“The Person of Jesus” Fallacy

“I don’t like religion but I like the person of Jesus.”

The religion they don’t like is Christianity – Jesus’ religion. They think it would be better if the church wasn’t involved. Separating an institution from its namesake isn’t easy under any circumstance, but it’s harder here because Jesus and the church are both ancient, and ancient doesn’t time-travel.

We hold a myth that it does, but ancient ideas and stories about ancient people preserved in ancient books can’t make the trip to today. We think if we could snatch those guys (ancient pronouns are definitely male) out of yesterday and plunk them into today, they would be just like us, dealing with the same kinds of issues, having the same kinds of thoughts. Not a chance. We are not like them and they weren’t like us. Our consciousness, experience, and reality are different from theirs. Bring them here or send us there and neither of us would have a clue.

Why? Because everything we feel, think, and do is in context – life happens right here, right now. It all happens in our brains and bodies – neurologically, biologically. We can’t escape being organisms. And we can’t escape the moment. That’s not a cool guru thing to say, it’s the way human life works. Contrary to the popular myth, we’re not eternal souls living on a higher plane while our bodies slog through the muck. We’re all here, like it or not.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

We don’t think reality works that way. We think it’s “out there,” waiting for us to find it. And if it’s Christian reality we’re after, Jesus promised that if we seek it we’ll find it. The only hitch is, the way we find it is by believing it. Christianity doesn’t function without belief. It starts with “whoever believes in him [Jesus] shall have eternal life” and goes from there.

Believing it is finding it. We find it by believing it. It’s not hard to spot the loop.

And if it’s the real Jesus we’re trying to find, there’s still the God-human problem. Theologians can talk all day about how Jesus was both “fully human and fully God,” but there’s no way the rest of us have any idea what that’s supposed to mean, so we stick with what we’ve been taught to believe. We major on the God part — we sanctify Jesus, bathe him in holy light, cast everything he said and did in marble, interpret and rationalize it in hindsight. We figure Jesus as God was always in the know so he knew all along what was happening and how it would be viewed by people like us two millennia later. He set everything up so church doctrine would make sense.

Plus our own memory banks are full of our personal history of faith and anything we might have learned about what’s happened with Christianity while it’s been around. There’s a lot of church and religion in those memories – stuff the person of Jesus” devotees want to trade for a fresh look. To do that, they’re going to have to be really good at “beginner’s mind” – using awareness to seek and destroy biases and assumptions.

Call me Ishmael

I didn’t think about the “person of Jesus” when I was a Christian, I mean, Jesus was special because I was a Christian. Sometimes people talked about loving Jesus. I never felt that way, so I worried that my faith was defective. Guilt was pretty much the extent of my “person of Jesus” experience.

Now that I’m not a Christian, I don’t like the guy.

It’s still shocks me when I write things like that. I never would have, back in the day, But I believed then. I don’t anymore.

Still, some people I’m close to buy the “person of Jesus” thing.

So call me Ishmael — I signed on to give it a try.

“Rabbi”

Jesus was a rabbi. He did what rabbis did:  travelled around teaching his take on things, attracted followers who supported him, and argued with other rabbis. (Rabbi arguing is so essential that the nation of Israel pays them to do it.)

Jesus was a rabbi prodigy – he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah by ditching his parents so he could debate other rabbis om Jerusalem’s temple. That’s like skipping law school for a chat at the Supreme Court. When they found him, in true adolescent fashion he made it their problem that they didn’t know he’d be there.

Then the Biblical record skips ahead twenty years – a gap that generates a lot of sappy artwork of him being a carpenter and “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumper stickers. What was he doing? The same thing he was doing before his temple debut:  studying, learning, perfecting his case, preparing himself to be a rabbi for the ages. When the photo op was over, he closed up shop and hit the road.

He was good at it – had personal charisma and a message to match. Recruiting was a snap, and before long he had a retinue and a schedule like a megachurch pastor:  he drew huge crowds to public events, taught an inner circle more intensely, and confided intimately with only a handful.

Jesus’ rabbi battles were epic. We like the way he put the smackdown on the competition. My overall impression is that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. Seems like he was often rebuking and scolding– like snarling at a man for not having enough faith while he healed his child. Maybe he was like one of those professors everybody warns is “really hard but you’ll learn a lot.” Sometimes I took the class, sometimes I didn’t – either way, I usually didn’t like “the person.”

