Reconciliation is… what exactly?
I gave an introductory seminar recently about reconciliation and this somewhat rhetorical question hung out there like a piñata. Reconciliation is…something broken being returned to wholeness; forgiveness between two people; credit to a debit and vice versa; South Africa; marriage problems; two groups of people making up. At one point, I felt like I had asked, think of a number between 1 and infinity. Good, that’s reconciliation!
The scalability of a word like reconciliation is part of the problem. It’s why even when we read it in scripture, the Greek word itself comes from two component words, kata + allos, which means “toward” or “for the purpose of” + “other” or “difference”. Together these components make up the “reconciliation.” And it is used in the interpersonal sense as well as the cosmic sense in the Greek. I appreciate it when Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice begin their book, “Reconciling All Things” with that tension and vagueness upfront:
We know the world is broken, and we know we’re too broken to fix it ourselves. We teach our children a realist’s rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall / Humpty Dumpty had a great fall / And all the kings horse and all the kinsmen / Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” But Humpty-Dumpty realism begs the question, can anyone fix us? What air who is out there beyond our landscapes of brokenness?
In the modern world we try to bracket this question even as we seek reconciliation. We are aware that differences in religion can create conflict. So we try to find common ground without reference to anything beyond the common human experience. This makes reconciliation a very popular yet hopelessly gauge (and therefore increasingly unhelpful) concept. It also forces some (especially those who have suffered great injustice) to insist that reconciliation is not the right goal in human conflict. “When were we ever unified?” they ask.
Without reference to an explicit beyond, we are left with versions of reconciliation that offer little concrete hope that fundamental change is possible. We want to be clear: when we talk about the “beyond,” we mean the God who is revealed in Christian Scripture as Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos, the God of Israel who raised the crucified Jesus from the dead. A Christian vision of reconciliation needs a theological foundation. More than that, however, the term beyond reminds use hat reconciliation is a journey beyond our own vision, beyond human actors and our strategies and programs. God’s desire and vision is beyond our desire and vision. Reconciliation is not merely the sum total of our work; it’s also the peculiar gift we learn to receive as we live into the story of God’s people. This explicit reference to God’s story is missing in the prevailing versions of reconciliation today.
I didn’t mention this before when I looked up the Greek word for reconciliation, but the lexicon makes note that according to Paul, reconciliation is brought about by God alone, which is why in Rom. 5:11, we receive it. It is given to us, Paul reiterates in 2 Cor. 5:18, this ministry of reconciliation, given to us.
In a sense there is this reflexive property of reconciliation that is in symmetry with so many other biblical concepts: blessing – Abraham was blessed in order to be a blessing to all nations; incarnation – the Word became flesh and walked among us, even as Jesus himself began to preach the Word!; Forgiveness – we forgive as we have been forgiven. That which is done for us becomes our work to do. The noun becomes a verb.
Reconciliation is given to be a gift, to be received so that we might know how to share it. These properties are part and parcel of the gospel as a whole then it seems — which is why we know something is wrong when someone says they believe the gospel but cannot be reconciled in the simplest of relationships. That doesn’t show a transformation process of being the object of the gospel to being a subject to it. Question then: if many of our churches are just now getting to understand this justice and compassion-oriented side of reconciliation, is it possible we did not fully understand the gift of reconciliation through Christ?