2 Corinthians 5:17-21
There is a big word, a wonderful word-a powerful, dynamic action-word-in the New Testament. A word that does not appear at all in the Old Testament. That’s remarkable because so much of the New Testament is the extension and fulfillment of the Old. Christian faith is founded upon Hebrew history and Hebrew prophecy. Jesus was a Jew and never ceased being a Jew.
But this word was not even used by Jesus, as far as we know. Maybe he never heard it-yet it is the word that captures what Jesus was all about.
It is Saint Paul’s great original word that leaps out to us from his letters to the Christians in Rome and the Christians in Corinth. We have just heard that word: “God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. God was in Christ reconciling the world and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
There it is: that flowing, rolling, cascading, six-syllable word: reconciliation.
But what does this wonderful word mean? The full meaning of reconciliation is elusive, many-faceted, even wrapped up in mystery. It is that triangular pattern of action in which the power of God somehow becomes radically personal within us and radically social among us.
Yes, it means knowing that God will care for us in spite of all our sin and guilt. Yes, it means something like conflict resolution Christian-style. It means the transformation of life-denying things into life-affirming things (like swords into plowshares, bombers into bread). Love-in-action. Overcoming of hatred and oppression.
It’s just not easy to capture the essence of reconciliation in any other word or words. Perhaps it helps to think of “the graces of reconciliation.” I count about four of those graces: empathy, repentance, forgiveness, justice. These are the human initiatives that, working together, help make God’s reconciliation possible.
But preceding all of these is the fact of human conflict: conflicts within us between knowing the right and wanting the wrong. Conflicts of enmity and violence. But also simply of diversity and competition. And the conflicts like separation of powers that we deliberately build into our governmental and religious institutions to guard against tyranny. And the redemptive conflicts to which we are called if the injustices of our world are to be overcome.
In his letter from the Birmingham city jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that “the purpose of direct action is to create a crisis that will open the door to negotiation.” So conflict, like surgery, can be a good and necessary thing, even the way to healing.
Remember that Jesus promised his disciples a life of conflict: conflict even within their own families. Controversy that would mean being dragged before public authorities. And there’s a paradox: reconciliation doesn’t happen without accepting, facing-and sometimes even waging-conflict.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic little book, The Cost of Discipleship, hinted at the many dimensions of reconciliation as he pictured what he called “cheap grace”-that grace which is not really grace at all because it doesn’t really cost us anything. It is “forgiveness without repentance” and “grace without the cross.”
A leader of social ministries in Minnesota, Curtiss DeYoung, has seized on this passage in Bonhoeffer to contrast what he calls “cheap reconciliation” with “costly reconciliation.” He says: “Cheap reconciliation is unity without responsibility, forgiveness without repentance, equal treatment without restitution, harmony without liberation, conflict resolution without relational healing, peace without God.”
One of the graces of costly reconciliation is surely empathy. By itself, empathy is a rather wimpy word unless it suggests relentless initiatives to reach out to, and listen to, and identify with other persons. At its deepest, empathy is the capacity to understand the truth as it is believed by the other side of every conflict. Cornel West’s recent, blunt book about our still-unreconciled racial divisions in America, titled Race Matters, solemnly warns: “Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all.”
Sometimes, however, the opportunity for empathy may come to us by happenstance, as a precious gift. As a college student, I was able to learn a great deal about the plight of those Japanese-Americans who, in 1942, were forced to give up their homes and were herded into bleak concentration camps in Southwestern deserts. My roommate for two years had lived through that bitter experience with his mother and father and brother, with all of whom I later spent a summer in the Japanese-American community in Los Angeles. After my friend died a dozen years ago, his wife came to Washington as the lobbyist for the Japanese-American Citizens League and helped to complete the process by which our government, forty-four years after the camps were closed, offered token reparations to the camps’ still-living survivors.
In gracious words to those survivors, President George Rush, himself a veteran of the war against Japan, acknowledged, “We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But in enacting a law calling for restitution and offering a sincere apology, your fellow Americans have renewed their commitment to freedom, equality, and justice.”