Populism

Jesus was great in a crowd. He delivered sound bytes you could take home, share with the neighbors — consider the lilies of the field, the very hairs on your heads are numbered, no sparrow falls from the sky without God noticing…. He told great stories – always with a moral, but complex enough that his inner circle sometimes needed a private explanation. People wondered, “Where did he get all this?” “He doesn’t teach like the other rabbis,” they said.

There’s a poly-sci term for it:  populism. Populism reverses the pecking order — the elites will be last and the losers first. The new blessed — the poor, meek, abused, despised, outcast, sick, blind, lame, hopeless, powerless – will inherit the earth and see God. God already has their mansions in Heaven under construction.

Not only that, but they get free healthcare.

Healing

Jesus healed people at his rallies, sometimes stayed up all night doing it.

The Christianity I was part of believed healing should be a normal part of what Christians do. Not all Christianity thinks so. Plus, we all know the debates about did he really, about what qualifies as a “miracle,” and what’s this about casting out demons? In our day, the “placebo effect” has been scientifically documented, plus there have been and still are lots of people who heal without surgery or pharma. Debate all you like, but it’s undeniable that Jesus’s ability to make people feel better super-charged his popularity.

Messianic Populism

Healing people was a big deal. Only the A-list prophets had done it, which meant Jesus might be one of them. There hadn’t been one of those in a few hundred years. More than that, healing was more than a prophet marker, it was Messianic – part of what would happen when God made good on Israel’s long-promised restoration and golden era.

Start talking Messiah, and the populist buzz goes off the charts.

Jesus’ message was clearly Messianic, and he clearly believed he was the Messiah. That’s what went down in a very rabbi-like exchange with John the Baptist (though a couple of John’s followers). The rabbi exchange works like this:  one rabbi quotes scripture, the other responds in kind; and in so doing, they clarify a point between themselves. They’re speaking in code, but they get what each other is after.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Matthew 11: 2-5 ESV

“Are you the one who is to come?” [Are you the Messiah?]

“Go tell John what you see happening around here.” [Yes I am.]

The scripture in question was this:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
“    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

Isaiah 35: 5-6 ESV

Jesus made the same point on other occasions, like one Sabbath when he did something else rabbis did – went to the synagogue and read the scriptures, as “was his custom.” Only this time he went off script:  “The prophet Isaiah was talking about me.

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

“And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 ESV

Fast forward to today. We know that Jesus’ Messianic populism didn’t go permanent. Instead – according to the church – it morphed into something transnational and invisible that you get in on not by being born in ancient Israel, but by believing that Jesus was a sort of metaphysical Messiah for everybody. A few hundred years later under Emperor Constantine, the invisible Messianic kingdom morphed again into the official Christian institution and infrastructure “the person of Jesus” devotees want to scuttle.

Jesus’ populism was a fail, but that’s okay. We got something better instead. That’s the party line.

Populism Redux

I was a Jesus Freak in the 60’s and 70’s. We were totally into the populist Jesus– the bearded long-hair barefoot bead-wearing anti-war hippie radical Che Guevara look-alike who called out The Establishment and stuck it to the Man.

Today we’ve got the Revenge of the Establishment — the Christian Right’s Jesus who advances Christian Nationalist racist alt-right anti-democracy militarist fascist authoritarianism end stage capitalism.

I don’t know about you, but after the last few years I’ve had quite enough populism for one lifetime.

“We are the 99%” is why populism fails. Occupy camps out in Manhattan, the mob storms the Bastille (or the Capitol) but once the mess is cleaned up the 1% is back in charge while the newly disappointed and disillusioned 99% are back home wondering, “What was that about?”

So far, Jesus” sharp tongue and populism aren’t wining “person of Jesus” points. But how about this:

Jesus Reinvented God

If the Messiah was on the scene, the God of Israel’s history had to be recast.

Israel’s God was a “man of war. Exodus 15:3 He was both a war criminal and guilty of crimes against humanity – a misogynist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic narcissist who must be worshiped and resented it when he wasn’t, a nationalist, fascist authoritarian who openly ordered genocide and gave his conquering soldiers the right to rape and pillage.

