A Lutheran Case for Reparations?

It is hard to believe this piece by Rev. Matthew O. Staneck (in Lutheran Forum, Summer 2020) was written by an LCMS pastor (Saint John Lutheran, Glendale, NY). He is also listed as a Concordia College-New York Regent since 2018. It is not a Lutheran case, because it is not Christian. According to the LCMS website locator, Rev. Staneck is a 2013 graduate of the St. Louis seminary). The church has a very different instrument (the Gospel) to use than the world and its governments. Rev. Stanek seems to not think that forgiveness is not important for the world, but rather embraces law and legal force as the best instruments at our disposal to change unbelievers.

His diatribe about “theft” is categorically wrong. We can’t apply the spiritual meaning of God’s law to worldly laws—and then enforce them in the civil realm. God’s Word convicts the heart by the Spirit, to lead to repentance. Slavery was at one time a valid, legal institution, therefore “theft” is not the correct word. To really change minds and hearts, the government’s tools are inadequate. The Holy Spirit is needed, who comes in the Gospel, which does not drive us to exact revenge for past misdeeds.

Lip-service is given to the confessions, but where “retributive justice” reigns, Christ does not in the Gospel. This is exchanging the law for the Gospel. Retribution is defined as “punishment inflicted on someone as vengeance for a wrong or criminal act.” If anyone lives in past injustice, wanting to punish, forgiveness is opposed.

The world works by laws, yes, but that is not the power of the church: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). The church properly takes away sins, not piles imagniary ones on. The church does not punish or exact payment for historical sins. Reparations would be as effective for the Gospel as indulgences in the Roman church. Sins cannot be bought off, nor guilt assuaged with any amount of money.

The group statistics are meaningless. Yes, groups differ in characteristics and outcomes. Where does the Bible say everyone should have the same amount of stuff or wealth? Or that homes create wealth? Or that this world should be made more fair in our eyes? It certainty does not deal with people according to skin-color. “And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:17-19).

The idea that Christians are to pursue justice (really vengeance) in the world makes it sound like the Christian should make a cursed, sinful world right—which is impossible. This fallen world will never be heaven. We hope for a better one, since this one will always be unjust. There is no fixing it, but we can offer something much better: eternal life.

Staneck lives in generalities, both theological and secular. He cannot even define what a “Black American” is. Do people of mixed heritage have to pay the other part of themselves off? Should more recent immigrants to America, not enslaved in America, profit off those who were? How do we deal with those who are descended from dark-skinned slave-owners in other countries? How do we hold historic, legal practices of the dead against those living generations later in the civil realm, and still forgive all sins before God in Christ? Is divine forgiveness limited? It is folly to try to punish up the family tree, all the way to Adam. Let God be the judge, and forgive in Christ’s name all those actually guilty and repentant.

Every person is unique and lives with their own injustices. Governments deal in broad groups, but God’s law and Gospel bear down personally on the individual—not generally or abstractly. If God wants justice on earth, He does not need pastors who are supposed to preach the Gospel and people into heaven to do it—He is certainty capable. But most often He chooses to wait till Judgment Day. Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice is better than all the money in the world, because it alone assuages God’s anger at sin.

In the end, take out the Lutheran language and catechism references, and this argument is just an emotional ploy—a secular one. But Christ tell us to love our neighbor (an actual individual), not make the world a better or more fair place. Our neighbor is a real flesh-and-blood sinner, not an abstract racial grouping. To exchange the Gospel of Christ’s forgiveness for pay-back justice—telling others what they must do under political laws—is shameful for a minister of the Gospel. —ed.