It’s when we have to own up to history-to our own personal wrongdoing or to the inhumanities of which we’ve been a part-that the grace of repentance is called for. Genuine repentance is one of the hardest acts for any persons or any nation. But it is often an absolute prerequisite for reconciliation.
On May 8. 1985, the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the President of Germany, Richard von Weizsäcker, addressed the Bundestag in a stunning confessional statement of German guilt for the war and the Holocaust. He said: “We cannot commemorate the 8th of May without making ourselves aware how much conquest of self the readiness for reconciliation demanded of our former enemies. Can we really identify with the relatives of those who were sacrificed in the Warsaw Ghetto or the massacre of Lidice?… Who could remain innocent after the burning of the synagogues, the looting, the stigmatizing with the Jewish star, the withdrawal of rights, the unceasing violations of human worth?… We must understand that there can be no reconciliation without memory.”
American memory of the Vietnam War remains terribly conflicted. A few years ago, a group of our veterans went back to Vietnam and helped rebuild health-care facilities in the very villages they had bombed. Only when they had finished their work did they ask forgiveness from their former enemies. For those Americans and those Vietnamese, repentance-repentance that transcended all the political issues of the war-repentance not only in words but in compassionate service-was a powerful grace of reconciliation.
Some day, it may become more possible for us to consider whether our government years ago made some tragic misjudgments that contributed to our perilous estrangements from both Iran and Iraq-which are our present obsessions.
When genuine repentance makes genuine forgiveness possible-in friendship, or marriage, or parenting, or workplaces or politics-we are liberated from bondage to the past. Forgiveness can mean freedom.
But if repentance is a hard act, so can forgiveness be a hard, hard thing to do.
Over recent months, the media have brought us the drama of reconciliation in South Africa. There the mystical moral authority of President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu is committed to their Truth and Reconciliation Commission-one of more than fifteen such commissions in various countries seeking liberation from bondage to the past. In South Africa: testimonies of terrible suffering by the victims of apartheid; confessions of unspeakable brutality by the perpetrators; in some cases, amnesty offered in a common determination to move that multiracial nation into a new era of freedom and equality. It’s hard going-but what a marvelous spectacle it is: the grace and the power of forgiveness.
For the past year and a half, the Jesuits’ Woodstock Center at Georgetown University has brought together extraordinary collections of ambassadors and other government officials from various nations, political scientists, theologians, church leaders to explore together the meaning and possibilities of forgiveness in politics-with particular attention not only to South Africa but also to Bosnia, Ireland, Rwanda, Chile, El Salvador and other conflicted countries (including this country).
Forgiveness? In politics? It’s beginning to make sense at last:
Do not doubt that the Gospel of Jesus has a powerful word for nations, not just individuals,
In the 1960s, this wonderful word reconciliation had understandably become a bad word to some folks in this country. By itself, it begged the questions reconciliation on whose terms? Black folks capitulating to the terms imposed by white folks? To some African-Americans and others it had, in effect, become “cheap reconciliation,” not “costly reconciliation.” It was reconciliation without restitution without justice.
Desmond Tutu says: “True reconciliation occurs when we confront people with the demands of the gospel of Jesus Christ for justice and peace and compassion and caring. It means taking sides on behalf of the weak and the downtrodden, the voiceless ones.”
Here, then, is the unflinching imperative at the heart of reconciliation: reconciliation requires justice. But not a shrill, vengeful justice. Rather, justice as the restoration of right relationships. Perhaps even justice as lovingkindness.
The ministry of reconciliation practiced by Jesus himself was forever sensitive to matters of power and justice. His was often a subversive power: on behalf of destitute peasants and detested aliens and neglected children and persons made ugly and incapacitated by disease. Jesus was embracing all the outsiders and making them insiders in God’s Beloved Community. Justice for the sake of reconciliation.
Dear sisters and brothers of Jesus:
Saint Paul has appointed us all to high-ranking positions-as ambassadors, ambassadors for Christ. We have been given this ministry of reconciliation: wonderful word, precious word, costly word. Amen. </P