many forms. As both Torah and the Prophets describe, sin runs through generations to be repeated anew in later generations. It might shift its shape. The Thirteenth Amendment, for instance, made slavery illegal. But it did not end the legacies of slavery. It did not prevent prisons that functioned as plantations. It did not stop the rise of Jim Crow. It did not protect against waves of lynching. It has not stopped systematic mass incarceration, growing economic inequality, and racialized murder by law enforcement officers. It would defy justice to offer pardon for slavery when it is so deeply continuous with ongoing wrongs.

[12] Moreover, pardon would be unjust because those of us who need pardon have not consistently and publicly told the truth about the crime. Almost none of those involved directly in the slave system managed to name what they had done. And those of us who, with or without conscious intention, have perpetuated and benefitted from the legacies of slavery have acknowledged our connections to the crime rarely and incompletely. Statements are a start, but they are too rarely connected to actions that transform relationships and institutions. Meanwhile, textbooks hide brutality under silence and euphemism. State legislatures pass laws against teaching the full history of anti-Black racism. National myths of meritocracy and innocence suppress more disturbing—and truthful—accounts of reality. Everyday interactions are expected to proceed as if nothing happened.

[13] Pardon for slavery would be unjust. But this does not rule pardon out; it simply clarifies the stakes. Any real pardon is an exception to justice. Considering arguments about the impossibility of forgiving the violence done in the Shoah, Jacques Derrida argues that, “There is only forgiveness, if there is such a thing, of the un-forgivable.”[viii] Injustice is a necessary feature of forgiveness that makes an exception, for no exception would need to be made to forgive actions that could be forgiven within the framework of ethics. Derrida writes that, “If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls ‘venial sin,’ then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable.”[ix]

[14] In a string of works from the last decades of his life, Derrida resisted the concept of pardon in the name of justice, pardon that can be justified in some way within an ethical framework. One version of this offers pardon as a recognition for reparative action. Another version offers pardon with an eye to healing old wounds and creating a healthier future. But whether the justification is offered in the name of desert or utility, the argument for pardon from justice is designed to make sense within an immanent ethical frame. Such pardon becomes nothing more than the recognition that should be offered to one wrongly judged or a kind of therapy that a nation might undertake in order to heal its wounds. In both of these cases, pardon reduces to some kind of ethics. But real forgiveness, Derrida argues, outruns the limits of ethics.

[15] Both theologically and politically—for here the two run together—pardon is a kind of sovereign exception to the law. The idea of a power to declare this kind of exception has made political thinkers committed to classical liberal ideals like the rule of law uneasy for centuries. Immanuel Kant, for instance, was deeply committed to a worldview structured by a framework of universalizable norms, and correspondingly suspicious of sovereign exceptions. But even Kant saw the need to allow some room for pardon as an exception to justice. His wariness kept him alert to potential abuses of pardon. Kant called pardon “the slipperiest” of all the rights of a sovereign, for, he wrote, it involves “doing injustice in the highest degree.” Kant argued that the sovereign should “absolutely not” exercise the power to pardon in relation to crimes that subjects committed against one another, for this “failure to punish (impunitas criminis) is the greatest wrong against his subjects.” The sovereign could offer pardon “only in case of a wrong done to himself (crimen laesae maiestatis).”[x] Kant’s standard rightly recognized the enduring dignity of individuals in relation to any sovereign. The claims of wronged individuals should not simply be dissolved in a sovereign’s desire to promote social healing. The sovereign could only pardon crimes that were against the sovereign, Kant wrote. Exceptional pardon required appropriate standing.

[16] Who would have the standing to pardon slavery? Not the state, or any agent of it. For more than 200 years, slavery was not against the law. It was not a crime against the state. On the contrary, the laws of both state and federal governments tied themselves in knots to accommodate slavery. The state as it was constituted then cannot claim injury. And, without the kind of radical discontinuity that founds a new state that represents those who were injured—the kind of discontinuity brought by the revolution in Haiti, for instance—the state lacks the standing to pardon slavery now. State pardon for slavery would be the embodiment of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called billige Gnade, cheap grace, the kind of grace people bestow upon themselves. It would not be pardon at all.[xi]

[17] Because every part of the government of the United States lacks the sovereign standing necessary to pardon slavery, our body politic staggers with an open wound. The need for pardon is not diminished by the fact that it cannot be offered. And seeing this need, this open wound, brings a richer understanding of why national life displays the pathologies it does and what kind of politics it might take to mend them. The United States lives in need of a grace we cannot give ourselves.

