March 5, 2024 - 10:00am

Once again, reparations for slavery are in the news, with the Church of England stating its desire to create a £1 billion fund for the purpose. 

The typical discourse around these kind of proposals is endlessly frustrating. For example, it is often stated explicitly or assumed implicitly that British national prosperity was “built on slavery”. This is flatly untrue: Britain was a wealthy country well before the transatlantic slave trade and continued to be one long after we had entirely banned slavery throughout the Empire, at no small cost to ourselves. Even at its height, slavery was a relatively small component of the British economy. The economic power that underpinned our time as global hegemon was largely the result not of dark deeds or plunder, but of our innovative, free and dynamic economy and political stability.

When the proposals come from the C of E, there is an added source of frustration, which is that there often seems to be very little specifically Christian reflection on how believers might think through matters of racial reconciliation. With slavery reparations, as with other matters, there is a distinct whiff of the Church leaping on board a passing secular bandwagon in the search for relevance and respectability. 

Similarly, it was reported that something called the West Midlands Regional Racial Justice Initiative — a Church initiative — was seeking an Anti-Racism Practice Office (Deconstructing Whiteness). The idea that there exists some dark socio-political force called “whiteness”, which must be “deconstructed” to achieve racial justice, is for all intents and purposes a conspiracy theory. Defenders of the idea insist that hostility to whiteness does not mean hostility to Europeans, but instead against the forces of patriarchy, racial discrimination and unjust authority. 

It’s hard to see how this makes things any better, however. Explicitly associating one ethnic group with systematic wickedness is deeply wrong and a recipe for unrest and antagonism. It is particularly grim coming from Christians, who ought to be in the business of promoting racial harmony, not crank theories about how all the problems of society are the fault of a certain group. 

It’s all the more strange because there is simply no need for churches to import academic fads in this way. We have our own long and sophisticated history on which to draw, starting with the book of Galatians in the New Testament: “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

From its very earliest days, Christianity was notable for its lack of concern about ethnic boundaries and for its insistence that every human was equally in need of God’s mercy. Christian thinkers did come to confront what we would now call structural injustice, but this was done with subtlety and care and attention to the detailed requirements of justice. The crude and sweeping claims made by modern advocates of reparations are quite alien to this thoughtful tradition.

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.