You dealt with that God by being afraid – fearing him was “the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10 No wonder the rabbinical sects Jesus verbally sparred with – the Pharisees and Sadducees –were obsessed with getting everything just right, down to the last “jot and tittle.” Do something wrong and everybody suffered.

Of course, ancient Israel didn’t think of their God that way. People still don’t today. When they think of God, they think of a Nice Guy in the Sky – like the God Jesus introduced as our “Father” — a too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving remake of the old Monster God.

The Monster God destroyed men, women (except the sex slaves), and children and burned their cities down to make room for his chosen people, whom he also turned on if they got it wrong. That wouldn’t do if there was going to be a Messianic golden era. So Jesus brought a new God, and a new religion with it.

Jesus Reinvented Religion

Jesus’ new religion was based on belief. Belief was the ultimate populist Messianic kingdom strategy. Anyone could believe, even the losers — no temple, no priest, no animals sacrifice required.

Jesus’ new religion was today’s self-help gospel. When Jesus gets on the topic of belief, he’s the original motivational speaker.

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

That’s the power of positive thinking and law of attraction, from the pages and podiums of the $20 billion self-help industry. (Christians have adopted self-help as their own – Google “Christian self help” and you’ll see what I mean.) Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

It seems Jesus was an original thinker on this point – if it’s in the ancient Bible, I can’t find it.

If the Monster God was out and the Nice Guy in the Sky was in, then Israel’s historical religion had to change.  No more annual calendar of animal blood sacrifices. And no more temple.

A little research reveals that there was a rabbinical apocalyptic school of thought in Jesus’ time, and some scholars think Jesus was in the club. Maybe, maybe not, but Jesus clearly had an apocalyptic view of his religion’s future, which meant the temple’s days were numbered – a development he talked about with inner circle about when the troupe made their last trip to Jerusalem.

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’

“As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”

Matthew 24: 1-4 ESV

The temple was the nation. Take it away, and everything else went with it — worldview, cultural identity, historical understanding, vision for the future… all the nation’s institutions and icons trashed. The Messiah had been promised for millennia, but theoretical good news is one thing, the reality of dealing with it is quite another.

The “Lamb of God” heads off a national security risk

Jesus’ country was a theocracy. Messianic populism was a national security risk. Stir things up too much, and the Roman hammer would fall. The other rabbis could see it coming. They had a country to protect. They were human too — the lash of Jesus’ tongue hurt. And clearly he was wrong and they were right. No wonder they led the chant “We have no king but Caesar” while demanding Jesus’s conviction and murder.

And the amazing thing was, Jesus didn’t resist them. And when the Roman authorities wanted to let him go, he refused.

It looks like this came out of nowhere, but it was there all along, ever since John the Baptist made a pronouncement for the ages:

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29 ESV

At the height of his popularity, Jesus volunteered to be the human sacrifice that would appease Israel’s Monster God once and for all. No more imminent kingdom – instead, the settling of an old score. It looks like a sudden change of heart, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Matthew 16:21-23 ESV

So much for the merry populist ride and the loving new Heavenly Father. In order for the old God and the old religion to be over with, there would need to be one last bloody sacrifice – the “Lamb of God.” That would be Jesus’s final act.

Trouble is, you destroy the Messiah, you destroy the Messianic golden age. Two thousand years of church doctrine says don’t worry about that, because this was the surprise happy ending– the impossibly good news no one saw coming. I’m no longer in the thrall of church doctrine, so I see it differently.

At the height of Jesus’ populist ministry, his family staged an intervention – tried to bring him home. They thought he was beside himself, wasn’t thinking straight, needed some time to cool off. He blew them off, and shortly after started predicting his death. It’s like something snapped in him. Right about then was the transfiguration –Moses and Elijah on the mountain — the lawgiver and prophet — and afterward the populism ran off the rails. Instead of breaking with the Monster God, Jesus announced that he would appease him with his own death. Bringing the Messianic kingdom would be his followers’ job, and in the time he had left he focused on preparing them for the job.

This is where I give up on “the person of Jesus” – when his healing, populist gospel turns into an ancient religious death wish.

But then it gets worse.

