Reparations are Biblical? A reply to Anyabwile

Last week, Thabiti Anywabwile argued that Reparations are Biblical by pointing to Judah’s return to Jerusalem from exile and the provisions they were given to rebuild the temple by Cyrus and Darius, kings of the Media-Persian Empire. He argues that reparations are a form of restitution and that this particular example refutes three objections raised against the concept of reparations:

  • 1. Make one person/group who committed no crime pay for the crimes of others. Let’s call this the “innocence objection.” [the Persian empire – and more specifically a people group conquered by the Persian empire – pays for a crime committed by the Babylonian Empire]
  • 2. Pay to one person/group who were not directly injured by the crime restitution owed to those who “actually suffered.” Let’s cause [sic] this the “unharmed objection.” [2nd or 3rd generation of Judahites after the exile received restitution for what happened to their ancestors]
  • 3. Tax today’s citizens in order to pay for atrocities committed by earlier generations. Let’s call this the “generational tax objection.” [The kings taxed their citizens to pay for Judah’s return and the rebuilding of the temple]

I am encouraged that Anyabwile desires to make Scripture foundational to the discussion on social justice. We have previously interacted with his definition and defense of social justice from Scripture. I recommend that you read Anywabwile’s brief post at least twice to try to fully understand his argument. It is actually somewhat difficult to respond to because there are many layers of argument that have to be carefully unwoven before they can be responded to.

Whatever God Causes is Just?

I might put my brief case in one sentence: If the Lord God himself caused a state head through taxation to require later generations of people who committed no crime to pay monies to their contemporaries who did not suffer the original crime, then it cannot be unjust (quite the opposite!) for state actors to do the same today… If God, who is just and only does justice, has acted in this way then it cannot be unjust for nation-states to voluntarily repay its own citizens for crimes suffered at its hands—no matter when the crimes occurred… If reparations of this sort is an injustice based on the objections above, then those who hold those objections have the unenviable responsibility of showing that God himself is unjust, since all that happens in Ezra happens according to God’s premeditated plan. [emphasis added]

Anyabwile argues that because God prophesied and then providentially brought to pass these actions by Cyrus & Darius, the actions of Cyrus & Darius – and any similar actions throughout history – were just. The problem with this argument is very basic. Anyabwile confuses the actions of God with the actions of men. This is Calvinism 101. God sovereignly controls the actions of every individual, yet every individual also chooses and acts.

2LBCF 3.1. God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass;1 yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein;2 nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established;3 in which appears His wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing His decree.4
1 Isa. 46:10; Eph. 1:11; Heb. 6:17; Rom. 9:15,18 2 James 1:13; 1 John 1:5 3 Acts 4:27,28; John 19:11 4 Num. 23:19; Eph. 1:3-5

In any action, there are two actors: God and man (Gen 50:20). God can cause a sinful (unjust) act (Ex 8:15, 32; 9:12; 10:1; Rom 9:17; Acts 2:23; 4:28, etc), yet God himself is just and sinless in so doing. Therefore, the simple fact that God caused someone to act in a certain way does not therefore make that act just! Again, this is basic Calvinism. Someone pointed this out to Anyabwile on Twitter, but Anyabwile did not appear to understand the point. That is very concerning.

God prophesied that Pharoah would not comply with Moses’ demand to let the Israelites go, and He specifically prophesied that Pharoah would not do so because He would harden Pharoah’s heart (Ex 4:21). Thus, according to Anyabwile’s criteria above, this must mean that Pharoah’s refusal to let the enslaved Israelites free was just.

What’s more, God also prophesied and providentially brought to pass Nebuchadnezzar’s sacking of Jerusalem and the temple in the first place (2 Kgs 20:16-17). In fact, this sacking of Jerusalem and enslavement of Judah is specifically part of God giving Nebuchadnezzar “a kingdom, power, strength, and glory” (Dan 2:21, 37-38; Jer 51:7). Ergo, according to Anyabwile’s logic, the sacking of Jerusalem and enslavement of Judah in Babylon was just, hence no reparations may possibly be required!

Reparations for Judah Not Required?

Which brings us to the next odd point. Anyabwile argues that reparations are simply restitution for a group who has been wronged – in this instance Judah. An important component of restitution is that it is not voluntary. Restitution is morally required when a crime has been committed (Ex. 22:1-14). The guilty party owes restitution to the victim and they are to be enslaved to the victim if they can’t pay it. Thus if Judah’s return to Jerusalem is a matter of restitution, then Cyrus and Darius owed it to Judah – it was a moral necessity. But Anyabwile specifically denies this was the case.

