Helping a church in conflict has served to remind me how difficult and misunderstood reconciliation is. Some people seem to believe that reconciliation is a weak, cowardly response to whatever wrongdoing is at hand. Instead of addressing the wrong, they believe that reconciliation is a cop-out: “Don’t worry about it! It’s all good. Let’s just be friends.” Therefore they fight against reconciliation, or at least stand idly by hoping for it to pass. Others view reconciliation as a one-sided venture. “Well, the way I see it that person did me wrong. I hope that some day they come here to reconcile with me.”
It seems to me that we need to understand anew what reconciliation is. We need to dispel these misconceptions and reconstruct what reconciliation means. What does it mean to reconcile ourselves to God and to one another? What does it mean to carry out this ministry of reconciliation in our families, our churches, our friendships, and our world?
First of all, reconciliation is not a weak act of looking the other way to ignore the wrongs that were done. It’s not a cowardly avoidance of conflict by saying that all is well and that we should let bygones be bygones. That is a complete misunderstanding of reconciliation, an utter distortion of repentance and forgiveness.
Miroslav Volf, in his work Exclusion and Embrace talks about this very fact. Talking of repentance he says, “As Carl Gustav Jung observed after World War Two, most confessions come as a mixture of repentance, self-defense, and even some lust for revenge. We admit wrongdoing, justify ourselves, and attack, all in one breath” (p. 119). This is far from what true confession, true repentance was intended to be, but it is our normal way of speaking. As Volf recognizes, we very rarely say from our heart this unadulterated, confessional prayer: “I have sinned in my thoughts, in my words, and in my deeds” (Book of Common Prayer).
The other side of the equation is just as difficult. Forgiveness goes against every fiber of our being. We seek revenge, and more than that we glorify it; we honor it. Volf reminds us, however, that “forgiveness is not a substitute for justice” (p. 122). It’s not the victim saying, “No problem. Don’t worry about it,” just as much as it is not the liberation of the perpetrator. Forgiveness expects justice; it expects the righting of the wrongs that were done. It requires the naming of sin. “Every act of forgiveness enthrones justice; it draws attention to its violation precisely by offering to forego its claims” (p. 123).
Repentance and forgiveness are integral parts of reconciliation, and they cannot happen if we do not acknowledge the fact that a wrong has occurred. That is what makes reconciliation so hard. We must admit that we have messed up, or we must approach the one who has wronged us to work out the issue at hand.
Second, the job of reconciliation doesn’t lie only with the party that is in the wrong. Reconciliation is the job of all parties involved, innocent, guilty, and everyone in between. I’ve been intrigued lately by these words of Jesus:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the realization that someone “has something against me” is rather open-ended. What I mean is this: Jesus doesn’t explicitly say, “If you remember you have wronged someone.” He says, “If someone has something against you.” In other words, if your relationship with someone else is strained, leave your gift and go and be reconciled. When someone has something against me, it may or may not be justified. I may or may not have done wrong. The problem may lie in their perception, in their sinfulness. They could have been the one to trespass in our relationship. In so doing the relationship was broken, and now they have something against me.
I feel that Jesus is telling both of us, the victim and the perpetrator, to get up, leaving our gift at the altar, and go to be reconciled.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. maintained the dream of the beloved community, a community that was marked by reconciliation. In this community we could all be reconciled together, living harmoniously in spite of our differences. In his ministry and in his advocacy, therefore, he sought out reconciliation with those who were actively oppressing him and all African-Americans. This is but one example of the fact that even those who have done no wrong can, and perhaps should, push for reconciliation. This also demonstrates the first point, reconciliation in the Civil Rights Movement and today requires that we call segregation and racism, in all its forms, sin. We must confront the sin to reconcile the relationship.
That’s hard. It’s uncomfortable to, in love, address sin, be it our own, someone else’s, or society’s. And it is hard to try to reconcile broken relationships.
It requires humility, service, love, and above all sacrifice. These are the characteristics of those who work for reconciliation, for peace. They are also descriptors of the character of Jesus, the one we Christians are called to imitate.
Funny how that works out sometimes.