Should Christians support reparations for American slavery? Some evangelicals believe so. Some have even attempted to make a biblical argument for reparations.
This article does not intend to address the specific issue of reparations in detail. I will, however, speak to a specific biblical argument for reparations that some have made from Ezra 6.
The biblical argument for reparations from Ezra 6 is both dangerous and theologically untenable. In Ezra 6, Ezra details at least a partial fulfillment of God’s restoration promises to Israel, promises foretold by the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. God fulfills these promises through pagan kings. King Darius commands the Jews to rebuild their temple. In verse 8, Darius decrees,
Moreover, I make a decree regarding what you shall do for these elders of the Jews for the rebuilding of this house of God. The cost is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River. (ESV)
Those who use this passage to support reparations focus on the “tribute” from the “royal revenue” that Darius commanded “the province from Beyond the River” give to the Jewish people for rebuilding the temple. In this account, Darius demands that those in the “Beyond the River” province financially compensate the Jewish people for what has been taken from them. As one advocate of reparations stated regarding Ezra 6, “In other words, Darius, as head of state, compels his citizens through taxes to pay a reparation to Israel even though those citizens did not commit the offense and those Israelites did not directly suffer the offense.”
Proponents of reparations press a further point. Darius’s decree, they argue, is God’s justice. In the interest of clarity, hear again the words of those arguing for reparations from Ezra 6:
If God, who is just and only does justice, has acted in this way then it cannot be unjust for nation-states to voluntarily repay its own citizens for crimes suffered at its hands–no matter when the crimes occurred.
In other words, biblical conservatives cannot argue that reparations are unjust, for God justly prescribed them in Ezra 6. If you argue against reparations, you are accusing God of injustice.
In truth, Ezra emphasizes the fulfillment of Jeremiah (see Ezra 1:1; cf. Jer 29:10; Isa 44:28; 45:1, 13). There are several problems, however, with the argument from Ezra for reparations. One cannot draw a straight line from the fulfillment of Scripture to God’s justice. In fact, it is very dangerous to do so. Here are some reasons:
First, the argument for reparations from Ezra 6 seems to imply that all that Darius did in this context was just in God’s sight. This would include Darius’s threat against all who refuse to pay the tax:
“Also I make a decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of his house, and he shall be impaled on it, and his house shall be made a dunghill.” (Ezra 6:11, ESV)
Here’s the question for those who use Ezra 6 for reparations: is this tax also just? Is this, by God’s justice, a fitting punishment for tax evasion? Is it a mark of God’s justice for those who don’t pay taxes to be impaled on a beam from their house just before their house becomes a dunghill? Should a government today thus punish any who fail to pay reparation taxes?
Perhaps Ezra means to say, “Darius’ punishment here is good and just.” If so, it must be accepted as authoritative. A better conclusion, however, is that Ezra is emphasizing the extraordinary lengths to which Darius was determined to bring about the construction of the second temple. Ezra does not necessarily approve of the punishment. The greater point, however, is that if one part of the edict incontrovertibly shows God’s justice, then the other part does as well. Given the Law’s emphasis on voluntary giving to God, it is highly unlikely that the Spirit wants us to take Darius’ punishment as reflecting divine justice.
Second, the situation in Ezra does not translate to American slavery questions (or any other kind of reparations) neatly by analogy. The use of Ezra 6 for reparations conflates American slaves with the Old Testament people of God and their particular calling by covenant. What God did for Israel is in part due to their special calling, not because they were an oppressed people per se. In fact, Israel deserved God’s judgment for their idolatry and covenant breaking. God’s restitution of them to the land and the rebuilding of the temple is evidence of God’s mercy, far more than God’s justice.
Third, and most importantly, the argument for reparations from Ezra 6 conflates divine justice with the fulfillment of prophecy. They believe that God’s use of Darius to fulfill prophecy means God approved of Darius’s actions as just. This is bad theology, plain and simple. If this kind of reasoning were true, think of how many sins God would be calling just.
For example, God foretold that Jehu would bring judgment upon the house of Ahab and become king (2 Kings 9:1-13). Yet not all Jehu did is necessarily supposed to be understood as just. This would certainly be the case of his toleration of the golden calves in Israel (see 2 Kings 10:28-31).
Another example. God foretold that his Son would die for men. If we hold that fulfillment always shows God’s justice, then the sin of crucifying the Lord of glory would be just, which God plainly denies (Acts 2:23; 1 Cor 2:8; et. al.).
For a final example, recall God’s prophecy that Babylon would execute his justice upon Judah for their sins against him (Isa 43:27-28; Jer 20:4; Hab 1:5-11). Babylon committed horrible atrocities in executing this fulfillment. God plainly did not approve of Babylon’s sin (Isa 47:6; Hab 2:15-20; Jer 50:7-16), yet God used sinful Babylon even in their iniquities as a tool of his righteous judgment upon Israel. We cannot affirm that Babylon’s atrocities against Israel were just, yet God plainly used them, in the mystery of his providence.
In sum, to draw a line from the fulfillment of God’s Word to God’s approval of the actions that fulfilled his Word as morally good or just is extremely hazardous.
There are many reasons to reject reparations. In the end, the most important argument—the argument from Scripture itself—fails, at least from Ezra 6.