[18] Churches in the United States cannot perform the necessary act of pardon any more than the state can. Churches with white majorities are too deeply implicated in the crime to pardon it. And both Black- and white-majority churches lack the standing to offer pardon on behalf of the many millions gone, especially as many of those millions did not identify themselves as members of any church, let alone as members of one church that could speak for all. No church body possesses the standing that would come with representing all those harmed by slavery. No church could speak for all those who would need to be involved in an act of pardon. The church confronts, in itself, both the need for pardon and the inability to pronounce it.

[19] Nor can any individual, not even a descendent of enslaved people, offer pardon for the whole of the crime. The group of people who have suffered under slavery and its legacies is too diverse—across cultures, continents, and centuries—for a single person or even single group to speak for them. No person, no matter how saintly, could have the standing to speak for the whole. To argue that no individual has the standing to offer a complete pardon is not to minimize the significance of individual offerings of reconciliation. Reconciliations like those offered to white supremacist Dylann Roof by the families of the Black people he murdered, or those offered to many more of us by friends and colleagues who decide to stay in relationship with us despite our larger and smaller aggressions, are miracles of grace. They should be received with wonder and thanksgiving. But even a million such miracles could not add up to the fullness of collective pardon for slavery.

[20] If we dare to hope that God might have the power to offer such a pardon, then we commit ourselves to a distinct vision of God. For not just any God would have the standing to offer pardon. Pardon could only be given by a God who had been seized in the night, chained in the hold of a ship, sold at auction, separated from family, raped at gunpoint, worked to death, and buried in an unmarked grave. It could only be given by a God who had found ways to survive, even to thrive, when these things were impossible. It could only be given by a God whose law was broken by every moment of the slave system. It could only be given by a God bound so closely to all those who suffered that it would not compound the sin to say that God endured the suffering in God’s own flesh. The possibility of pardon commits us to such an understanding of God. And if such a God decided to offer pardon, it could only come by God’s free decision in God’s own time.

[21] As a white person, as a person nurtured by and implicated in a world built on slavery, I can neither presume nor proclaim a pardon for slavery. Even if my baptismal and ordination vows commit me to living as an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), I do not have the standing to declare this particular pardon. Instead of the raised hand of absolution, the only fitting posture involves the cupped, empty hands of a person in need. We are beggars, this is true.[xii]

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[22] Those of us who live in need of pardon are called to a politics of penitence. Sincere prayers of penitence take embodied form. They involve us in the work of telling the truth about what has happened, taking responsibility for what we have done and how we have benefited, working to break the cycles of injustice, and taking action to repair the harm that has been done. This politics of penitence is piecemeal, for the whole is broken in ways we cannot restore. We cannot do all that we would have to do to justify pardon. But we do not take these actions to deserve a pardon we cannot earn. And we do not engage in them because we believe we can set things right. We do not even pursue them in order to act as morally as we can under conditions of sin and finitude. These prayers of penitence have a different kind of logic.

[23] Often the logic of Christian ethics takes a form like this: On the basis of Scripture, tradition, reasoning about the nature of God, or some other source of authority, we offer Christian (or Christian-ish) warrants for some ethical maxim. We then try to apply that maxim in our situation, as best we can. If we could fulfill that maxim perfectly, we would be doing the right thing. But even if we can’t fulfill it, we should move towards it. For example: the Bible calls us to provide for the needs of poor people, and so we open a shelter for people experiencing homelessness and we work for more affordable housing. Our efforts are flawed in all kinds of ways. They do not eliminate poverty, inequality, or undesired homelessness. But they are incremental steps towards fulfilling the biblical mandate. They represent a kind of progress towards the good, and that progress justifies the actions.