The Last Judgment

When Jesus broke faith with his Messianic populist movement, he became fully complicit in ancient Israel’s religion and angry God.

Like any sociopath, the Monster God could be kind — the official line was that his “lovingkindness indeed never ceases” Lamentations 3:22-23 Trouble was, his lovingkindness was conditional, on loan. His people could never please him, so they were always building debt they could never repay. Christian theology says that applies to the rest of us too, and that Jesus – “fully God” – knew that, so he picked up the tab for everybody.

But the final reckoning inexplicably stayed on the agenda. Once the world burns in apocalyptic flames, we’re all summoned to the Last Judgment, and if we don’t believe the right stuff, we’re screwed in the worst possible way.

These days, every time I write the stuff the church I was part of used to believe, I’m shocked and stunned all over again. Really — people who seem normal, like I used to think I was — believe all this gory, horrible stuff. No wonder Christians parade Jesus’s death by torture symbol like it’s the best thing ever. It’s a crucifix, for crying out loud! –one of the most horrifyingly cruel, depraved, savage, barbaric, sadistic, blood-lusty instruments of torture the very worst of human depravity has ever devised, and there’s a man on it, beaten and whipped bloody, writhing in pain.

Oh, and a father did that to his child. Because he so loved the world.

And the son submitted to it because he loved us and wanted to please his father.

Behold the Lamb of God.

That’s the religion Jesus couldn’t break from – which two thousand years later was the same religion I joined when I became a Christian – and which is still the same religion I’m no longer part of. Christianity gives lip service to the Father, but it worships the Monster.

Jesus Christ Superstar

By the time I got this far in my search for “the person of Jesus” I realized what I’d found was my own Christian life. Twenty years after my Jesus Freak populism days, the Kingdom finally came. It was full-on Jesus populism. We went after the losers, stayed up all night healing them and finding them under bridges. We built churches in their abandoned store fronts, washed their cars, did their Spring cleaning, hauled away their trash. We fed them and moved them into homes.

Then the worst thing happened. The Evangelicals who’d been on our case extended the olive branch, and our leaders took it. We used to have the Father, now we had half the Father and half the Monster. Occupy was over. The elites were back in charge. The old order was restored.

That’s what I found looking for “the person of Jesus.”

Writing this now, I think of Judas singing in Jesus Christ Superstar — “Every time I look at you I don’t understand/Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” Yeah, that pretty well sums it up.

When I first heard it, I thought it was clever, but trite. Not anymore. Jesus had it going, he let it get away. Sad. Frustrating. I wish his family’s intervention had worked. It didn’t, and for reasons we’ll never know, Jesus took a course that a couple thousand years later has brought us the Christian Right and the Kingdom of Texas, the Proud Boys with their giant crosses that look like they’re going to use them on somebody, and all the rest. We get modern barbarity to match ancient barbarity, justified by the barbaric God of a barbaric ancient religion, its devotees hawking doctrinal statements of faith barely indistinguishable from their most wildly fantastical conspiracy theories.

The individual and collective brains of the human race have been groomed with this disgusting source of endless misery for six thousand years since the Bible first declared ‘In the beginning, God….”

How about if we start over with, “In the new beginning, no God’?

Not even “the person of Jesus.”

Today billions of people around the world still sanctify the church’s ideology and idolatry no matter how weird and brutal it is. “The person of Jesus” offers no escape, only more of the same.

Can we please move on?

Reparations [8]: Global Accountability- Part 3

Reparations for slavery, to be carried out under international human rights law, offer an historic opportunity for the USA’s national healing of its racial troubles, but the founding myth of American exceptionalism stands in the way.

Human Rights Law

International human rights law derives from the United Nations’ founding vision.

“The term ‘human rights’ was mentioned seven times in the UN’s founding Charter, making the promotion and protection of human rights a key purpose and guiding principle of the Organization.  In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights brought human rights into the realm of international law.  Since then, the Organization has diligently protected human rights through legal instruments and on-the-ground activities.

