Reparations: An Atonement Connection

JDW Portrait Contributed by J. Denny Weaver,

In the movement to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, reparations should be a part of the discussion. The historical facts are undeniable: land theft and multiple kinds of destruction committed against the bodies of Indigenous Peoples by Europeans. Of course, people alive today are not personally guilty of these multiple evils. But the point of telling the history is not to blame white people today for past acts or to stoke guilt feelings in people who did not personally carry out theft and destruction. Rather, the history lesson explains how significant elements of injustice have never been addressed. Without laying personal blame or guilt on anyone, the real question should be, “How should we address the injustice that still exists?” Reparations is one important element of the answer to that question.

Reconciliation, the ultimate goal of restorative justice, requires acknowledging and dealing with the harm that has been committed. This recognition then offers the offender the opportunity to restore as much as possible the harm done. Reconciliation without an element of restoration by passes an important step of the process, and is actually a reconciliation that maintains injustice. In the face of the unresolved injustice perpetrated on Indigenous Peoples by the Doctrine of Discovery, reparations that formally acknowledge the harm committed is an important dimension of dismantling the Doctrine. Here is where the theology of atonement sheds light on the issue of reparations.

The inherited, standard satisfaction atonement image ignores both Jesus’ life and his resurrection. The image exists in multiple forms, with Anselm of Canterbury as the primary originating source of the image in his book Cur Deus Homo (1098). The idea of satisfaction comes from the feudal organization of society in Anselm’s time. Anselm pictured God as the ultimate feudal lord, who would demand payment of satisfaction when offended by an underling. For Anselm, human sin disturbed the order in the universe and offended the honor of God. God sent Jesus in order that his death on behalf of humankind could serve as the debt payment that satisfied God’s offended honor and restored order in the universe. Sinners who accept Jesus’ death on their behalf thereby have personal guilt removed. Although it pictures the sinner reconciled to God, the image indicates nothing about the life of the redeemed individual following removal of guilt. This long-accepted image fits attempts to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples that avoid actually dealing with contemporary injustice.

As an alternative to satisfaction atonement, I pose a nonviolent atonement image. (For a lay-oriented discussion of multiple reasons to reject any version of the satisfaction image, see my book God Without Violence). I have come to understand Jesus’ life and resurrection in terms of the classic atonement image of Christus Victor, the Victorious Christ. In this image, the reign of God confronts evil, which kills Jesus, but with his resurrection the reign of God is ultimately victorious over evil. In this image, Jesus’ life that reflects God confronts and thus exposes evil in the world. This exposé allows and invites offenders to acknowledge their wrong and to join the side of the reign of God in opposing evil. Leaving evil and joining the side of the reign of God as it confronts evil thus has an intrinsically ethical dimension. It assumes a change in behavior as one joins the struggle of the reign of God against the evil in which one was previously implicated. This image, which pictures moving from the side of evil to join the side of the reign of God that confronts evil, models the idea of reparations as an element of acknowledging past harm and of restoring just relations with Indigenous Peoples.

One story told about Jesus actually portrays such restoration. Zacchaeus the tax collector engaged in a profession that was assumed to be dishonest. He had become wealthy by skimming money for himself from the taxes he collected for the Romans. But when confronted by Jesus, Zacchaeus acknowledged his wrong doing, and volunteered to repay stolen money with generous interest (Luke 19.1-10). Zacchaeus acknowledgment of his thievery and subsequent repayment with interest constitute an example of restorative justice with reparations.

This analysis does not identify a particular kind of reparations. That question is wide open, subject only to the determination and imaginations of the people involved.

 

  1. Denny Weaver is Professor Emeritus of Religion, Bluffton (Ohio) University. Among his several books are God Without Violence: Following a Nonviolent God in a Violent World (CASCADE Books, 2016); The Nonviolent God (Eerdmans, 2013); and The Nonviolent Atonement, 2nd revised and expanded edition (Eerdmans, 2011).