If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Theo-Politics of Reconciliation

The Gospel of Reconciliation

Reconciliation is at the heart of the good news of God’s redemptive activity. It is a key metaphor, among others, that speaks of God’s saving work in the world. Reconciliation is about God “making peace” with and between human beings (Romans 5:1-12; Colossians 1:18-23). Reconciliation is a work of God’s grace whereby estranged relationships are mended. This healing act has two interconnected dimensions---divine and human. Reconciliation is a sacred work that restores broken relations between God and humans, and between humans. These two dimensions are inextricably intertwined, just as loving God and loving our neighbor are interconnected (Matthew 22:34-40; 1 John 4:19-21). Worship of God and human reconciliation should never be separated (Matthew 5:23-24). The prophet Amos decried the separation of liturgy and liberation, the worship of God and the doing of justice (Amos 5:21-24). The reconciling church must hold together praise and peace, good news and justice, evangelism and economy, conversion and conciliation.

According to 2 Corinthians 5:7-18, every Christian shares in the ministry of reconciliation. Christ has inaugurated a new creation. Being “in Christ” means we have become citizens of this new realm, which opens up new modes of living and relating within the present world. Reconciled to God through Christ, Christians have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation. God appeals to a broken and divided world through us. Although God is the initiator of reconciliation, God’s work is not without human cooperation. Humans are bearers of the message of reconciliation with God and co-laborers with God in reconciling humans with one another. The gospel of reconciliation is the heart of the church’s mission to the world.

Within the human-to-human dimension of reconciliation is the work of peacemaking, social justice, mediation, and conciliation. This dimension is not void of God’s presence or power, while the focus is upon working with God in mending human relationships. This form of reconciliation is both a calling for all Christians and a specialized work within Christ’s church. Every Christian has a divine mandate to be a minister of reconciliation, a mediator, a peacemaker, and a justice seeker in their everyday life. Some are called to specialized ministries of reconciliation such as restorative justice, mediation and conciliation services, peace education and advocacy, and antiracism training, just to name a few of the diverse ministries of reconciliation. These ministries require development of specialized knowledge and skills in the effort to spread the message and practice of reconciliation, such as can be found in this manual. This essay is an attempt to provide a biblical/theological foundation for these types of ministries of reconciliation.
Jesus and Incarnational Reconciliation

God was in Christ reconciling the world (2 Cor. 5:19). Jesus’ life, death and resurrection model, enact, and embody God’s purposes of shalom and social justice, humanization and reconciliation for the world. For Christians Jesus is the living window through which we see the landscape of God’s reconciliation. Jesus is the word of reconciliation become flesh in human life. An incarnational understanding of reconciliation avoids an exclusive focus upon the death of Jesus as God’s salvific work in Christ. The apostle Paul connected Christ’s saving and reconciling work to both his life and death (Romans 5:10). The humanity of Jesus reveals and enacts God’s reconciling purposes for the world in its diverse dimensions.

This multifaceted theo-politics of reconciliation is encoded in the gospel narratives of the Jesus story. Incarnational reconciliation is multiform in that it goes beyond a once-upon-a-time mystical transaction between God and humans through Jesus’ death. This multidimensional, embodied understanding of reconciliation is revealed in the living narrative of Jesus. Learning to read the gospels through a socio-political lens can alert us to the “theo-politics of Jesus” embedded in the gospel texts. A socio-political reading of the gospel narratives will assist us in discerning the rich and complex nature of incarnational reconciliation. Such a reading of the narratives of Jesus’ birth will remind us that the royal images attributed to Jesus are set within a context of the imperial and violent rule of Caesar and the Roman empire. The divine ruler, Jesus, was presented in opposition to the worldly ruler, Caesar. The angels’ announcement of “Peace on Earth” at his birth (Luke 2:8-14), witnessed by marginalized shepherds, stood in sharp contrast to the Pax Romana of the colonial power of Rome, which was maintained through violent suppression and subjugation. This messianic ruler will come as the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6-7). Jesus came as a servant ruler who seeks to reconcile humanity to God and one another, rather than dominate, oppress, subjugate, and dehumanize through elite hierarchical power and systemic violence.

