Review: Dear White Christians

Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation, Jennifer Harvey. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014.

Summary: Argues that a reparations rather than reconciliation paradigm is what is necessary to heal the racial divides in the United States.

The author of this book describes an address by Brenda Salter-McNeil at Urbana 2000 speaking of that student generation as the “Reconciliation Generation.” I was in the hall when she spoke and I found myself praying, Lord, make it so. Sadly, that has not taken place, and the contention of this book is that I was asking for the wrong thing. Jennifer Harvey, who is white, contends that the reconciliation paradigm has failed and needs to be replaced by a reparations paradigm.

Perhaps a word of clarification is needed here. Speak of reparations, and the response of most is to think one is talking of massive amounts of money paid for past wrong. Strictly speaking, the idea of reparations comes from the word “repair” and what the author explores in this work is what is the harm done that needs repair. Her contention is that racial reconciliation approaches are inadequate to address the harm done.

How so? To explore this she first describes the history of the reconciliation paradigm and the critical problems with that paradigm. At the core is the problem of whiteness. Racial divides exist first of all because of the social construction of race that defined “whites” as a race superior to others, and then created systems and structures to maintain that superiority. She uses two exercises that illustrate the issue. One is to ask whites to identify racial qualities they can wholeheartedly celebrate. The second is to ask what reactions we would have to signs that say “Black is beautiful” versus “White is beautiful.” The discomfort that occurs for many of us almost immediately underscores the reality of our racialized society. Yet the reconciliation paradigm ignores this and takes a universalist approach that ignores the particular work whites need to do in addressing race. Inclusion and integration is not enough. Given the history of racism, asking blacks to trust is asking the victim of abuse to trust their abuser.

As Harvey turns to discussing reparations, she begins with the Black Manifesto, presented in 1968 by James Farmer during a service at Riverside Church in New York. This was the first demand for reparations, in this case it was monetary, for $500 million. She describes the reaction and how national church bodies side-stepped the demand. But for the first time, there was a call for repentance and for a redress for harms done. As she turns to what a contemporary pursuit of a reparation paradigm would mean, she contends it means addressing “race as a social construct, an emphasis on racial particularity, and the focus on the repair of unjust structures” (italics in the text). She then considers what might be learned from Vine Deloria’s reparation efforts for Tribal groups, and the examples of several church bodies in Maryland (still in process at the time of writing).

This book has me wrestling. I am convinced that healing our nation’s original sin of racism against both Black and Native peoples means more than inclusion, more even than reconciliation. I do not see that we have ever in any national sense acknowledged how we’ve not only committed wrong, but also embedded injustice into our systems and structures. Nor have we committed ourselves to a serious and persisting effort to root these out of our structures. The work advocated in this book is for churches to begin this effort, rather than for a public policy agenda. I could see this extending to national bodies and to church-related institutions–colleges and seminaries. What I wrestle with is whether the will is there, particularly in our present climate. Yet I hear the longing of many for spiritual revival in the church. Isaiah 58 tells me that there is no true revival without repentance and reparation, of concerted efforts to pursue justice and remove oppression. Isaiah 58:12 addresses the repair aspect of this:

Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

It seems to me that it would be good to be known as Repairers of Broken Walls and Restorers of Streets with Dwellings. Harvey remains hopeful. Amid the protests of this summer, a new edition of this book was published (the link is to the new edition, my review is of the first). She addresses in an introduction the changes that have happened since 2014, and also includes an appendix that gives more practical guidance of what a reparations paradigm might look like in practice. Hopefully, there will be White Christians who will read and listen, who will kneel in prayer and arise with their tool belts on to begin the work of repair.

4 thoughts on “Review: Dear White Christians

  1. In answer to your quote: “I do not see that we have ever in any national sense acknowledged how we’ve not only committed wrong…”
    See this: How much lifeblood do you require?
    An estimated three-and-a-half million men fought in the American Civil War and approximately 620,000 perished, which was more than all of America’s combined combat fatalities from previous wars…
    I’ve yet to hear one black US citizen say, “thank you.”

    • I think many did at the conclusion of the Civil War, only to be hit with Jim Crow, lynchings, segregation, and mass incarceration. Not much for which to be thankful.

  2. Thank you for this thought provoking review and your measured response to Zemirah. When I read “white is beautiful” I think of the slogans of the Proud Boys dc rally today. When I read “black is beautiful” I see the courageous young black girl dressed in white in Norman Rockwells famous painting with federal guards marching to off school. Self reflection for persons or countries brings freedom and a new found joy.

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