“The UN Charter, in its Preamble, set an objective: ‘to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained’. Ever since, the development of, and respect for international law has been a key part of the work of the Organization.  This work is carried out in many ways – by courts, tribunals, multilateral treaties – and by the Security Council, which can approve peacekeeping missions, impose sanctions, or authorize the use of force when there is a threat to international peace and security, if it deems this necessary.  These powers are given to it by the UN Charter, which is considered an international treaty.  As such, it is an instrument of international law, and UN Member States are bound by it.  The UN Charter codifies the major principles of international relations, from sovereign equality of States to the prohibition of the use of force in international relations.”[1]

Although the U.S. was one of the four U.N. founders,[2] it has consistently rejected the U.N. ideal of the “sovereign equality of States.” By doing so, it avoids accountability under international human rights law.

The Case for Reparations Under International Law

The U.S. practiced legal slavery from its creation through the Civil War, de facto slavery for a hundred years after that, and since then has maintained systemic, cultural racism. It is therefore guilty of violating International law, which identifies slavery as a “crime against humanity,”[3] It is no defense to claim that slavery was a thing of the past, since there is no statute of limitations under international human rights law.[4] International law would remedy this entire history with a multi-tiered approach to reparations that includes monetary compensation and remedial action.[5]

A recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal stated the international case against the U.S. [6] The editorial first asserts that “the U.S. is bound by international law and must be guided by the precedent set by many other countries that have recognized reparations as a means to redress injustice,” referencing the legal doctrine that formed the basis for the Nuremberg Nazi Trials.

“The prohibition against slavery has now achieved jus cogens—a peremptory norm, from which no derogation is permitted. This is the highest legal status in international law, and it means retroactive responsibility may be imposed on those who violated that norm. This is how the Nazis were prosecuted at Nuremberg: retroactively—for the jus cogens of crimes against humanity. On that basis alone, the U.S. may be held legally responsible for the historical enslavement of Africans and the consequences for their descendants.”

The Nuremberg Precedent

The Nuremberg reference is particularly apt in view of comments made by the last-surviving prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz. 

“[Benjamin] Ferencz was 27 years old and this was his first case…. He began the proceedings with one of the most powerful opening statements of the Nuremberg trials: ‘It is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose the deliberate slaughter of more than a million innocent and defenceless men, women and children. Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask this court to affirm by international penal action, man’s right to live in peace and dignity, regardless of his race or creed. The case we present is a plea of humanity to law. We shall establish beyond the realm of doubt facts which, before the dark decade of the Third Reich, would have seemed incredible.’”[7]

Mr. Ferencz’s recent comments were not about slavery, but rather the U.S. family separation immigration policy — a “crime against humanity” under international law.

“The last surviving member of the Nuremberg trials prosecuting team has said Donald Trump committed ‘a crime against humanity’ with the recent family separation policy.

“Ben Ferencz, 99, made the comment during a recent interview with outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

“The lawyer said it was ‘painful’ when he heard about how the Trump administration had separated more than 2,000 children from their families after they had crossed the US-Mexico border.”[8]

The Rome Statute’s list of “crimes against humanity” includes “imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty” and “persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural… and other grounds,” and ends with the catch-all phrase “other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.”[9] Mr. Ferencz invoked this phrase in his comments:

“We list crimes against humanity in the Statute of the International Criminal Court. We have ‘other inhumane acts designed to cause great suffering’. What could cause more great suffering than what they did in the name of immigration law? It’s ridiculous,’ the prosecutor of war criminals said regarding the family separation policy.”[10]

American National Sovereignty vs. “The Sovereign Equality of States”

In place of the “sovereign equality of States,” the U.S. maintains what President Herbert Hoover labeled a “rugged individual” sense of national identity that it has applied to its national sovereignty. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions provided a textbook application of rugged individualism in his defense of the Trump Administration’s family separation policy.

“If you cross the border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we’ll prosecute you,,,, If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified.”[11]

Sessions invoked the Bible to substantiate the United States’ God-derived national sovereignty. The authority of God and the Bible is totalitarian, beyond accountability. Since the United States derives its national sovereignty from God and the Bible, it enjoys the same totalitarian authority, above any law other than its own. Its laws are good and moral by definition, and its government and government officials are free from fault because its laws say they are.

Yes, a U.S., Attorney General actually said that.

“I would cite you to the Apostle Paul.”

“God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

“Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves.”

“Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful.”

“It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”

Sessions’ case justifies national indifference to the plight of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse. the homeless, and tempest-tossed.[12] We are therefore free to terrorize them at the border if we wish.

