5 min read

How reconciliation underpins acts of reparation

The case for reparations is criticised for looking too much to the past. Anthony Reddie argues that the ancient roots of reconciliation are vital for today’s debate.

Anthony Reddie is Professor of Black Theology at the University of Oxford, and Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture.

A diagram plan of a slave ship showing hundreds of body outlines.
Diagram of the ship ‘Brookes’ from Regulated slave trade: reprinted from the evidence of Robert Stokes. (London, 1849)
Lambeth Palace Library.

Reconciliation is the key theological motif that runs through the scriptures and across Christian Tradition - Reconciliation between God and humankind, reconciliation between human beings across the cultural, social, political, ethnic and economic divide, reconciliation between our warring selves within us. 

Paul’s writings form the earliest documented texts in the New Testament canon. His writings are full of references to God’s reconciling work in Christ on the cross. This theme, however, needs to be read in terms of Jewish thought. This will correct the over-spiritualising of this in Christian practice. 

To make sense of the notion of reconciliation one also must understand the Jewish antecedents that inform Paul’s writing, given Paul himself was a Jewish man. In the Hebrew scriptures and in Jewish thought, atonement and salvation are collective and corporate concepts. This is very different to much of what constitutes post-Reformation Evangelical Protestantism where the emphasis is on individual salvation in Christ, by grace, through faith. 

The Hebrew Bible traditions of the Sabbath and Jubilee were moments for system re-set and dismantling inequalities which had accrued. 

Essentially, being in right-standing with God necessitated that one should be in right relationships with others. In fact, one could argue that it appears to be the case that one cannot be in a right relationship with God unless you were doing right by the other. The above can be seen in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. The early verses of its sixth chapter clearly state the notion of restorative justice for that which was wrongly taken and used, which is described as a “sin against God”. 

One can also see this concept or formula evident within the book of Deuteronomy 15:12–18. The key is verse 12 which states:  

“If any of you buy Israelites as slaves, you must set free after six years. And don’t just tell them they are free to leave – give them sheep and goats and a supply of grain and wine.”  

As Peter Cruchley’s work on the Zacchaeus Tax campaign has shown, the Hebrew Bible traditions of the Sabbath and Jubilee were moments for system re-set and dismantling inequalities which had accrued. They were moments of breaking the cycling, ongoing basis of debt and economic enslavement. It’s worth reminding ourselves that not one penny has been given to any of the descendants of enslaved Africans for the wrong done to them and yet Christian communities in the West still want to talk about redemption that is affirmed by their Judeo-Christian roots! 

Understanding the scriptures in their historical context enables Christians to discern a theological pattern for using money and other resources for enacting restorative justice. Modern interpretive theories on how we read biblical texts take full account of the fact that the New Testament was written within the context of the Roman Empire, where the Emperor claimed divine honours which faithful Jews could not affirm. Today’s reader must recognise that the context in which ALL of the New Testament canon was composed was one that echoed to the restrictive strains of colonialism and cries for justice against oppression. Judea, in which Jesus’ ministry was largely located, was an occupied colony of the Roman Empire. 

Contemporary scholars have shown that in the Jewish tradition, issues of reconciliation, redemption and salvation have a corporate ad a collective dimension to them as well as an individualistic one. 

Scholars such William R. Hertzog II have shown the extent to which wealth in the Roman Province of Palestine was always connected with economic exploitation. So, when Jesus challenges the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ to follow him, he says this in knowledge that the young man’s accumulation of wealth was not amassed in a neutral context. The reason why this encounter is so compact is because both the Rich Young Ruler and those first hearers knew the expectation of how he should behave. 

The Three Cs (commerce, civilisation and Christianity) were the underlying rationale on which the British Empire was based. The Three Cs were coined by David Livingstone (a London Missionary Society ‘Old Boy’) in Oxford in 1857. The exporting of Christianity via the European missionary agencies in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries was largely undertaken under the aegis of empire and colonialism. Christian mission, therefore, has had a difficult relationship with non-White bodies or the ‘subaltern’ for centuries as they are the ‘other’ and have been exploited for economic gain. There was no ethic of equality between missionaries and the ‘natives’. 

One can see that Jesus’ teachings around wealth and its relationship to discipleship and living the “Jesus way” has political and economic implications. Scholars such as Musa W. Dube, Catherine Keller, Michael Nausner and Mayra Rivera, have all shown the similarities between first-century Palestine, the slave epoch of the sixteenth to eighteenthcenturies, the eras of colonialism and our present globalized, postcolonial context. Each context is based upon imperialistic/colonial expansion, capital accumulation, forced labour and exploitation of the poor by the rich. 

Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood-Red Waters is the title of a 2017 book by the famed anti-apartheid activist and scholar Allan Boesak, who reflects on the contemporary ‘Black Lives Matter Movement’ largely in the US and post-Apartheid South Africa. In this context he speaks of the corporate reality of ‘Cheap Grace’ as outlined by the famous German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The West has attempted transformation WITHOUT sacrifice or restorative justice. Bonhoeffer chided Western Christians for wanting to have discipleship without radical commitment to God’s word, and forgiveness and redemption without struggle and sacrifice. Boesak reminds us that there is no redemption without the cross. Reconciliation must cost us something! 

Due to the influence of post-Reformation Evangelicalism, we have largely interpreted Jesus’ words in a purely individualistic way. Contemporary scholars have shown that in the Jewish tradition, issues of reconciliation, redemption and salvation have a corporate and a collective dimension to them as well as an individualistic one. 

I believe that institutions like the Church of England can set a prophetic lead to other Christian institutions, and beyond it, to other civic bodies and indeed governments.  ‘Cheap Grace’ NEVER leads to redemption and reconciliation. Without restorative justice there is no reconciliation, and the mission of Christ is diminished.

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?