"People who fight fire
with fire usually end up with ashes."
One of the things that is hardest for a nation or a society to do is to come to grips with the evils it has done. 'It was the best choice we had at the time' or 'We didn't know (better)', or 'We did what we were told', or 'That was our ancestors, not us'. There may, indeed, be some truth to the excuses, but not enough to justify our actions. There is no reconciliation without taking responsibility. The Bible says that there's a tie between what we know and what we are responsible for (for one instance, see Hebrews 10:26). This is no less true of whatever groups, cliques, neighborhoods, ethnicities, classes, and races we are in. There's also a bond between what we know that we are responsible to know, and what we are responsible for. Deliberate (or even benign) ignorance is no excuse. It's easy for us to plead ignorance, but very hard to really be (or stay) ignorant. The truth will make itself known, eventually toppling the house of cards that buttresses the evil deeds.
When the powers in a society choose to unjustly harm people, they disarm the Holy Spirit from working through them, since the Spirit is not one who uses force to take control. The Spirit can still be busily at work making reconciliation anyway, through believers from among the victims of the injustice. Those victims are, after all, the ones who need the binding of wounds, the care, the feeding, and the teaching. They're the ones who need the support of a powerful God.
But it does not do for a Christian to sit back and scream ruddy murder. Nor will it do to make shallow gestures that put nothing of one's self on the line. That does nothing to transform things or to make them better. The Spirit equips each and all believing Christians (and the Church Universal as a whole) with gifts. The Spirit then opens doors of opportunity for using those gifts and skills in witness and service to other people. I believe that the New Testament holds within it the key to reconciling and rebuilding the societies we live in. But it won't come from making full-scale social ideologies or political platforms. Those fail, because they always turn into socio-political idols or warring armies. Reconciliation will develop by learning from the example of Christ, the words of the Prophets, and the letters of the apostles.
Jesus and Reconciliation
When I look at all the conflicts in this world, open and sub-surface, I think of Christ. Christ had a way of turning the tables on the world -- and I don't just mean at the Temple. Christ stressed love, honesty, justice, diligence, active caring for others, and reconciliation. Christ made it clear that the relationship with one's neighbors was the key sign of the health of one's relationship with God (see especially Matt 5:21-24). Our societies need Christ's kind of reconciliation more than ever. Paul was even able to speak of Christians having a ministry of reconciliation. He set that ministry into the context of what Christ did in bringing us back together with God. Thus, reaching people with the gospel message is critical to this ministry of reconciliation. Yet, the other part of a reconciliation ministry is that Christ frees us all to live in solidarity with God and each other. I think that the most important gift that Christian believers can give to the political systems of today is a vision of reconciliation.
The ancient church, right from the start, had to deal with factions and separated groups. For example, Paul and James sparred over the non-Jews adopting a faith that is rooted in the Jewish faith and its people. This went beyond the mere ethnic question, but also to what God's covenant and God's promises were all about. They both turned to what Jesus did as the answer to it. It says in Ephesians, chapter 2: "For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation." When Jesus said on the cross, "Father, forgive them...", He changed the meaning of 'them' forever. 'Them' are forgiven. 'Them' are loved by God. And 'them' includes those who think of themselves as 'us', since both 'us' and 'them' took part in bringing about Jesus' death. In Jesus' forgiveness, the idea of being of greater value than 'them' was forever outlawed. The reconciling work of getting the no-longer-separated people to be a people was well under way.
Indeed, the ultimate reconciliation is already under way, that between God and God's entire fallen creation. God (the one who did NOT ruin the relationship) takes on the role of the responsible One, and has used it to shape a new relationship. As usual, God caused reconciliation, we didn't. And still is causing it. If God waited around for us, the irresponsible, to do it, it would never happen. We've found a way to test even God's patience. That's what got us into this bind to begin with.
"Every act of forgiveness involves at least three
---- Lewis Smedes
What is Reconciliation?
The idea of 'social repentance' and 'social reconciliation' sounds like a secularist sop, at first. The world loves to take aspects of the faith and take God out of them. But think about it: aren't these societal needs expressed in Scripture, too? The Hebrew prophets called on whole nations to stop doing evil -- and not just Judah, but Edom and Babylon and Egypt and Assyria. The apostles practiced reconciliation, though fitfully, with lots of starts and stops, in whatever society ruled theirs. Even most bad regimes usually seek the positive, nation-building effects that help glue a society together, but for those to take place, reconciliation is needed.
Reconciliation: What Must We Confess?
So, what kind of sins might a nation, or a party, church denomination, ethnic group, or cultural sector within a nation, have to confess?
- Racism. Classism. Sexism. Or any other lie that lets us treat someone else as being less than ourselves.
- Treating those who spread views other than our own as if they were demons.
- Stifling the Spirit who speaks through others.
- Hindering peoples' growth instead of boosting it.
- Allowing our angers to fester instead of turning those energies to service.
- Profiteering at other peoples' expense.
- Turn everything into a "look-at-me" affair.
- Taking action due to fear or raw self-interest instead of love.