The same concept applies to our history of institutionalized slavery and nationalized racism.

We can do better.

Germany’s WWII Reparations

Again, comparisons to post-WWII Germany are apt:  through its reparations to the new Jewish state, Germany paid its moral debt for Nazism, substantially benefited Israel, and emerged from its own catastrophic history, free to take on a new national identity.

Germany’s commitment to reparations did not come easily.

“In 1952, when West Germany began the process of making amends for the Holocaust, it did so under conditions that should be instructive to us. Resistance was violent. Very few Germans believed that Jews were entitled to anything. Only 5 percent of West Germans surveyed reported feeling guilty about the Holocaust, and only 29 percent believed that Jews were owed restitution from the German people.

“‘The rest,’ the historian Tony Judt wrote in his 2005 book, Postwar, ‘were divided between those (some two-fifths of respondents) who thought that only people ‘who really committed something’ were responsible and should pay, and those (21 percent) who thought ‘that the Jews themselves were partly responsible for what happened to them during the Third Reich.’ 

“Germany’s unwillingness to squarely face its history went beyond polls. Movies that suggested a societal responsibility for the Holocaust beyond Hitler were banned. ‘The German soldier fought bravely and honorably for his homeland,’ claimed President Eisenhower, endorsing the Teutonic national myth. Judt wrote, ‘Throughout the fifties West German officialdom encouraged a comfortable view of the German past in which the Wehrmacht was heroic, while Nazis were in a minority and properly punished.’

“Konrad Adenauer, the postwar German chancellor, was in favor of reparations, but his own party was divided, and he was able to get an agreement passed only with the votes of the Social Democratic opposition.”

Nor did receiving reparations come easily to the Israelis.

“Survivors of the Holocaust feared laundering the reputation of Germany with money, and mortgaging the memory of their dead. Beyond that, there was a taste for revenge. ‘My soul would be at rest if I knew there would be 6 million German dead to match the 6 million Jews,’ said Meir Dworzecki, who’d survived the concentration camps of Estonia.

“Ben-Gurion countered this sentiment, not by repudiating vengeance but with cold calculation: ‘If I could take German property without sitting down with them for even a minute but go in with jeeps and machine guns to the warehouses and take it, I would do that—if, for instance, we had the ability to send a hundred divisions and tell them, ‘Take it.’ But we can’t do that.’

“The reparations conversation set off a wave of bomb attempts by Israeli militants. One was aimed at the foreign ministry in Tel Aviv. Another was aimed at Chancellor Adenauer himself. And one was aimed at the port of Haifa, where the goods bought with reparations money were arriving.”

But once made, Germany’s reparations were undeniably beneficial to the new Jewish state.

“West Germany ultimately agreed to pay Israel 3.45 billion deutsche marks, or more than $7 billion in today’s dollars. Individual reparations claims followed—for psychological trauma, for offense to Jewish honor, for halting law careers, for life insurance, for time spent in concentration camps. Seventeen percent of funds went toward purchasing ships. ‘By the end of 1961, these reparations vessels constituted two-thirds of the Israeli merchant fleet,’ writes the Israeli historian Tom Segev in his book The Seventh Million. ‘From 1953 to 1963, the reparations money funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system, which tripled its capacity, and nearly half the total investment in the railways.’

“Israel’s GNP tripled during the 12 years of the agreement. The Bank of Israel attributed 15 percent of this growth, along with 45,000 jobs, to investments made with reparations money. But Segev argues that the impact went far beyond that. Reparations ‘had indisputable psychological and political importance,’ he writes.”

The reparations could not erase a shameful past, but they created a worthy future.

“Reparations could not make up for the murder perpetrated by the Nazis. But they did launch Germany’s reckoning with itself, and perhaps provided a road map for how a great civilization might make itself worthy of the name.