[24] The logic of penitence is very different. The logic of penitence begins with the fundamental unjustness of pardon. Even if we take actions in the present that can be justified ethically, they do not justify pardon. Thinking that ethical actions might justify pardon is a kind of category mistake. It’s not that these things aren’t good to do; it’s that even if we do them, they don’t amount to a justification for pardon of past sin. And so it makes no sense to think of our actions as even partial fulfillment of the requirements for pardon. We might take incremental steps towards a more just order, but not towards making ourselves worthy of pardon. In penitence we simply cast ourselves on the mercy of God. Our actions are necessarily incomplete, radically open in awaiting divine response.

[25] A politics of penitence pursues things like reparations as an active form of waiting. There are no reparations that are so comprehensive that they could justify pardon. The damage done runs beyond what even the wealth of the richest nation in the history of the world could mend. Even after massive reparations, pardon would still offend justice. To say that reparations could not make complete atonement for the crimes of slavery is not to argue that reparations should not be demanded and paid. On the contrary, we should do everything we can to name the harms done and offer whatever redress we can. This is not a one-time act that checks a box and authorizes everyone move on. It is rather a continuing process of steady attention to an open wound. While these necessarily piecemeal reparations are incomplete, they still matter very much. Even reparations that would not completely repair the damage done could do great good. They could acknowledge a wrong. They could help individuals who suffer from a legacy of harm. They could loosen the grip of myths of white innocence, pushing those of us who are white to reckon with the truth. They could help establish what justice is possible in this world. But they would still leave a gap that it would be unjust for pardon to bridge.[xiii]

[26] The endurance of that gap is a defining feature of the politics of penitence, and consciousness of it generates a distinct set of affects. The logic of fulfilling some ethical obligation can invite a sense of superiority. Even if we know we haven’t done it perfectly, even if we attribute our good work to God, there is a sense in which it really is better to have done something than nothing. It is hard for that better-ness not to spill over into a politics that makes distinctions between ourselves and others. The logic of penitence doesn’t refuse this so much as it takes a different path entirely. For when we pursue something like reparations not as “the right thing to do” but as an act of penitence, we do not leave the identity of sinner behind, even a little bit. Instead we acknowledge it more deeply. This accords with my own experience with a politics of piecemeal repair for the violence of white supremacy. The inadequate actions that I have taken in my attempts at penitence—actions like truth-telling, deep listening, and making reparations—end up opening my eyes more fully to the depth of the harm in which I am implicated. The politics of penitence do not tempt us to think of ourselves as better than others, or even better than our former selves. They sharpen our awareness of our need for grace.

[27] I think this affective shift is especially important now, when the necessary work of reparations is getting hijacked by a wicked combination of empty virtue-signaling and deep resentment as white people jostle with one another. The virtue-signaling comes as white individuals and predominantly white corporations, churches, schools, and other bodies perform righteousness in relation to racial justice as work that differentiates them—us—from the less enlightened. Not all white work for racial justice can be discounted as part of this dynamic, despite the efforts of some critics. But the dynamic is real. Indeed, it has become one of the main ways to display a kind of cultural capital that is recognized even by those who resent it. Actions that are worth taking on their own terms get twisted as they are used in status competitions among white people and institutions. Consider, for example, the statements issued by corporations like Apple and Amazon in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Closer to home for those of us committed to the church, consider the ways congregations boast of the diversity of their memberships and seminaries boast of the diversity of their faculty and student bodies. These can be good things. But they can also get twisted when they are overdetermined by concerns for white self-presentation. The legitimate concerns of actually existing Black people get neglected when white work for racial justice gets transmogrified into one more way for white people to compare ourselves to one another.

[28] From within that same worldview, those who display less commitment to racial justice often come to resent those who have status over them on this scale. In naming these cycles of resentment and contempt between white people, I do not mean to ignore the very real hate white people can have for Black people and other minoritized racial/ethnic groups. (In Georgia, where I live, there is a lot of hate from white Trump supporters for white Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff. But it’s nothing compared to the furious hatred directed at Black Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock.) I just mean to name another current in this toxic river: the resentment of white people for other white people who gain status advantages over them because of their positions in relation to racial justice. The harms of white supremacy are difficult enough to undo. This dynamic impedes collective action, creates obstacles to repentance, and makes real redress even more difficult. Framing reparations as part of a politics of penitence won’t automatically eliminate the problem. But shifting the affect towards a deepening awareness of one’s need for forgiveness—towards compunction—could be a step in the right direction.

