Our Ministry of Reconciliation
Synopsis: The partisan political divide in our country is ugly and it also runs through our churches. We’re complicit in the sexual violence and other forms of brokenness that feed this acrimony. We therefore enter the process of reconciliation with a sense of our own sin and limitations. It forces us to recognize the ways we depersonalize “others” in situations of conflict. We cannot achieve reconciliation through our own resources; it’s God who initiates and brings about reconciliation. In that sense, it’s something we discover rather than achieve, and it’s more of a spirituality than a strategy.
The political divide in our country is as wide as I have ever seen it. I need to take that back. It was worse in the 1960s during the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Back then, however, it wasn’t a partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans in the same way it is today.
This divide also runs through American Christianity. After all, we’re Americans and we’re influenced be the same issues and passions as our fellow Americans. Certain shrill and partisan TV stations, radio talk shows, media personalities, internet feeds, and Christian leaders perpetuate and feed off this divide. We need to be discerning.
Police shootings of unarmed black men have amplified our racial tensions. This was further exacerbated by the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last year. Now recent revelations of sexual violence, harassment, and rape by powerful men has further roiled the political waters. We were all caught up in the drama of the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh before the senate judiciary committee last week.
It’s like ripping a bandage off of a deep social wound. As depressing as this has been, it’s necessary for the healing of our society. We still have a long way to go to achieve gender equality. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incent National Network, a sexual assault is reported every 98 seconds on their sexual abuse hotline.
Our churches are part of the problem. According to a recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania, Catholic bishops covered up child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years. Allegations of sexual abuse have also been brought against several mega-church pastors. And there have been several recent instances of sexual abuse in our denomination. This is behind our congregation’s new policy of putting safety procedures, including background checks, in place for people serving in our children’s ministry.
Rather that seeing this as a teaching moment, some church leaders are doubling down. Michael Gerson, a political commentator and former speechwriter for president George W. Bush, condemns Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, for his recent ugly tweet, “Conservatives and Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys.’ They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters @ DonaldTrump at every level of government because the liberal fascist Dems are playing for keeps and many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”
Michael Gerson imagines Jesus saying, “Blessed are the street fighters and bullies.” He says that churches pay a steep price when we become so aligned with a politician. Access and privilege in politics is never free. We will eventually share the fate of our political patron when the political tide changes. Even worse, we conveniently ignore or give religious support to things that are inexcusable and contradict the way of Jesus.
The apostle Paul sees a very different role for Christians in such culture wars. In the social chasm between Jews and Gentiles, Paul tells the Ephesians that they have been brought together and made one by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He’s their peace, breaking down the dividing wall between them. Likewise, he tells the Corinthians that in Christ there’s a new creation. God reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
Let’s consider our ministry of reconciliation. Theologian Robert Schreiter says that we depersonalize “others” in situations of conflict. A common way that we do that is by demonizing the other, treating them as someone to be feared and eliminated if possible. That’s what Jerry Falwell Jr. was doing in his ugly tweet. We need to be careful that we don’t, in turn, do the same thing to him.
We may romanticize the other, treating them as far superior to ourselves. Many people in poor countries do this to us Americans. They imagine that life here is so much better than it really is. During my time in Asia, I met many people who had completely romantic ideas about life here and would have done almost anything to get here.
We colonize the other, treating them as inferior, worthy of pity or contempt, and not on the same level of humanity as we are. This is what happened during the colonial era when Western powers colonized much of the world. Our efforts to uplift and Christianize the natives often had this colonial mentality.
We homogenize the other by claiming that there’s really no difference. This overlooks or denies a long history of oppression. We don’t need affirmative action because we’re all the same. It can be a somewhat naive attempt at unity by people from a privileged background who fail to see how much race and gender still shapes privilege in America.
Robert Schreiter says “there can be no reconciliation without justice. Reconciliation without justice is a mere papering over of differences. It only leads to new outbreaks of violence and oppression. It is an attempt to establish peace and unity without truth, and for that reason is bound to fail.”
As I said before, the divides in our society run right down through the center of the church. For this reason, reconciliation is not just a ministry of the church. Reconciliation within the church can be as necessary as reconciliation within the larger society. We, therefore, enter the process of reconciliation with a sense of our own sinfulness and our limitations.
We think of reconciliation as a process where the oppressor is convicted of his or her sin, repents, asks for forgiveness, and then seeks to make amends. It rarely works like that. What makes it so hard is that violence robs us of our humanity. We have seen how it dehumanizes victims in the process of “othering” them. What we often fail to see is how it also dehumanizes oppressors. We cannot violate others without losing a measure of our own humanity. We become hard and ugly shells of our true selves. Streetfighters and bullies lose their souls. That’s why Jerry Falwell Jr. is so wrong and that’s why we can’t imagine Jesus saying, “Blessed are the streetfighters.”
We cannot achieve reconciliation through our own strength or with our own resources. It’s God who initiates and brings about reconciliation. It’s something we discover rather than achieve. It’s more of a spirituality than a strategy. A spirituality of reconciliation begins with listening. We listen to victims tell their stories over and over again. By telling their stories they gradually free themselves from the lie that belittles them, making them fair game for abuse. This is what’s so powerful about hearing the stories of victims of sexual abuse.
The second characteristic of a spirituality of reconciliation is paying attention and patient waiting. This has become especially hard in our era of mass media. Oppressors especially want to rush through any process of accountability. Victims also find it hard to pay attention because it makes the pain they experienced come flooding back. That’s why they try to bury it and don’t want to tell anybody about what happened. It’s our attempt to escape the situation.
Paying attention is the basis of compassion, to feel or suffer with those who have been violated. Of course, we can never completely enter into another person’s suffering. What we lack in empathy or parallel experience can be compensated by our ability to pay compassionate attention and thereby create an environment of trust and safety.
The third characteristic of a spirituality of reconciliation is the commitment to build something new out of the ruins of that which has been destroyed. A biblical example of this is the Jewish exiles in Babylon who created a new life for themselves in a foreign land and were eventually able to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their city. How can we rebuild our broken American political culture? It will take more than the Democrats winning the next election cycle.
We will want to consider the power of ritual in the process of reconciliation. Part of my story is living through the Vietnam War as a teenager. For me, as for many in my generation, a healing ritual is walking through the Vietnam Memorial on our national mall while paying attention to all the names inscribed there and watching other people doing the same thing. In the church, our communion service is a joyous ritual of all becoming one in Christ, where there is no longer Greek and Jew, male and female, slave and free. Funerals and services of public penitence can also be powerful rituals of reconciliation.
“The final resource that the church has to offer is the cross. To make an instrument of torture the very emblem of its self-understanding as the bearer of God’s good news is a bold act. . . Our world is wracked by violence, but it can bring forth incredible beauty. . . The cross stands in the midst of that world so that we might never forget the anguish of broken bodies and spirits, but also that we might not lose hope.”
 Michael Gerson, “Blessed are the street fighters and bullies?” The Washington Post (Oct. 2, 2018): A19.
 Robert J. Schreiter, Reconciliation” Mission & Ministry in a Changing Social Order (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992), 52-53.
 Ibid., 65.
 Ibid., 67.
 Ibid., 78-79.