“Assessing the reparations agreement, David Ben-Gurion[13] said ‘For the first time in the history of relations between people, a precedent has been created by which a great State, as a result of moral pressure alone, takes it upon itself to pay compensation to the victims of the government that preceded it. For the first time in the history of a people that has been persecuted, oppressed, plundered and despoiled for hundreds of years in the countries of Europe, a persecutor and despoiler has been obliged to return part of his spoils and has even undertaken to make collective reparation as partial compensation for material losses.’”[14]

What U.S. Reparations Require

Reparations for U.S. slavery require an admission before the watching world that the American founding legal system created a racist regime of national cruelty, our fledgling nation shaped itself on those terms for its first centuries, this regime persisted into a Civil War that purportedly overthrew it, de facto slavery continued for another hundred years, even the landmark legislation of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement did not eradicate either legal or de facto racism, which persisted in the form of cultural discrimination, systemic racism still persists today.

In addition, reparations require a commitment to set things to right. This history has left a toxic stain on the U.S. national identity that we wish to remedy with a fresh vision for what our national culture could be if we were to chart a non-racial course into our future and thereby redeem what it means to be “the land of the free.” We wish to make amends, to chart a new course and see it through, and we welcome the assistance of the aspirational ideal of governments everywhere that nations exist to improve the lives of their citizens.”

In a word, reparations require humility – in particular, a formal end to the U.S. claim of national exceptionalism.

“The City Upon a Hill”

The idea of American exceptionalism is 400 years old — born in the context of colonial era belief in white European superiority. It is therefore by definition at odds with racial equality.

“In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that ‘we shall be as a city upon a hill.’

“In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon [entitled “A Model of Christian Charity”] went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. It was found and first published in 1838—at which point it continued to be ignored for another century.

“When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ into a foundational text of American culture.[15]

President Reagan repurposed Winthrop’s sermon for the Cold War, using a reconstituted version of the Pilgrims as champions of American freedom.

“The Pilgrim story… enabled early Americans to downplay the role of slavery in our national history. Jamestown came before Plymouth. Enslaved Africans landed before the Pilgrims. Yet if the Pilgrims came for freedom, then these other beginnings could be ignored. To make the story stick, Pilgrims and Puritans—who had slaves themselves and participated in the slave trade—were washed clean of the sin altogether.

“Just as importantly, American exceptionalism has never had a place for Native Americans. Early Anglo-American historians often reimagined Native Americans as the setting against which the “true history” of America takes place. They were part and parcel of the wilderness, the stage for the story that began when Europeans first set foot on a savage and silent shore. For American exceptionalism to cohere, Native Americans had to be removed.”[16]

The popularity of American exceptionalism rises and falls with the times and the generations. Compare these polls from The Pew Research Center: 

Most Americans Think the U.S. is Great, but Fewer say it’s the Greatest (July 2, 2014) – “About three-in-ten (28%) think that the U.S. ‘stands above all other countries in the world,’ while most (58%) say it is ‘one of the greatest countries in the world, along with some others.’ Few Americans (12%) say there are other countries in the world ‘that are better than the U.S.’”

A Majority of Americans Believe The U.S. is One of The Greatest Nations In The World (July 4, 2018) — “More than eight-in-ten (85%) said in a June 2017 survey that the U.S. either ‘stands above all other countries in the world’ (29%) or that it is ‘one of the greatest countries, along with some others’ (56%). While large shares in all adult generations say America is among the greatest countries, those in the Silent Generation (ages 73 to 90 in 2018) are the most likely to say the U.S. ‘stands above” all others’ (46%), while Millennials are the least likely to say this (18%).”

Younger Americans More Likely Than Older Adults to Say There Are Other Countries That Are Better Than The U.S. (January 9, 2020) – “Overall, most Americans say either that the U.S. ‘stands above all other countries’ (24%) or that it is ‘one of the greatest countries, along with some others’ (55%). About one-in-five (21%) say ‘there are other countries that are better than the U.S.’ However, slightly more than a third (36%) of adults ages 18 to 29 say there are other countries that are better than the U.S., the highest share of any age group.”

The Trump administration redirected the idea onto another course altogether.

“The rhetoric of ‘America First’ can sometimes sound like American exceptionalism, but it offers a radically different vision of the nation…. Instead of a history of the nation, America First offers a philosophy. It claims that all countries, including the US, share basically the same goal: to win. “Greatness” is not about values; it is primarily about sovereignty, power, and wealth. The hazards of America First, therefore, come not from a misguided sense of national election, but from the absence of any higher moral good…. America First urges self-interest in a world seen as a survival of the fittest.”[17]

And in 2020. the pandemic called American exceptionalism to account in a whole new way:

“Politicians extol [American exceptionalism]. Scholars debate it. The past decade has battered it. Will the coronavirus crisis finish off this country’s golden view of itself?”[18]

Meanwhile, international law and the prospect of peer membership in the global community fall weakly against American recalcitrance.