As the “Child of Humanity” Jesus was tempted to take up the scepter of dominating power in his messianic rule (Matt. 4:1-11). His return to his hometown of Nazareth was a defining moment for his mission. Jesus outlined his mission in prophetic images as “proclaiming good news to the poor (i.e. economic transformation), release to the captives (i.e. those in debtor’s prison or unjustly incarcerated), recovery of sight to the blind (i.e. deliverance from dependence toward economic self-sufficiency), freedom for the oppressed (i.e. liberation of the victims of social injustice), and proclaiming the year of God’s favor (i.e. Jubilee, a time of restorative economic justice). Using an irenic interpretation Jesus left out of his quote from Isaiah 61:1-2 the final line about proclaiming “the day of God’s vengeance.” Jesus’ sub-versive reading of the sacred texts countered violence and confronted the ethnocentricity of God’s people, which limited God’s salvific activity to the “chosen people” (Luke 4:20-27). His emancipatory hermeneutic was literally a “dangerous memory” in that his reading of scripture almost got him killed (Luke 4:28-30).

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus, as a type of Moses, taught his disciples the reconciling way of God’s rule (Matt. 5-7). He blessed the peacemakers and those who hunger for justice (Matt. 5:6, 9), taught that interpersonal reconciliation have a priority over worshipful acts (Matt. 5:21-24), provided examples of nonviolent actions that challenge injustice (Matt. 5:38-42), and commanded love of enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). His parables gave shape to God’s reign, a social and political metaphor for living God’s way on earth as in heaven. His parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus was an eschatological critique of the economic disparity between the rich and poor. His parable of the Good Samaritan was constructed with a rhetoric of reconciliation in that the despised Samaritan became the hero of the story (Luke 11). Jesus even rebuked his own disciples, James and John, for their terroristic threats against a Samaritan village for a breach of hospitality (Luke 9:51-55).

Deep reconciliation calls for a challenge to social systems that divide, dehumanize, and denigrate human beings. Jesus challenged the religio-social boundaries and divisions within his society by welcoming to the common table (i.e. a microcosm of society) “tax-collectors and sinners,” and the dispossessed and disenfranchized. By welcoming lowly children (Mark10:14-16), touching outcasts, lepers, the unclean, the most marginalized of society, Jesus contested socio-religious systems of exclusion. His healing ministry threatened the temple system’s brokering of health. Jesus crossed the borders of socially constructed gender barriers by openly associating with women (John 4), and welcoming women disciples (e.g. Mary Magdelene). With risky boldness Jesus de-centered allegiance to Caesar and the political system that dominated an occupied territory (Matt 17:24-27). He proposed a nonviolent kingdom, unlike the kingdoms of this world (John 18:36). He critiqued the temple system as economically exploitative and fruitless (Mark 12:38-44; Mark 11:15-24), questioned the burden of religious taxation that supports profiting clerics (Matt. 17:24-27), and countered the imposition of capital punishment upon a woman (John 8:4-7), and challenged the patriarchal family system (Mark 3:33-35, Matt. 23:9).

Jesus deliberately headed toward Jerusalem, the seat of religio-political power, to confront the ruling elite, who were Roman collaborators. He entered the city on a lowly donkey in a type of political theatre fulfilling Zechariah’s prophesy of a coming peaceful ruler (Zech. 9:9-10). In a symbolic act of civil disobedience Jesus resisted temple economics and ethnic exclusion by overthrowing the tables of moneychangers and proclaiming the temple to be a “house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:15-16). In the farewell discourses in the gospel of John Jesus left his disciples with a promise of peace unlike the violently enforced peace that the world gives (John 14:27). When arrested by Roman soldiers, Jesus told a disciple to put away the sword, even though he has the divine power at his disposal to use violent resistance (Matt. 26:51-53). At his trial Pilate gave the people a choice between Jesus Barabbas, a violent revolutionary, and Jesus bar Joseph, a nonviolent revolutionary (Matt 27:16-17). Charges against him were both religious and political: 1) opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar (Luke 23:2); 2) threatening to destroy the temple (Matt. 26:61); and 3) claiming to be a messianic king (Luke 23:2). Jesus was crucified on an instrument of Roman terrorism, a cross, as a political criminal, an enemy of the state, between social bandits, who violently resisted Rome’s economic injustices. Instead of enmity and hatred, Jesus offered forgiveness to his enemies (Luke 23:34).

