A Question of Reparations in the Southern Baptist Convention: Applying the Zacchaeus Principle

This is the second in a 2-part series addressing the question of reparations in light of the recent report from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on the history of racism in the Southern Baptist Convention. Part 1 is located here.

Having considered the ability and need for corporate repentance,[1] let us now move on to the direction of this action. The direction explored here is a patterning of one of Scripture’s most laconic pictures of reparations in the words of Zacchaeus, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8). The Zacchaeus Principle offers clear steps towards reconciliation for the SBC and its institutions. Dividing the Principle then into the two parts of its action, Zacchaeus makes two promises. In the former he vows to give half of his possessions to the poor, and in the latter to pay back those whom he has defrauded four times what he had taken. Zacchaeus weighs both the direct harm of his own actions as well as the indirect benefit that he enjoyed because of them. In theory, determining the direct harm would be an easy task for Zacchaeus. The chief tax collector would surely have clear records of both his own assets as well the receipts of those he robbed. But the ease of its theory does not equate to painlessness in its application.

Zacchaeus’ repentance came at great cost to himself and, at the same time, his actions were undoubtedly like the former possessions of the man who sold all that he had to purchase the field in which he found a greater treasure (Matt. 13:44). Zacchaeus recognized the action of repentance demonstrated in reparations as well worth the sacrifice for the sake of the gospel and the kingdom. However, in the present discussion, reparations are not as simple. As thorough as the Report is and as detailed as my own research could be, the fullness of present racial disparity is impossible to quantify, at least on this side of heaven. The SBC, like the United States at large, failed to give proper restitution at the start. What then is to be done? For some, the call must be for financial reparations such as free tuition and boarding for all African Americans. For others, the report itself is unnecessary and just digging up the past. To be sure, many will read this article and find it, ironically, either too progressive or too dismissive. Such could be said of critiques against the SBC at large. In between the extremes, there is a balance to be struck informed by the Zacchaeus Principle. Examining the exchange more closely there seem to be three steps to the Principle.

The first step is in recognizing the need to act. Zacchaeus’ words came as a response to the disheartened cries for justice by the crowd. Repentance is never satisfied by lip-service. The word itself portrays turning back and a change through course of action. This recognition and resolve to act should be seen from the individual to the corporate level. Vocal repentance, such as the 1995 “Resolution on Racial Reconciliation on the 150th Anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention,”[2]  have been made and ought not be dismissed, but actions in line with the next two steps are few and far between.

The second step is a general sacrifice, acknowledging the benefits made at the cost of subjugating others. Like Zacchaeus, there must be a recognition that even beyond the profits made in direct and knowing harm, there exists also a need in the gospel to lift up the entire community of the oppressed using the gifts and capacities God has given or we have stolen. In all practical forms this could be seen in intentional efforts to diversify faculty and curriculum and to create far more scholarships for racial minorities and the impoverished. This step is where the majority of reparations will likely take place, and should be both costly and voluntary.

The third, and likely most difficult, step is to identify wronged parties and direct culpability. Southern’s Report does this in part by identifying and lamenting publicly its role in the continuation of racism and partiality. This is something each SBC seminary could likely do, as I discovered quite quickly the depths of shame in Southwestern faculty being members of the Ku Klux Klan alongside its equipping of Black ministers in night classes in the 1930s. This step would include the forgiveness of debts as well as additional restitution to identified wronged parties. As most of those directly harmed by the SBC in its formation and prominence during slavery and segregation have now passed, the work here must be done either posthumously or in benefit to the lasting effects to the children and grandchildren of the wronged parties. Regrettably, there are some direct wrongs which simply will not stand resolved on this side of heaven. But there is still plenty of work which can be done. A promising example of this action rightly done came in 2004 when Eugene Florence, a Black minister who attended Southwestern’s night classes from 1943-1951 but never received a degree, was awarded his Master of Divinity at the ripe age of 100 years old, just 8 years before his death.[3] Florence had been deprived of what he was due for 53 years, but as his daughter, Emma, remarked, “It doesn’t matter whether they did it when it was supposed to be done, but it was done [when] God said it was supposed to be done … in the fullness of time.”[4]

Repentance is a difficult thing. It forces the guilty to see their guilt, to turn from it, and to move in a new direction. This turning can feel as though the roots of life are being displaced and severed. It is painful. But the return is joyous and the new direction is glorious. The Zacchaeus Principle gives a clear pattern of this decision in the actions of binding the wounds of direct harm, where possible, and in sowing greater benefit from the indirect and unknown harms of power and affluence. Both actions require sacrifice. The Kingdom of God is a treasure well worth the sacrifice, and while the best time to make that sacrifice is yesterday, the second best is today.

[1]A Question of Reparations in the Southern Baptist Convention: The Zacchaeus Principle.”

[2] http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/899/resolution-on-racial-reconciliation-on-the-150th-anniversary-of-the-southern-baptist-convention.

[3] https://swbts.edu/news/releases/florence-102-will-preach-chapel-feb-14-attended-negro-extension-center-eight-years/.

[4] Ibid.

Paul J. Morrison is lead pastor of Grantwood Community Church in Cleveland, Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Sarah live in Cleveland, Ohio as church revitalizers with the North American Mission Board. Follow him on Twitter @PaulMorrison116.