Guest Speaker: Matthew Neufeld
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Joshua 5: 9-12
Luke 15: 11-32
2 Corinthians 5: 16-21
“Ministries of Reconciliation”
Ministries of Reconciliation
August 25 – Matthew Neufeld.
You might have noticed that repentance has made a comeback in public life as the formal apology. Indeed, our Prime Minister has made at least six formal apologies to representatives of different communities and groups since taking office in autumn 2015. (Last March he also issued an informal apology for eating a chocolate bar in the House of Commons). The Prime Minister’s apologies are for policies or practices done in the past that many Canadians today, he among them, regret and feel sorry for.
I’m very interested, partly because of my ‘day job’, in apologies for past wrongs, historical responsibility, justice, and even, reparations. Some of you might have heard that at least two Democratic politicians, as part of their bid to win their party’s nomination for the presidency, are seriously considering the case for reparations for slavery. In early spring, NYT columnist David Brooks wrote a column called ‘The case for Reparations’. There’s a remarkable line in his column that I’ll quote: ‘Sin travels down society through the centuries…[S]ometimes the costs of repairing sin have to be borne generations after the sin was first committed’.
Around the same time, and closer to home, Conrad Black wrote a column in the National Post in which he invoked the concept of a blood libel in reference to relations between European Canadians and Indigenous peoples. Should the descendants of French and British migrants, and perhaps other European settlers, pay the costs of repairing the sins of colonialism, generations after the sins were first committed, his asked? This is not an easy question to confront, not the least because it rouses strong emotions in people with very different points of view.
Did things happen in the past that were wrong? Yes! Do we—both as individuals and as members of certain groups—live, or stand in, different relationships to wrongs done in the past? Yes! Should we act differently now and in the future in light of the wrongs that were done in the past? Yes! Should we attempt to correct the wrongs of the past, for example, through reparations? No.
Let me explain why by turning from North American to European history.
This past June marked the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, signed between the victorious allied powers—the UK, the USA, France, Italy, Canada—and Germany. Article 231 of the Treaty, which laid the basis for Germany’s payment of war reparations, placed the blame for the horrendous conflict we call the First World War solely on Germany. Germany and Germany alone was at fault, guilty of causing the war. As American historian W. M. McClay notes in a profound essay called ‘The Strange Persistence of Guilt’, “The assignment of guilt, especially exclusive guilt, to one party or another may satisfy the most urgent claims of justice, or the desire for retribution, but may fail utterly the needs of reconciliation and reconstruction”. Forcing an admission of war guilt, and tying it to reparations, rather than healing the combatants of the Great War, instigated resentment that contributed to the rise of Fascism. The Christian historian Herbert Butterfield once wrote that ‘history is a clash of wills out of which there emerges something no one ever willed’. And, in which no one is entirely innocent.
But the war had happened, and millions were killed, because some people wanted war.
Slavery happened because some people wanted slaves.
Colonialism happened because some people wanted resources.
We today still live with the consequences of those willful actions.
We know this, we live with this, and many of us want to make it right—to repair the sin, in Brooks’s words.
But it is simply beyond the power of the present or the future to atone for the sins of the past in any effective, let alone just, way.
Reparations will not atone for two hundred and fifty years of slavery; reparations will not atone for three hundred and fifty years of colonialism.
Reparations are not reconciliation.
That’s clear from history and from our text from 2 Corinthians 5.
The passage from verses 16 to 21 is one of the densest, theologically richest, of any in Paul’s letters. The scale is cosmic—between the Creator of the universe and his image-bearing creatures—and interpersonal—between Paul the apostle and the Christians at Corinth. The centrepiece of the passage is verses 18 and 19: All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
Paul’s claim here is echoed powerful in Romans 5 [KJV]: For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement. And at Colossians chapter 1: For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him [Christ] to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.
The claim is scandalous is our modern ears, even offensive: through one very particular human people at one time in human history, God effected the reconciliation of all things in earth or in heaven. You can’t get more exclusive than that. The reconciliation of all through the one.
To reconcile: the verb in Greek is katallasso, which implies the ending of enmity, the overcoming of estrangement, alienation—enemies become friends.
The truly mind-blowing phrase in Paul’s claim is the middle of verse 19: not counting their trespasses against them. God, the offended party, forgave and made up with the offenders.
God was wronged as said, in effect, ‘it’s OK; let’s be friends’.