[29] The affect I’m trying to describe—the affect of penitence—is not reducible to white guilt. Austin Channing Brown rightly names white guilt as “white fragility’s cousin.” “I used to interpret white guilt as an early sign of a change in heart,” she writes, “A glimpse that a movie, program, or speaker had broken through and was producing a changed mind. While that may or may not be true, for those on the receiving end, white guilt is like having tar dry all over your hands and heart. It takes so much work to peel off the layers, rub away the stickiness, get rid of the smell. Unsolicited confessions inspired by a sense of guilt are often poured over Black bodies in search of their own relief. [xiv] This she writes, is what makes white guilt—like white fragility—“so damn dangerous. It ignores the personhood of people of color and instead makes the feelings of whiteness the most important thing.”[xv]

[30] Brown’s insights help refine what penitence means. If it is turned inward, focused on a white self caught up in a solipsistic drama of purity and guilt, it is like what Paul called the “worldly grief” that produces death. The Godly grief of penitence, on the other hand, “leads to salvation and brings no regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). The Godly grief of penitence gives up on the work of justifying ourselves to focus on the lives of others. It attends to the voices of others and seeks the well-being of others—as they define what well-being means for them. And it does these things not because they are ethical, but because they are the form that prayers of penitence take. Reparations are what faithful prayers of penitence sound like.

[31] A politics of penitence thus takes a different form than politics as what Raymond Geuss has called “applied ethics.” Geuss is criticizing the understanding of politics as the conceiving of abstract ethical norms and then applying those norms to situations. He doesn’t just historicize the anthropological assumptions that are treated as universals in moves like the “original position” of John Rawls. He historicizes the whole drive to work in this way—to do politics as a kind of applied moral philosophy—arguing that it projects a particular kind of subjectivity that obscures the very forces that create and sustain that subjectivity. Instead, he writes, “To think politically is to think about agency, power, and interests, and the relations among these.”[xvi] It means taking seriously the needs, interests, and motives people actually have. And it means attending to the different structures of legitimation that prevail at different times. Geuss is no relativist, and his vision is not for mere description. His book burns with normative heat. He’s just arguing that norms need to be worked out in and in spite of history, not applied to history.

[33] I’m sympathetic with this vision, and I think it is especially helpful for thinking through a politics of penitence, because a politics of penitence begins in media res. Subjects pursuing this kind of politics (necessarily) have a past. We are mindful of a past that precedes us and forms us and shapes the world in which we act. This history matters politically, as the record of harm, violence, privilege, and advantage informs both the content and the direction of a politics of penitence. It shapes our sense of what we owe to whom in the work of redress and repair. Reparations only make sense in history.

[34] A clever ethicist could of course come up with an argument for a general principle that held that reparations were owed when certain conditions were met and then apply that norm to the United States today. But this move feels unnecessarily complicated. Why leap up to the level of abstract principle—the level of ideology—when we can argue for reparations from the ground of the deeds that have already been done, the interests and motivations we already have? The rhetoric of applied ethics also risks the affects of contempt and resentment that I described above. If we are doing more to follow the principle, we are of course better than those who are not. The logic of applied ethics also opens up the space for someone to affirm the principle in general and then argue that it does not in fact apply to them. This space is not hypothetical; it is the space white people occupy whenever we say that we do believe reparations are owed, just not by us.

[35] Robin Rue Simmons, former alderperson of Evanston, Illinois, showed what this looks like in practice when she helped lead a movement that got the city to make reparations to Black citizens harmed by city policies. Simmons says that she quickly abandoned what she calls “the moral argument.” By this she does not mean that she gave up all normative leverage for a cynical Realpolitik. The case was normative, through and through. What she means is that they could not work by establishing a general moral principle and then applying it to Evanston. Instead the work was specific, local, and intensely personal. They generated a report of more than 80 pages that detailed the harm done by a specific law that was on the books in Evanston from 1919-1969. The law enshrined housing discrimination that systematically undermined Black wealth. This very specific account of harm justified specific actions of reparations for people who were harmed by the policy and their descendants. The logic of the argument looks less like moral philosophy and more like a tort case. The argument that people who do harm should offer some kind of compensation to people they harmed is almost assumed. It is established quickly. The vast majority of the pages of the report are empirical proof of the harm that was done. This kind of argument for reparations, Simmons says, is both more persuasive politically and better able to withstand legal challenges.[xvii]

