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

This is the first 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.

A little more than three weeks ago, my wife and I traveled the more than 1,200 miles from our home in Cleveland, Ohio back to our roots at Southwestern Seminary to receive my Ph.D. It was a peculiar feeling to be back on campus as I bustled from office to office to complete graduation clearance, constantly delayed by the friendly faces of professors and classmates I had not seen in years. The longest of these welcomed detours came in a conversation with two professors discussing the recent report from Southern Seminary entitled, “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.”[1] Lauding the report and reflecting on my recent dissertation tracing race relations at Southwestern, the discussion shifted to the many calls of social media for Southern to now respond with reparations. There was a distinct discomfort and tension in the air. Racism explored and studied as a discipline of history seemed all well and good, but to shift the application to consequences in the present seemed to threaten the school’s mission. The first professor remarked that he had wrestled with reparations and found it difficult to draw boundaries on its implementation. The second responded, admittedly not having read the report yet, something to the effect that wouldn’t it be enough to just love people and Jesus? The loving response from the first professor to his colleague was that, no, that isn’t enough.

The very history in question is one in which men and women, passionate about equipping ministers to love people and Jesus, were at the same time “deeply involved in slavery and deeply complicit in the defense of slavery.”[2] This is not to say that either professor was in the end at odds with the other. In fact, it is conversations like these that move the conversation forward. These two friends and colleagues arguably reflect the SBC in which there is an agreed desire for reconciliation and commitment to the principles of the gospel and at the same time ambiguity and discord on what steps should be taken. Admittedly, in my own dissertation, I relegated reparations to a footnote. “A full discussion of reparations for the sins of previous generations is impossible in a paper of this length. It is then better to consider how the present church can respond to injustice and division within the context of ministry today.”[3] While my proposed actions of integration included the individual, the academy, the church, and the SBC, I know that more could have been said in a development of biblical reparations. I hope to do so here, at least in part. The task is admittedly a difficult one, but difficulty should never resign the believer to inaction.

It would first be most helpful to define the term before moving to a discussion of it biblically. Reparations can be understood as compensation for a wrong endured made by the guilty party. In one sense, reparations are a consequence of repentance. One of the clearest examples of reparations seen in Scripture comes in the familiar account of Zacchaeus, recorded in Luke 19:1-10. While this is by no means the only example of a distinct call for actionable justice in Scripture (e.g. Amos), it does offer possibly the most succinct example of it. After receiving Christ’s self-invitation into his home, the crowd began to complain that Jesus would lodge with such a wicked man. The chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, had a reputation of corruption and legalized robbery. This track record is not dissimilar to the legalized sins of the men and women who formed the SBC. Yet, in a picture of grace and submission to the gospel, Zacchaeus responds, “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). While this passage is not inherently prescriptive, the Zacchaeus Principle, as we will call it, demonstrates the clear regard for acts of repentance by persons in Christ. While the details and application of this principle will be explored in part 2 of this argument, a case must first be made to view the SBC as possessing personhood and, consequently, the ability and need for acts of repentance.

It should be noted that corporate personhood is a solidly biblical concept. From the earliest pages of Scripture, God speaks collectively of the actions of cities, nations, and mankind as a whole. Israel becomes the most obvious of these examples in the Old Testament. Consider the Shema in Deuteronomy 6, one of the most significant passages for Israel. “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart” (Deuteronomy 6: 4-6). Each verb and command assigned to Israel is singular, speaking both to the individual Israelites but also to something bigger: a single corporate person. This is the same person that the prophets indict, God would consign to exile, and Christ would come to redeem. Individual actions are expressed in corporate being and the required repentance of which comes together in a unified person.

The New Testament further speaks in terms of personhood to both the church local and universal. As Paul points out the beautiful dichotomy of individuals making up a corporate person in 1 Corinthians 12:27 saying, “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” The SBC, as an intermediary body between the church local and universal, maintains a similar corporate personhood. Just as Christ describes the church as a body and person, speaking to the whole beyond its individual parts, so the SBC operates as a corporate person and with that comes corporate culpability. Corporate repentance and reconciliation are seen throughout Scripture as the prophets call Israel and the nations to repentance just as Christ calls the seven churches to do in Revelation. The SBC is both capable and culpable in remedying the sins of its past. To do so requires direction and precision, both of which are seen in Zacchaeus.

[1] www.sbts.edu/southern-project/.

[2] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Letter from the President,” introducing the Report.

[3] Paul J. Morrison, Segregation, Desegregation, and Integration: The Legacy of Thomas Buford Maston On Race Relations, pg. 12, fn. 30.

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.