Review: Getting to the Promised Land

Getting to the Promised Land , Kevin W. Cosby, Foreword by Cornel West. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021.

Summary: An argument for the use of the Nehemiah narratives rather than Exodus to ground the appeal by American Descendents of Slaves (ADOS) for restitution for the centuries of abuse they and their ancestors suffered.

Most often, Black preaching and rhetoric appeals to the Exodus narratives to cast a vision for throwing off the yoke of oppression and coming into the freedom of the Promised Land. Indeed, the title of this book might lead one to think that this is another lesson in Exodus preaching. That is not the case.

Kevin W. Cosby, who has served as pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church, the largest African American church in Kentucky and the president of Simmons College, a HBCU school, contends for replacing the preaching of Exodus with Nehemiah. He believes the advocacy of Nehemiah for his vulnerable people in Jerusalem, which included material assistance in repairing the walls and legal protection against those who would stop these efforts, is a model for the focused advocacy which American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) need to make for restitution for the history of forced servitude and subsequent oppression under Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination, the cost of which has been passed down through the generations.

Cosby’s use of the term ADOS was new to me. It is his contention that the cause of the descendants of slaves has been weakened by coalitions with other oppressed groups. He uses Solomon’s alliances as an example of coalitions that weaken identity and leave one’s own group further behind. He also points to Daniel and Ezra who maintain the Jews distinctiveness of identity in exile.

But his central argument is about reparations, first under the decree of Cyrus, later reinforced by Darius, and the support raised by Nehemiah make the case for the importance of reparations in restoring a broken people. Along the way, he uses Hanani’s report to challenge the myth of “movin’ on up” that uses singular examples to minimize the plight of a whole people. He notes how Nehemiah first weeps, then mobilizes people to work opposite their homes, giving them tangible evidence of the importance of their struggle. He commends Nehemiah as a servant rather than a celebrity.

The chapters have the echoes of preached material while also making a cohesive argument for focused advocacy of ADOS people, drawing on the example of Nehemiah. I don’t think it my place to discuss the strategy of focusing upon a particular aggrieved group within the larger Black community. I do think the advocacy, the resources granted, the legal protection with teeth in it, and the servant leadership of Nehemiah, as well as the efforts of Nehemiah and Ezra to maintain Jewish identity are instructive in the advocacy for and of ADOS people.

I do wonder about the exegesis that presses the case for reparations from Nehemiah. It is the case under Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes that material resources are provided for the reconstruction of the temple and later, the walls of Jerusalem, important in the restoration of the returned exiles. But is this truly restitution intended to repair a broken, unjust relationship? The Jews are just as much a subject people in Jerusalem as in Babylon and Susa. Unless it was tacit in the restorative grants, there was no admission of wrongdoing, and certainly no restoration to full self-government. From an earthly standpoint, this appears to be nothing more than a shift in the policy of dealing with subject peoples.

What we do see is the significant effect Nehemiah’s advocacy and the material, legal, and enforcement assistance given the Jews. Can these also be the providence of God for ADOS, even if they reflect political expediency rather than profound repentance? Yet this would seem to “heal lightly” the wounds and the relationships of Blacks and Whites, something we’ve been very good at doing ever since the Civil War. I’m increasingly convinced that some form restitution for ADOS is a necessary part of the healing between white and Black if we are to get the promised land of becoming the beloved community. The question remains of whether we know we are sick and wounded, whether we want to be well, and whether we are willing to accept the cost for what is to be gained.

____________________________

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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.