Following God’s call to reconciliation
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issues of Presbyterians Today.
Reconciliation is at the heart of Christian faith. It is arguably the most radical and transforming work done by God and practiced in our own lives. In 2 Corinthians 5:19 the apostle Paul teaches us that through Christ, God was “reconciling the world to himself” and calls us to a ministry of reconciliation with each other. But what does reconciliation mean? Does it mean we forgive and forget? Or convince others that we are right?
Reconciliation is more than just simply getting along. It’s a way of living that allows us—and others—to thrive. It’s an invitation to wholeness in our relationships with God, ourselves, each other, and our earth. Reconciliation doesn’t depend on punishment to even the score, but is a restorative process that creates fair and just relationships.
“Reconciliation is a process where we take action to address or undo any structural or systemic sources of injustice and inequality that are the result of brokenness,” says David Hooker, professor of the practice of conflict transformation and peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
To understand reconciliation, we first have to understand shalom. In the Hebrew Scriptures we learn that God’s shalom is a lifetime pursuit of peace, harmony, and wholeness benefitting the entire community. More than an absence of war and bigger than personal contentment and well-being, shalom is the re-creation of our world into one where everyone can thrive. It is the presence of God’s justice.
This cry for justice winds throughout Scripture. From Moses to Jesus, from the heart language of the Psalms to the wisdom literature, justice is tied to real people trying to make their way through a difficult and unjust world. Righting wrongs, living with integrity and accountability, and calling the powerful to care for the poor and outcast are all forms of justice-making. Peace and justice form a structure that reconciliation can sink into. Otherwise, reconciliation is superficial and unsustainable.
The essence of reconciliation is relationship, which is porous and moving. When relationship is harmed between or within communities, identity groups, individuals, or other entities, a wound occurs. If that wound is left unattended, deeper trauma can happen. The longer wounds fester, the more likely it is that we will inflict similar wounds on others.
“If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it,” writes the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr in his book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality.
Goal or process
Reconciliation can be a goal that we achieve, a once-and-done process that sets things right for the future. But sometimes it may seem impossible to achieve that goal. In these cases, reconciliation can be a process that we engage in day after day as we slowly improve the relationships. Whether it happens all at once or over the course of years, reconciliation leads to a peaceful and just relationship that looks toward eternity and doesn’t just exist in the moment.
“Reconciliation is an ongoing commitment to a set of interwoven processes that themselves evolve over time,” Hooker says.
Thinking of reconciliation as a process rather than an outcome teaches those involved how to provide a space where personal safety is emphasized and respect for others is learned. Working with a skilled facilitator can be a game changer in the moment and a life changer if the lessons are taken to heart.
Reconciliation can occur between two people or communities, but it can also scale bigger and happen within political systems, as it did in South Africa as apartheid was dismantled. When we engage in reconciliation, we grow deeper in our Christian call to participate in the kingdom of God in every part of our world.
Living out God’s reconciliation
Know our history. Each of us enters into relationships with our own stories, our own biological and experiential histories, and the cultural narratives we have internalized, both chosen and not. To begin a path to reconciliation, we must unwind these historical stories, name them and their importance, and open ourselves to healing and change.
In our cultural history, we remember and lament the removal and slaughter of First Nations inhabitants. We are beginning to tell the truth about their maltreatment by Christian churches, institutions, and individuals. The 222nd General Assembly (2016) recognized the need for reconciliation by approving an apology to First Nations people for our sinful treatment of our sisters and brothers.
We are also beginning to hear and confess the truth about the grip that racism has in our culture. We are examining the systemic ways northern European and white worldviews have formed the structures and systems in which we work. The newly adopted Confession of Belhar calls us to reject any sinful separation of people and to speak against the alienation, fear, and enmity that result from racial inequity.
Tell our truth. We can expect grief and shame both when we have been wronged and when we are the perpetrators. Truth telling allows for authentic relationship to emerge and has the ability to restore trust between parties.
In the book Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, Drew I. Hart suggests we reconsider the social intuition we have developed as U.S. Christians, especially in predominantly white denominations. Hart suggests that U.S. Christians have trusted their intuition about racial reality, which has been repeatedly wrong.
“Dominant culture as a social location was actually the worst vantage point for deciphering what was going on. It is a given today that dominant society’s institutions were impaired at that time. Almost everyone, except the very fringe of society, will agree that the majority of white people got it wrong,” Hart writes. Instead, we must listen to those on the margins to inform our truth.
Invite, don’t require. People are always free to opt out, to postpone, or to wait for their hearts, bodies, and minds to be ready for the next step. Opening spaces for forgiveness is a part of reconciliation work, but forgiveness cannot be forced or demanded.
Be patient. Reconciliation is a process, not a destination. It is tempting to think that reconciliation is something we achieve, but it is an ongoing process, a posture of listening respect in relationship. We need to be comfortable with discomfort in our commitment to reconciliation.
Trust God’s work. Lament and repentance have no timetable. We may want to jump quickly through uncomfortable feelings to resolve. When injustice occurs and relationships are damaged, lament and repentance are the right responses. We should recognize them, articulate them, and not rush to fix things. Neither, though, are we free to leave the hard work to someone else.
Forgive and remember. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, trauma expert Bessel A. van der Kolk describes his experiences treating trauma survivors. He reminds us that our brains and bodies store our traumas until they are appropriately expressed. Our bodies do not forgive and forget.
“In order to change, people need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them,” he explains. “Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.” In other words, reconciliation is needed for wholeness and peace.
Recognize when reconciliation won’t work. In cases of abuse, encouraging reconciliation with an abuser is shortsighted and can even be life-threatening. Too often, the church has been an ally to violent partners and processes. As much as we would like for the church to be a safe place, it is not. We can work together to create something sacred and safer, but our only truly safe space is with God alone.
Shannon Beck, Presbyterians Today
Today’s Focus: Mending Relationships
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
God of great miracles, we thank you for your providence in the midst of scarcity, your reconciliation and healing after a time of broken connections, and your love nurtured between neighbors across the world. Amen.