This powerful mystery is represented in story form in the parable of the prodigal son, the gospel reading for today. That parable is so familiar to us that it’s easy to miss how offensive it sounded to Jesus’ listeners. It’s a story told within a profoundly patriarchal culture; a culture in which fathers ruled. Fathers meted out justice on their children when they offended, not unlike the notorious honour killings that show up occasionally in the media. Fathers ruled their households. For a son to ask for his inheritance while his father was still alive was a massive offense. Asking for his inheritance was the son’s way of saying to his father: to me, you’re as good as dead—a form of non-violent parricide (killing of a father). But the father granted the request, and the son went off and squandered all the money. Then, when his wallet was empty and he was starving, the son came up with a scheme to weasel his way back into his father’s house by using a line on his father. ‘Father, I am not worthy to be called your son’. Thus, tricking the father into providing for him as a servant.
But the trick fails because the father forgives the son. The one who was offended forgives the offender.
In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.
In the words of St John Chrysostom: ‘Can you see how great God’s love is for us? Who was the offended party? He was. Who took the first steps toward reconciliation? He did.
God, says Paul to the Corinthians, God put away everything on his side that meant estrangement. God was justly estranged from humans. Just watch the news. Just look at history. Just look at us. Oppression; injustice; betrayal; lies; unfaithfulness; bondage; and on, and on, and on.
God is justly wrathful about human trespasses. And God took the first step to reconcile humanity to himself.
Reconciliation is harmony from discord; friendship from enmity; fellowship from estrangement; unity from division. Or as we might say: at-one-ment. Atonement.
Another scandalous truth about God’s work to bring atonement to humanity through Christ is the nature of the relationship. It is not one between equals in status, or power, or being.
The father in the parable of Luke 15 is not his son’s equal. He is, in such a culture, always the son’s superior. The justly offended, the unjustly wronged superior in the relationship—God—made friends with or restored to fellowship the sinful, offensive inferior.
It is hard for modern egalitarians like us to know what to do with this. We are so used to thinking ‘all people are created equal’ that we bristle at the idea of anyone being ‘superior’ to us. In our culture, inequalities are causes for claims at law for right—rights to be treated the same, or to have the same opportunities, or even to get the same outcome.
God’s relationship with humans in not a relationship between equals. And yet, God made the first move to restore what was broken in the relationship between God and us. This is all the more reason for the Church to be a place for reconciliation, and for Christians to be reconcilers.
In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
What do reconcilers do?
Some reconcilers try to become friends with their opponents across the political divide. I’ve recently learned of an organization in the USA called ‘Better Angels’. It is a ‘national citizens movement to reduce political polarization in the States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization’. It started a couple of days after the 2016 election, when 10 Trump supporters and 11 Clinton supporters met in South Lebanon, OH, for a workshop. The organizers’ goal was to see if they could respectfully disagree and find any common ground.
‘The results were remarkable. [They] liked each other. [They] wanted to know more about each other. [They] wanted to keep on meeting.’ And they wanted to help start workshops across the country.
I encourage you to check out their website sometime. It’s inspiring. Better Angels.
Some reconcilers visit offenders in prison and try to make friends with offenders. I’ve worked for about four years with an organization called Person to Person. Volunteers visit offenders at correctional facilities. The visits are not about evangelism. They are about getting to know someone on the inside. For offenders, it makes a huge difference to know a) that someone on the outside cares enough to talk to them and b) shows them that they are more than what stands on their record.
Back to the problem of the sins of history. As individuals and groups—how ever you define them—we cannot compel those whom we or our ancestors transgressed to reconcile with us. Reconciliation is not an obligation that one party can put on another. But we can take steps to reconcile with those who have offended us.
Can you imagine befriending someone who deeply wronged you, profoundly offended you? Can you imagine reconciling with an enemy?
Last autumn I stumbled upon a remarkable story of reconciliation. You might vaguely remember the film The People vs Larry Flynt. It’s about the notorious founder of Hustler magazine. Flynt’s pornographic publishing empire was routinely attacked by Revd Jerry Falwell, head of the Moral Majority in the US. At one point in the 1980s, Falwell sued Flynt for libel based on an offensive essay in Hustler. The case went up to the Supreme Court, and Flynt’s right to offend was upheld.
Ten years later, Falwell and Flynt were reunited during a television show about the case. The first thing that Falwell did when he saw Flynt on set was to give him a huge hug. They became friends, even sharing ideas on weight loss. When Falwell died in 2007, Flynt wrote a eulogy for the LA Times.
Befriending those who offend us—our debtors, as the Lord’s prayer calls them—is not something that makes sense from a human point of view. God’s grace needs to work in us. By God’s grace we have been reconciled to him in Christ. By grace we can be reconciled to others. Even those who have offended us.
We have all been offended, and we are all offenders.
And so we pray, pray without ceasing, to be reconcilers for and with Christ.
All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.