I do not think this historical example requires reparations.

What? If reparations were not required, then whatever happened was not an instance of restitution… and therefore of reparations. If it was not required then all we are talking about is voluntary, gracious generosity towards Judah’s temple rebuilding project.

Enslaving Others

Anyabwile admits he is talking about a voluntary act:

So it seems to me that the “innocence,” “unharmed” and “generational tax” objections all fail in this historical example. If God, who is just and only does justice, has acted in this way then it cannot be unjust for nation-states to voluntarily repay its own citizens for crimes suffered at its hands—no matter when the crimes occurred.

When he says “repay its own citizens for crimes suffered at its hands” he has in mind America, not the Media-Persian Empire. He is clear that Cyrus and Darius were not paying for crimes they or their kingdom committed.

In Ezra 6:6-12, King Darius—a king who wasn’t even born when Israel was conquered ruling over an empire that wasn’t even in existence when the exile began—

They were merely third parties in the whole affair – neither the guilty party nor the victim. Thus this historical example doesn’t even match Anyabwile’s definition of reparations:

I would define reparations as “material and social repayment made as acknowledgement and restitution by an offending party to an aggrieved party for wrong(s) done in order to repair the injuries, losses and/or disadvantages caused by the wrong.”

Furthermore, Darius made a fourth party pay.

—passed a law decreeing that taxes be paid by people who did not conquer or abuse Israel in order to restore Israelites who themselves were not alive during the Babylonian conquest of Israel. Darius decreed, “The cost [of rebuilding the house of God] is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River” (Ezra 6:8). In fact, those citizens “from Beyond the River” were themselves a people who were at some point conquered and swallowed up by the empire.

It seems at this point all that Anyabwile tries to prove in this post is that it is not unjust for a ruler to demand forced tribute to him from those he has (unjustly) conquered so that he may voluntarily give to whomever he pleases. But his only argument for doing so is that God providentially caused it (see above). What he would have to prove is that forced tribute at the king’s whim is just (what many bibles translate as “taxation” is more accurately “forced tribute”). Samuel made it clear that the danger of a king was precisely that he would unjustly take what was not his through forced tribute (1 Sam 8:10-18). What’s more, in the specific example chosen by Anyabwile, the modern equivalent would be something like China conquering America and then forcing Native Americans to pay African Americans. Does he really want to justify an injustice like that?

In this post, I’m focusing on the state as the actor owing reparations to African Americans as a class of injured persons.

That’s fine, in theory, but the problem is the state is not the people living under the dominion of the state (see here too). Holding the state accountable for its actions such that it could go bankrupt would be a good thing, but insofar as the state merely offsets its responsibility onto the people under its rule through forced tribute simply perpetuates further injustices.

Conclusion

I have not even touched on the issue of biblical theology – the fact that what we read in Ezra about Judah was part of redemptive history, part of God working through a typological kingdom to reveal the gospel and ultimately to bring about the Messiah. The return of Judah from exile was a special act of providence in order to preserve the tribe of David, from whom the Messiah would spring and to rebuild a one of a kind holy temple with items that were devoted to that purpose and taken by unholy men.

Furthermore, their return to Canaan was a shadow of our spiritual return to God by the work of the Messiah in the New Covenant. Cyrus and Darius’ provision for Judah was a partial & preliminary fulfillment of Isaiah 49:23, which has its ultimate fulfillment in the kingdom of Christ. Yet even more, their exile and enslavement in the first place was a covenant curse for disobedience to Mosaic law (2 Kgs 21:10-16; 23:26-27; 24:3-4; Jer 7:30; 15:1-4)! Because it was a curse, God commanded them to submit to Nebuchadnezzar when he sacked Jerusalem and the temple (Jer 27:8; 12-15)! None of this is, in principle, a template for America today.

The principle is solid.

The principle is not solid. It is confused. There really is no way to get from Ezra to modern calls for slavery reparations (just as there is no way to get from Ezra to modern theonomy – see Bahnsen’s attempt in Theonomy in Christian Ethics, p. 348-349).

Finally, consider that this was (presumably) the very best argument from Scripture Anyabwile thought he could make for reparations. Again, we are glad to see Scripture part of the discussion on social justice. We hope that it becomes more and more central. We would be glad to continue this discussion with Anyabwile if he has anything further he would like to say.

For Further Reading

Our three part series on social justice, interacting with Anyabwile and others:

Feel free to reproduce our content, just link to us when you do.