[36] What Geuss calls “real politics” matters not only in establishing the case for reparations, but also in determining what those reparations should be. Simmons helped convene a “long accessible process” involving dozens of public meetings in which Black residents and their descendants—the people harmed by the city’s policy—gathered to decide what kind of reparations would be desirable and appropriate. That process was essential to the larger work of reparations. For it mattered not just what specific reparations were undertaken, but that the people harmed had agency in determining what the reparations should be. An ideological principle that determined this apart from a living political process might have alleviated white guilt—and let white residents of Evanston feel like they were just a little bit better than white residents of Winnetka, and let white residents of rural Winchester loathe them all—but it would have missed something important about what reparations need to be. A politics of penitence is historical. It is personal. And it is, in the fullest sense, political.

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[37] Faithful reflection on the shape white Christian lives should take in the long aftermath of slavery pulls us beyond some of the most common patterns of thinking in the field of Christian ethics. In particular, it pulls us past versions of Christian ethics that posit some Christian virtue, principle, or preferred state of affairs and then seek to apply that norm to our situation. It presses us to reconsider the pardon that we need, which by its nature outruns any sort of ethical justification. And it reframes politics not as approximations of righteousness, but as acts of penitent waiting and piecemeal repair. When we try to live into a politics of penitence by positing and applying ethical norms, we generate both wrong affects and wrong policies. The practices that constitute a politics of penitence—like reparations—go wrong when we attempt to justify them within the discourse of ethics. They should rather be offered as the embodied petitions of people who know we stand in need of a justification we cannot pronounce for ourselves. In the end, a politics of penitence is not a new form of Christian ethics, but an old form of Christian prayer.


[i] This article is adapted from a talk given to the Lutheran Ethicists’ Group in the group’s January 2022 meeting. Because it was composed specifically for that conversation, I have retained some markers of the orality and specificity that shaped the original.

[ii] In trying to respect the pluralism of Scripture in the course of Christian practical reasoning, I have learned especially from Sondra Ely Wheeler, Wealth as Peril and Obligation: The New Testament on Possessions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995).

[iii] C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1989 (19348)); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage, 2015); Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2016).

[iv] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage, 2010).

[v] See Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law (New York: Norton, 2018).

[vi] See Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[vii] The invitation to speak to the Lutheran Ethicists’ Group asked me to present some of the ideas I try to develop in Ted A. Smith, Weird John Brown: Divine Violence and the Limits of Ethics (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014). Therefore, parts of this section have been adapted from Weird John Brown, pp. 140 and 150-55.

[viii] Jacques Derrida, “On Forgiveness,” in On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, Thinking in Action (London: Routledge, 2001), 48.

[ix] Derrida, “On Forgiveness,” 32-33.

[x] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary J. Gregor, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 477-78.

[xi] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Nachfolge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, Bd. 4 (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1989). English translation: Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Geffrey D. Kelly and John D. Godsey, eds., transl. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

[xii] Attributed to Martin Luther as his final writing before he died in 1546.

[xiii] In considering reparations, I have learned especially from Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/; Jennifer Harvey, “Which Way to Justice? Reconciliation, Reparations and the Problem of Whiteness in US Protestantism,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, vol. 31, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2011), 57-77; Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (New York: Plume, 2001); emilie m. townes, “Empire and Forgottennes: Abysmal Sylphs in the Reparations Debate for Black Folks in the United States,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, vol. 56, nos. 1-2 (2002), 99-115.

[xiv] Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness (New York: Convergent Books, 2018), Kindle location 921-922.

[xv] Brown, I’m Still Here, loc. 759.

[xvi] Raymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 25.

[xvii] Robin Rue Simmons, “The Evolution of Evanston’s Reparations Initiative,” City of Decatur, GA Anti-Racism Speaker Series, December 2021. https://www.decaturga.com/bc-btab/page/robin-rue-simmons

Ted A. Smith

Ted Smith is A.H. Shatford Professor of Divinity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He also serves as director of Theological Education between the Times, a project that gathers diverse groups of people for critical, theological reflection on the meanings and purposes of theological education.