The resurrection of Christ was more than bodily rejuvenation. It was a sign that the age to come had dawned in Jesus. It was also God’s vindication of the nonviolent life that Jesus lived right up to his death and a confirmation of the eternal validity of his life. When Jesus rose from death and appeared to his disciples, he showed them the marks of Roman violence on his body, breathed on them the breath of life, the Spirit of reconciliation, twice spoke words of peace, and sent them on a mission of forgiveness (John 20:19-23).

Jesus embodied God’s multidimensional way of reconciliation. It was both religious and political, pedagogical and practical. His incarnational ministry of reconciliation involved radical love, fierce forgiveness, a peace-building praxis, nonviolent resistance, the subversion of systemic evil and dominating hierarchies, an emancipatory hermeneutic of sacred texts, ethnic inclusivity, welcoming the disenfranchised and marginalized, a compassionate humanization, unbrokered healing, and the Spirit of peace to dwell within a new community, the church.

The Church and Practices of Reconciliation

As Christ’s reconciled and reconciling community, the church proclaims and embodies the ongoing story of God’s reign revealed in Jesus. The church is a signpost of God’s kin-dom, a harbinger of the age to come. The church is a counter culture, an alternative society, a distinctive polis (1 Peter 2:9). As a Jesus-shaped community the church is a people in solidarity with the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, a community of resistance against the world’s domination systems.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the church is a broken sign of God’s reign. The church is a “treasure in clay jars” (2 Cor. 4:7). In what appears to be a baptismal formula, the apostle Paul proclaimed that in Christ there was no longer a division between “Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female” (Gal. 3:28). And yet, from the very beginning the church there was need for reconciliation. The division between Jew and Gentile within the church was a major point of conflict and conciliation within the early church. The healing of this schism was a long and rough road. Paul understood the salvific work of Christ to bring reconciliation and peace between Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:11-22). Centuries later the church would be divided over slavery and be in need of reconciliation. The division between women and men in the church is a current arena for reconciliation. Divisions between confessional traditions, gays/lesbians and straights, liberals and conservatives, Western Christianity and the church universal will continue to call the church back to God’s vision of reconciled humanity.

If Christians are to be “ambassadors of reconciliation,” then the church is ever to be on both an inward and an outward journey of collective transformation. As an agent of reconciliation the church should seek conversion toward symmetries of power, racial equity, gender egalitarianism, and just peacemaking. Only with an openness to its own continuing conversion can the church model a culture incarnating the reign of God.

Continuing conversion is sustained by church practices. Church practices are what Christians do together over time to address basic spiritual needs and constitute the church as God’s people in the world. Practices form the church’s body politic. Common church practices can be theologically understood and eccesiologically performed in such a way as to become formational performances that shape the church’s mission of reconciliation. There will be times when the church will call upon the skills of the trained mediator or counselor to deal with conflict, but practices within the church’s corporate life should be articulated and enacted in such a way as to construct the church as a reconciling community. Matthew 18:15-18, the Rule of Christ, has served as a biblical model for a practice of discipleship and reconciliation within the Anabaptist ecclesial tradition. Although this interpersonal model of conflict resolution may not be helpful in all conflictual situations (e.g. child or sexual abuse), it can serve as a basic foundation for practicing reconciliation in many interpersonal conflicts. Communal discernment is a practice which seeks God’s will amid the conflicting wills of human beings. When practiced with openness, equity, mutual respect, and a nonhierarchical process, not only is conflict avoided, but Christians learn the discipline of nonviolent, cooperative decision making. The liturgical practices of worship and preaching have a powerful role to play in constituting the church as peacemaking community. Although the primary direction of worship is Godward, worship is ethically formative. Communal and interactive modes of preaching model nonhierarchical mutuality, collective cooperation, and creative contextualization.

