Thursday, May 13, 2010

Privatizing Reconciliation

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has written widely and well about the challenges of reconciliation and forgiveness. His book Exclusion and Embrace is widely recognized as a classic and Free of Charge is also highly regarded. There is nothing sentimental about Volf’s approach to the challenges of reconciliation. He was raised as a Pentecostal in Communist Yugoslavia and suffered marginalization and abuse for his faith. He also watched his country fall into brutality and genocide in the 1990s. He is well aware of the human capacity for unspeakable evil. And yet, he insists that for Christians seeking reconciliation is foundational. He argues in his aptly titled essay “The Core of the Faith” in Against the Tide that “a vision of reconciliation” is the governing reality of Christian faith. God seeks in Christ to reconcile all things to himself—each broken sinner, every battered society, even the crumbling world.

The problem, Volf argues, is that we have “privatized reconciliation.” We have made it only a kind of spiritual exchange between an individual and God. Such reconciliation is real and important. Writing of Paul’s conversion, he insists that Paul encountered a God who sought reconciliation with the persecutor, not punishment for his victims. The reconciliation between Paul and God was profoundly significant. But Paul never saw this personal reconciliation as the last word. He spent his life seeking reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, between urban pagans and his tiny Christian communities, and even between those small groups of Christians and the mighty Roman Empire. In Romans 8 he wrote movingly of the groaning hope and anticipated redemption of the whole creation (Romans 8:18-25). Paul knew that his personal reconciliation with God had corporate implications. He wanted his congregations to seek reconciliation within their communities and without. He wanted them to forgive their brothers and sisters and love their enemies. For Paul reconciliation was not a personal possession but a corporate gift—a gift of the church for the entire world.

In 2 Corinthians 5:18 Paul tells the Corinthians they have been given a “ministry of reconciliation.” We are God’s ambassadors entrusted with a message of peace. We come to our fractured and divided world with God’s offer of cease fire. For Paul the church is about reconciliation. And reconciliation, Volf insists, “has social and political dimensions.” He goes on to say that the Christian church has been hesitant to make this move and “offers very little wisdom on the social meaning of reconciliation.” In fact, one could argue that our inability to get along with each other within the church makes it extraordinarily unlikely that the wider society would look to us to bring about reconciliation between and within nations and peoples. With some notable exceptions, like the South African “Truth and Reconciliation” process, the Christian Church has been ineffective and even reluctant to pursue such reconciliation. Heroic individual Christians have acted to seek peace, but the institutional church has an unenviable record.

As I suggested, even within the church reconciliation seems hard to come by. We evidently love our divisions and relish our demonizations. Consider, for example, the contemporary neo-Calvinists and Brian McLaren. Some of the attacks on McLaren and his ilk are startlingly vicious. If you don’t believe me a simple Google search will suffice. Now clearly there are issues to be addressed and differences to be explored. But there seems little willingness to seek common ground or even acknowledge a common struggle. The same could be said for political differences between Christians. The language used by people on the Christian right of President Obama is frankly embarrassing. But, of course, the Christian left was no less scornful of President Bush. Every day on Facebook I see vicious attacks on the President on the one hand and sneers at the “teabaggers” on the other. I have my own concerns and recognize the temptation to unfairly caricature the “other side” of a variety of issues.

I do not mean to say we should not fairly and firmly differ with one another. But should we, can we, seek reconciliation. Should John Piper and Brian McLaren sit down together? Could Franklin Graham seek common ground with Muslim leaders? Could anti-immigrant activists in Arizona and members of immigration reform groups in Chicago actually hear one another’s concerns? Could liberals recognize the humanity of Glenn Beck? Could conservatives hear the anguish of a Jesse Jackson? Could people on different sides of the “Gay marriage” debate seek reconciliation, if not common ground? Can the Church help with any of this or do we simply shrug our shoulders and say there is nothing we can do?

I have not always been able to disagree gracefully. I have failed many times to be an agent of reconciliation. Undoubtedly I will do so again. But I think Volf is right. Christian faith has a social and political dimension that pursues reconciliation—with God, between persons, within nations, and around the world. It is time the church exercised it commission to be ambassadors for Christ with a ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation does not always mean agreement. But it does mean respect, love, and hope. Too often we may think that reconciliation means I finally persuade you to agree with me. But perhaps the most important opportunities for reconciliation come when we recognize we will never agree, but we can learn to love.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

1 comment:

  1. It always concerns me when we don't take up that ministry of reconciliation and I think that our correct or incorrect view of Scripture passages is at the heart of this issue. Aaron Lazare's book "On Apology" also has some good information that bears on reconciliation.