Before leaving campus, my dean had said, “I’m not supposed to let you drive off campus, but I will make an exception this time as long as you don’t tell anyone.” Naturally, upon my return to campus, I drove through the gate, launched my car several feet into the air, and landed on the soccer field right as hundreds of people were entering the gym for Graduation. When I saw my dean I made sure to point out the fact that I technically didn’t tell anyone I had driven off campus.
The next day, I apologized to the principal and the facilities manager. Then I offered to pay for damages to the gate and to help with the repair. An apology alone didn’t quite seem like enough. If you can, shouldn’t you at least try to fix the damage you’ve caused? This is something we all know, yet it’s so hard to do sometimes.
Sometimes you need to face someone bigger and tougher than you before realizing your need to make full amends. After over 400 years of living off the backs of Israelite slaves, the mightiest empire on earth was on its knees. The Egyptians were begging their Hebrew slaves to just leave! I think the Israelites would have just left on their own if only allowed. Thankfully, God knew freedom didn’t equal redemption. So he sent the slaves back to plunder their former Egyptian masters.
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This plunder wasn’t just because Israelites could, and it wasn’t because they were poor, vulnerable, loud, persistent, or sad. It was because they had suffered great injury, not just to their bodies but to their souls, as well. Their culture had been ravaged by slavery. The story of the Old Testament is the story of slaves trying to once again find their humanity. God is aware of their unique condition. He knows they need land and resources in order to thrive as a nation. So he sets them on a path to acquire those things. First the gold and silver:
“The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.” Exodus 12:35-36
While Moses is the one who tells them what to do, the Bible shows us God is clearly in on this decision. As events unfold, we see the first recorded act of wide-scale reparations, and it’s directed by God’s spokesperson and supernaturally enforced by God himself.
You Were A Slave
“If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.” Deuteronomy 15:12-15
When God turns these slaves into a nation, He makes sure they remember where they came from. While it seems abhorrent by our standards today, God is using this opportunity for human progress. In this new nation, slaves won’t have to demand reparations for their years of service, but rather it is built into the legal and moral framework of the nation.
The reason this system can work is because the Israelites were once slaves. They are supposed to remember what it was like and how it affected them for generations afterward. This is why knowing your story is so important. If we remember all the times we’ve been taken advantage of, we’re less likely to take advantage of others. If we remember all the times we were shown grace and mercy, we are more likely to show grace and mercy to others.
The Israelites are expected to give just compensation because they were once recompensed for their toils.
“Charge that to my account”
Just as scripture is starting to develop a model of reparations, Paul takes those same teachings, shakes them up, scatters them around, and puts it all back together with new pieces. Paul doesn’t disagree with the scriptures which came before, but he does invite us to consider these sacred texts in remarkably new and different ways.
In a letter to a man named Philemon, Paul brings up reparations. However, he isn’t interested in offering reparations to slaves but rather to the slavemaster. At first, this seems outrageous! Why should the master receive reparations? But a close look at Philemon reveals that his slave, Onesimus, was likely a slave because he had wronged Philemon in some way. Perhaps he stole from him or owed him a debt he couldn’t or wouldn’t repay.
Despite his past mistakes, Paul finds great value in Onesimus whom he calls his son, and further “my very heart.” Even though Onesimus has wronged Philemon, and then wronged him further by running away, Paul is compelled to act out of his love for the slave. So he sends Onesimus back to his master, but he asks Philemon to consider releasing Onesimus. If Philemon agreed, Paul promises full reparations for any wrongdoings would be made.
Paul’s justification for all this is that he no longer wants Onesimus to be a slave but something better: a brother in the Lord. I don’t believe it’s an accident that Paul chooses to address reparations in an upside-down story about slavery. Paul isn’t interested in the hierarchy of the day. He’s interested in equality and redemption. He sets forth a radical act to free Onesimus, and in doing so, Paul reveals how we can free ourselves.
Paul doesn’t offer to pay reparations because he is responsible.
Paul doesn’t even offer to pay reparations because Onesimus deserves it.
Paul offers to pay reparations because he knows from his own life that sin has a terrible cost, and he is thankful Jesus paid it for him, even though Jesus wasn’t responsible and Paul didn’t deserve it. Reparations should obviously be made when we wrong someone, but Paul suggests reparations should also be made whenever possible, even if we aren’t responsible for the wrong.
Paul knows we were all slaves to sin, and the only way to find freedom is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Paul is in favor of reparations because Paul has received reparations. Just like Israel. Just like you and me.
What would happen if we treated reparations like we treated grace?
After all, aren’t they kind of the same thing?