Peacemaking as a way of life is possible to sustain only through communities with practices of nonviolence. Breaking bread has been as a ritual interconnected with reconciliation within the Anabaptist tradition when it has been preceded by a process of self-examination and interpersonal forgiveness. An open process that encourages reconciliation before communion is more healing than strict, rule-oriented, exclusionary practices at the table. Baptism is a ritual of initiation whose practice reminds the community that differences of gender, race, ethnicity, social and economic class have been dismantled within the one body of Christ. The practice of open hospitality forms the church into a community ready to welcome the stranger, the marginalized, and the outsider. Healing as a church practice includes the healing of broken relationships as well as broken bodies and emotions. The practice of prayer connects the worshipping community with the Spirit’s empowerment for a sustained engagement in the hard work of forgiveness, conciliation, peacemaking, and social justice. Common church practices re-form the church with a body politic of reconciliation.

Reconciliation and the New Creation

When reconciliation is set within the context of God’s reign it becomes more than an issue of personal piety and individual conversion. It becomes the hope for a new cosmic and social reality, a transformed creation (2 Cor. 5:17-18). The Christian vision of a new creation presupposes: 1) an originating creation rooted in equity, peace, just relations, and cooperation with God; 2) a fractured creation disrupted by violence, enmity, division, inequity, and disharmony with God; and 3) the reconciling work of God in Christ inaugurating a new age of shalom, justice, and cosmic redemption (Romans 8:18-24).

In the Babylonian myth of creation, Enuma Elish, creation begins with an act of violence with the murder of Tiamet by Marduk. In contrast, the creation story of Genesis presents an originating world created in peace and harmony (Genesis 1). This story of a good creation reflects the potential for a world without violence, enmity, division, and injustice. The violent story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) reflects a world rooted in conflict and rivalry, a world in need of reconciliation and renewal. The story of Abraham and Sarah, ancestors of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and his obedience to God’s call to be a light to the nations is a precursor of the cosmic drama of reconciliation. The story of Moses, Miriam, and the children of Israel is a paradigmatic narrative of God’s work of liberation and justice-making. The covenant story of Israel reflects the potential for collective political body enacting justice for the poor, weak, and stranger. The prophets give embodied voice to the renewal of God’s covenant and a vision of God’s reign of justice and peace not only for the nations, but for the whole cosmos. The story of Christ is the narrative of a relational God’s incarnational initiative to bring about reconciliation for a sinful, alienated, divided, and violent world. The story of the church is the continuing sign of God’s redeeming and reuniting activity in the world.

God’s reconciling work in Christ goes far beyond our personal stories of redemption. Through Christ God performed an act of cosmic reconciliation and peacemaking (Colossians 1:18-19). All things are reconciled to God through Christ creating peace. The originating goodness and wholeness of creation are restored through God’s grace revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was a living parable of God’s reign, an embodiment of a redeemed and reconciled creation. Within the framework of biblical eschatology, Christ inaugurated the age to come, the time of the reconciliation and restoration of the cosmos, the reign of God, which is and is to come.

The prophetic vision of the coming reign of God points forward toward the kairos time of ultimate justice, peace, and reconciliation of the cosmos as it was in the beginning. End Time reflects Primal Time. Revelation mirrors Genesis. Urzeit und Endzeit. Genesis---creation of heaven and earth. Revelation---a new heaven and a new earth. Prophets and visionaries look to a new world where the enmity of creation is healed and peace prevails when the wolf lies with the lamb and swords are beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:1-4; 11:1-9; Hosea 2:18-20). These visions are not simply stories of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. They are subversive rhetorical constructs which function to form an alternative vision of reality within which God’s community lives and acts in the present. God’s people are to live in this world in the light of the world to come.


Christian ministries of mediation and restorative justice find their roots in sacred scripture and a theo-politics of reconciliation. Reconciliation is at the heart of God’s mission to the world, Christ’s embodiment of God’s reign, and the Spirit’s ongoing presence and activity within the church and world. The work of mediation and restorative justice should be viewed within this broader theo-political context. Within this context their interrelationship with other peacemaking ministries and their limitations within the complex matrix of a theo-politics of reconciliation can be grounded, comprehended, and practiced.

Originally poublished in the Mennonite Central Committee's Mediation and Facilitation Manual, 5th edition.

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