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Christian economics 101: Does Zacchaeus prove reparations are biblical?

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This follow-up to my original article is intended to address the idea of restitution and how Zacchaeus fits into our modern-day narrative.

I recently wrote an article to explain one of the most fundamental principles of economics, namely, that you are not entitled to the labor or production of any other human being. In other words, no one has the right to enslave another person, to demand the fruit of their labor, or to threaten by government force that they perform some labor (think baker, flower designer, etc.).

Numerous comments on the article were made, but one stood out to me: “And yet, this was how white wealth was created on the backs of forced slave labor and unfair wages and benefits. But when ask [sic] to compensate for the legalized theft of wages and benefits that white slave owners have benefitted from and continue to benefit from today, many are outraged at that thought of having to compensate Black folks. Why is that? Jesus teach [sic] that we should make restitution even to 10 times the amount and come follow Jesus. Zacchaeus in Luke 19 did have an encounter with Jesus and he did make restitution even to 4 times what he stole from people. Why is it so hard for Conservatives to apply that principle to the issues of slavery and the lasting effects, including the Tulsa race massacre next of Kin? Is it possible Conservatives and Evangelicals have not experienced the same as Zacchaeus?”

First, the above comment quite correctly states that wealth was created on the “backs of forced slave labor.” There can be no doubt that in world history, many people became rich on the backs of slaves. One of the earliest records of slavery in our world was when the Egyptians enslaved the Jews for more than 400 years and forced them to build Egyptian cities. Egypt became a rich and powerful nation on the backs of Jewish slaves.

But the commentor makes what I hope is a simple mistake by saying: “But when ask[ed] to compensate for the legalized theft of wages and benefits that white slave owners have benefitted from and continue to benefit from today…” Continue to benefit from today? The commentor appears to be asserting that there exist white slave owners in the United States that continue to benefit from black slavery. Either that, or perhaps this is an insinuation that the white slave owners from the mid-20th century are still benefiting from the labor they stole. I do not know exactly what the commentor meant, but I will gladly push back against any idea that chattel slavery is active in America today.

The commentor then goes on to lament that people are “outraged” at the thought of having to compensate “Black folks” for the actions of the white slave owners. Again, the issue here is that there are not currently any white slave owners in America. Not that I’m aware of, anyway. No one currently owns slaves or is benefitting from slave labor in the United States. This begs the question, should I have to compensate people for what took place in history prior to my life?

Other questions proponents of reparations must address is who exactly is owed reparations? How many generations must pass before no one is owed? How many generations down the line should be paid reparations? Should the great-grandson of a white slave owner pay reparations to the great-grandson of a slave? What about their great-great-grandsons? Where exactly does it end?

My great-great-grandparents came from Poland with nothing. They immigrated seeking opportunity and were often discriminated against for being Polish. At no time did they own slaves or aid slavery in the country. Is it biblically just for me to pay reparations for the sins of slavery when my family had nothing to do with it? Is it biblically just for me to pay reparations for slavery when I have had nothing to do with it?

Here's where Zacchaeus comes in.

The commentor makes mention of the fact that Zacchaeus paid “restitution even to 4 times what he stole from people.” That’s true, it’s in the biblical text (see Luke 19). But there is one very important fact that separates Zacchaeus from virtually every American living today: Zacchaeus was the one that stole from the people!

Zacchaeus paid restitution because he was the one that stole. This is a principle of justice that we embody as a country today. If a person steals or causes damage to property (in most cases), that person is charged criminally and (typically) made to pay restitution for what was stolen/damaged. If your neighbor stole a car and totaled it, would you be happy to pay restitution for their crime? Probably not. Why? Because we inherently understand that it is not biblically just to penalize the innocent for the crimes of the guilty. That’s what made the atonement of Christ so remarkable: the innocent paid the price for the guilty.

We as Christians should be very quick to make restitution for our sins and crimes. If we have stolen anything, we should pay it back. If we have caused damage, we should repair the property. There can be no dispute that this is fundamental to the Law of God and teachings of Jesus. But the key is that this only applies to each of us as individuals.

The very idea that we should pay restitution for another person’s actions violates biblical principles. For example, the Bible clearly states “Thou shalt not steal” (Ex. 20). Taking my money, via government force, and giving it to someone else is, by definition, theft. Seeking to coerce the government to mandate reparations for those that have never owned slaves or supported slavery is little more than government-imposed theft. It is a clear violation of biblical principles.

At this point I am sure a well-meaning individual will remind us all that “the sins of the father will be visited unto the 3rd and 4th generation” in an attempt to justify reparations. Please don’t. If you do not understand this verse and the context it is written in, consult a commentary for a better understanding. But please refrain from taking God’s Word out of context for your own purposes (that’s another kind of sin all by itself).

Here is where I’m at on this topic. If you want to campaign for reparations because you feel so strongly that people who have never owned slaves should pay other people who have never been slaves for what happened in generations past, then the only morally and intellectually honest thing to do is expand your platform to include the following:

  • Modern Egyptians must pay reparations to modern Jews for their 400+ years of slavery.
  • Modern Germans must pay reparations to modern Jews for the holocaust.
  • Modern Africans must pay reparations to modern Africans for years of slavery.
  • Modern Americans (all Americans) must pay reparations to Native Americans for the atrocities committed by the U.S. Government and early settlers.
  • Modern Chinese must pay reparations for the current slavery of Uighur Muslims in Chinese concentration camps.
  • Those guilty of rioting and looting in recent years must pay reparations to the property owners for their destructive and criminal actions.
  • We must make a list of every holocaust, every people enslaved by another, and determine exactly what reparations should be paid.

We could go on. World history is replete with examples of slavery. To narrow reparations down to just one group of people, in one location, at one time seems unfair. Why aren’t we as zealous for other people around the world to receive their reparations?

Christians have longed for justice since time began. We wait patiently for the day when Jesus will return to set all things right and biblical justice will be realized. And we should continue to wait patiently while reminding ourselves that “vengeance is Mine, says the Lord,” (Rom. 12:19). There is no biblical justification for government-mandated reparations. We would be sinning against our brothers and sisters to demand they make restitution for the sins of people long dead. If it is healing that is needed, only grace and the eternal bond found in Jesus can begin that process, not government-mandated theft.

Nathan Cherry is a financial advisor specializing in personal financial management and debt reduction. After more than a decade in church ministry, Nathan found a place for his talents in money management in the financial services industry working for a respected financial planning firm. Nathan also writes on social and moral issues at www.nathancherry.com.

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