The origins of money and wealth – why some people are rich and others are poor – are difficult questions and at least in the Bible (but also surely in human nature) often rooted in exploitation and injustice. So much so that God ordains a ‘jubilee’ for His people to reset debts and ownership of assets, to give people a clean slate and to reduce inequality and the effects of injustice. And Jesus when he announced his ministry, proclaims the year of jubilee – of freedom, and good news for the poor.
In today’s world, many of the ways in which money and wealth were made can be traced back to the slave trade, slavery and colonialism. Surely such abhorrent sources of wealth should be exposed, understood, repented of, and attempts made to repair the damage done?
The issue of “reparations” (monetary compensation or other ways of repairing damage) for slavery and colonialism has become more mainstream since the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020. But it’s still a highly controversial subject that elicits strong emotions across all sections of society including the church.
Who should pay reparations? Who should receive them? Are we talking about individuals, companies, institutions, or whole nations/ groups of nations? Are we talking about money or investment in education, healthcare, and efforts to tackle racism? How much and who decides? Many of these questions need to be answered in dialogue – and primarily not by those who currently hold the power and wealth.
It’s also important to acknowledge that this is a personal issue as well as a political and economic one. All of us have been shaped by history: for those of us who are white we need to understand our privilege – our attitude in this debate needs to be one of humble listening and learning. For those of us who are black there may be anger and pain at the personal cost of this history and its ongoing legacies.
As we think about marking Racial Justice Sunday in our churches this February, can we think about ways to engage with this issue? Can we consider ways to create spaces for genuine listening and learning, and then taking action that may not be comfortable? Here are some areas we could think about.
What do we know about where the wealth of our church, denomination, town or country has come from? How could we find out more about slavery and colonialism and their connections to the people and places in our lives? You can listen to a recent webinar ECCR took part in here. Here are some more ideas, just connected to the economic and financial parts of society – much more needs to be said about the role of the church – you can see an example of how a mission society has responded here.
- Many banks and finance companies today can trace their heritage to banks and companies that benefited from slavery – and compensation for its abolition. Yes that’s right, the UK compensated slave owners for their losses when slavery was abolished. The British government borrowed £20 million to compensate slave owners, which was one of the largest loans in history. And it was only in 2015, according to the Treasury, that British taxpayers finished ‘paying off’ this debt.
You can explore the database of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at UCL online to find out more about the role of particular companies in transatlantic slavery. The Bank of England has apologised for the role of some of its directors and members in the slave trade and slavery and Lloyds of London has apologised and made a series of commitments – to increase ethnic minority staff, make contributions to charities promoting racial justice, and to research further the legacies of slavery. Could you contact your bank and ask them firstly if they have investigated any past links to slavery and if they have any what do they intend to do about it?
- Slavery and colonialism are at the root of much of today’s racial inequalities. There are shocking racial disparities in wealth and economic wellbeing in UK society today. In financial terms alone, Black African and Caribbean populations in the UK have poorer access to financial products and services, lower levels of savings and assets. There are also calls for the finance sector to publish information about representation, diversity and ethnic pay gaps and their plans to improve this. What racial justice charities could you get in touch with and support? You could ask your bank what they are doing about tackling racial inequality in the finance sector, for example by publishing data on their ethnicity pay gap and how they’re working to close it.
- Finally, we need to campaign for systemic change and not just responses from individual institutions or companies. Tax justice is one area that can be approached with a reparations lens. Could you support our Church Action for Tax Justice campaign as we call for a fairer tax system both domestically and internationally to address systemic inequalities and raise revenue? Closing tax havens – many of whom can trace their economic distortion and exploitation right back through colonialism and slavery; ending corporate tax avoidance and evasion globally; and introducing a wealth tax on the super-rich – are all policies that could help to reset the economy – repairing the damage caused by historic exploitation and its contemporary legacies and going some way towards a modern day ‘jubilee’.
Sarah Edwards, Executive Director, ECCR
We want to see a world where money is used to shape a fairer, greener future. With your support we can continue to resource and equip Christians across the UK to better connect their faith and finance.