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

This pair of articles was originally published through The Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement. Part 1, January 7, 2019. Part 2, January 14, 2019. 

A Question of Reparations in the Southern Baptist Convention: Part 1, The Zacchaeus Principle and a Case for Corporate Personhood”

Paul J. Morrison, Ph.D.

A little more than three weeks ago, my wife and I travelled 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.

“A Question of Reparations in the Southern Baptist Convention: Part 2, Applying the Zacchaeus Principle”

Paul J. Morrison, Ph.D.

Having considered the ability and need for corporate repentance,[6] 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,”[7]  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.[8] 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.”[9]

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.  


[3]Al Mohler, “Letter from the President,” introducing the Report.

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

[6]Hyperlink, “A Question of Reparations in the Southern Baptist Convention: Part 1, The Zacchaeus Principle and a Case for Corporate Personhood.”