- Building walls instead of bridges.
- A willingness to let people go hungry or without shelter, or even to take actions which cause it;
- Creating a cultural climate which weakens the marital and parental bonds and encourages escape over responsibility.
- Creating trick reforms and sham dialogues which serve to evade any real sharing of power and block any real influence on public policy by others.
- Turning political races into sports, entertainment, and/or sales.
- Keeping still as someone stomps all over the freedoms of someone else.
- Seeking new ways to excuse one's own behavior, always trying to see themselves in the exceptions to the laws and moral rules that help hold a society together.
- Denying our common lot, pretending that we're not all on the same ship.
Reconciliation: What Must We Do?
And what makes for reconciliation?
- Listening to the Spirit telling you that you have wronged others;
- Publicly acknowledging these sort of sins as sins, in a clear, specific, and repeated way;
- Living so as not to do them anymore;
- Acting, as far as is practical, to undo the damage;
- Working together daily with those we wronged to face the common problems which we all face in life.
- Celebrating what's in common, and at least some of the differences (though there are other differences which we may not be so wise to celebrate).
- Seeing our life together as a whole, not just in parts or categories or identities, especially not as 'God vs. Devil' or 'pro-/con-' or 'them vs. us'.
- Learn to be just plain people with each other, beyond whatever roles we might have in this society.
"Reconciliation is an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God's original intention for all creation to flourish."
-- Brenda Salter McNeil
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Owning Up Is Hard To Do
Owning up to your wrongs is a struggle - a kind of war. For example: The United States has had a long, frustrating time dealing with the truth about its racism. The general public has admitted to racism, and has called it a sin. But America is very fitful in turning away from that sin. Many people and power bases don't really want racism to end. It feels good to know that someone's below you, and some want to keep it that way. Do we know how to reconcile, in the face of that?
It's here that we run across some of the most important of those big, churchy words : confession, repentance, forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. In confession, you admit not only to having done something, but also that it was wrong to do it. In repentance, you commit yourself to not do it again, knowing that the Holy Spirit is already working on it within you. God forgives the sinner who repents, and takes that burden of guilt off of you. When it can be done without causing further harm, you can then restore for the harm caused by the wrong that was done, repaying whatever it cost in an effective and helpful way, rejecting angry words or devious acts, and doing that which uplifts and empowers those whom you have wronged. With the effect of the wrongs softened or reversed, a new relationship can be started on a firmer and more truthful footing, and reconciliation takes place. (Indeed, the Roman Catholic term for their set format for this process is called "The Rite of Reconciliation".)
Knowing it's a sin is one thing. Discovering the many ways that this sin has affected you and the way you do things is another. We are called on to turn away from the sin of racism, not just admit that it's a sin. This takes repentance. We are called on to seek forgiveness from God. While an avowedly neutral society cannot be ordered to don sackcloth en masse, we can gather publicly and commit to the change, and the Christians of the nation can (as a citizen and as the Body) confess our sin before God and another (or many others) and seek God's forgiveness. Then, we seek forgiveness from those whom we wronged, and where we as persons harmed someone because of our racism, we try to make it up in a fitting way. While we still may not like the person(s), and may find the clash of lifestyle or philosophy to be too much to say 'friend', we can at least reach out to find the common ground and see if friendship develops, or at least the ability to work and live together. To that extent our ability to function with other human beings, in society or church or marriage and divorce -- in everyday life -- hinges on how we reconcile with each other.
It Don't Come Easy
"The goal of pursuit of justice must not simply be that justice happens
but that reconciliation also happens."
Reconciliation does not come easy. It's not just a personal struggle, it's psychological, societal, political, and most of all a spiritual. Just about everyone has had something done to them, and has done something to someone. A lot of suffering has been caused. A lot of walls have been built. Again, God's own example teaches us a way out. Jesus made the moves to restore our relationship with God; God didn't wait for us to do it. The same is true of the Christian, to a point. While no one has the duty of bearing other people's sins (Christ did that, so no one else has to), everyone has the responsibility to own up to their own sins. When we sin as a nation or society, our chosen leaders, speaking on our behalf, have a special responsibility on our behalf. They are to get us to 'fess up to the sin in full public view, to decide to turn away from that sin, and to take action to make right the wrongs we have done and restore any damage done to others as much as can be done without creating a class of new victims.
Like almost everything else spiritual, reconciling with one's opponents is a journey. The work keeps on going. It's a journey for a people as well as its persons. Each new moment holds within it the possibility for making another step on the journey - or to take a step backward or sideways.
Jimmy Carter called for a US President and Congress 'as good as its people'. Unfortunately, that is what they already are. Their glories, goodnesses, foibles and evils are a concentrated version of the people who elected them. It's true of any democracy. But if that's all they are, then how can they call us into something better or deeper? If they can't, they are a major part of the problem. Part of the calling of politics is the call for something better and greater, coming from beyond any of us, a call for solid values that embrace a still-wispy future. A call that brings us together and eases fear. But will we answer that call? And how will we answer it?
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"You lose a lot of time hating people."