“Since its founding, the United States has defined itself as the supreme protector of freedom throughout the world, pointing to its Constitution as the model of law to ensure democracy at home and to protect human rights internationally. Although the United States has consistently emphasized the importance of the international legal system, it has simultaneously distanced itself from many established principles of international law and the institutions that implement them. In fact, the American government has attempted to unilaterally reshape certain doctrines of international law while disregarding others, such as provisions of the Geneva Conventions and the prohibition on torture… America’s selective self-exemption… undermines not only specific legal institutions and norms, but leads to a decreased effectiveness of the global rule of law.” [19]

“Corrective Justice”

The Wall Street Journal editorial cited above continues with the non-legal case for reparations:

“The case for reparations isn’t only a legal one. It is also about coming to terms with the historical injustices that explain continuing frustration and marginalization today. America can’t heal without acknowledging its “original sin”—slavery—and implementing a reparations program that encompasses truth, reconciliation, atonement and compensation.

“The grim legacy of slavery is a form of structural racism that continues to bar social, cited economic, political and health equality for many African-Americans. That is itself a justification for reparations.

“Another is that more than half a century since the end of Jim Crow, innocent African-Americans continue to be murdered at the hands of police officers and vigilantes—apparently with impunity, unless it is caught on video. There can no longer be any question that the legacy of slavery will endure unless reparations are made as a first step toward corrective justice.”[20]

“Corrective justice” benefits far beyond some kind of arbitrary remuneration to the descendants of slaves, as is often discussed. This is far too limited. It ignores a much larger class of beneficiaries that includes the entire nation and all of its citizens.

Corrective justice… grounded in national humility and carried out in an embrace of global accountability, with an aim to heal the past and create a future national trajectory free of racism… Is it just a pipe dream?

No. It’s an historical precedent for national healing, as evident in post-war Germany and the founding of the Jewish state.

And much more, it’s an historic opportunity today for the United States to chart a new course as the Land of the Free.


[1] The United Nations – What We Do, un.org.

[2] The others were China, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. United Nations – Dumbarton Oaks and Yalta.

[3] The Rome Statute, Article 7.

[4] Statute of Limitations, Investopedia (Aug. 29, 2020). See the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (Nov. 11, 1970).

[5] Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law. adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 60/147 of 16 December 2005.

[6] International Law Demands Reparations for American Slavery, The Wall Street Journal (June 9, 2020).

[7] Benjamin Ferencz: The last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, Aljazeera (Mar. 11, 2020). See also Last Surviving Prosecutor At Nuremberg Trials Says Trump’s Family Separation Policy Is “Crime Against Humanity, The Independent (August 9, 2018).

[8] Last surviving prosecutor at Nuremberg trials says Trump’s family separation policy is ‘crime against humanity,” the Independent (Oct. 16, 2018)

[9] The Rome Statute, Article 7.

[10] Last surviving prosecutor at Nuremberg trials says Trump’s family separation policy is ‘crime against humanity,” the Independent (Oct. 16, 2018)

[11] YouTube. See Wikipedia — Trump administration family separation policy.

[12] The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty, The Atlantic (Jan. 15, 2018)

[13] Encyclopedia Britannica – David Ben-Gurion.

[14] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, The Case for Reparationstwo hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole. The Atlantic (June 2014).

[15] Hoselton, Ryan, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama All Cited One Puritan Sermon to Explain America, Christianity Today (Sept.17, 2020) – an interview with Abram C. Van Engen, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis, regarding his book, City on a Hill: A History of American Exceptionalism. See also Wikipedia – City Upon a Hill.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Will a Pandemic Shatter the Perception of American Exceptionalism? The New York Times (April 25, 2020)

[19] Natsu Saito, Meeting the Enemy: American Exceptionalism and International Law,

[20] International Law Demands Reparations for American Slavery, The Wall Street Journal (June 9, 2020).