Friday, June 1, 2012

Ministry of Reconciliation

Last year The Circuit Rider published my short article on “keeping peace when scripture conflicts.” When we stand for certain issues (women’s rights, rights for LGBT persons, gun control, capital punishment, and many others), we interpret scripture but we also make interpretive decisions about scripture with which others---reading the same book---will disagree.  In fact, strong disagreements will probably take place.  Paul’s letter to the Galatians reflects a sharp disagreement about circumcision. But in Galatians, even though Paul is angry at the congregation (3:1, 5:12), he still preaches peace, mutual upbuilding, and reconciliation (Gal. 6:10; see also Romans 12:16-18).

The risky thing is that as we Christians struggle for justice and change on particular issues, and as we face disagreements on topics, we must still seek to uphold biblical values (gifts of the Spirit, actually) of reconciliation, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and others.  2 Corinthians 5:17-20, for instance, teaches that Christ “gave us the ministry of reconciliation” and “the message of reconciliation.”   Thus, as I wrote in that article, when we try to press our own “rightness” on a particular issue, we miss an important aspect of our Christian walk, which is to show how Christ frees us all from the power of sin and reconciles us with God.  How do we balance our convictions and concern for justice, with the ministry of reconciliation?

A writer I admire, Dan R. Dick, recently blogged about the quarrels and discussions at his annual conference: He wishes there was “a way to live the fruit of the Spirit IN SPITE of our personal differences” (his emphasis).  For instance, he wishes that those who oppose same-sex partnerships and “still offer love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to those same people… For some reason, it is more important to argue and hate and score points off of others than to care for them.” He laments that one group “used the song ‘They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love’ as a weapon to silence those they disagreed with. Such insidious intolerance does nothing to heal, only to wound with self-righteousness.”

One difficult part of having a ministry of reconciliation among each other, is what he calls the “victim mentality” or a sense of unfairness that leads to reactions against one another.  I think this mentality works both ways: those against whom some unfair and difficult thing has happened (exclusion, prejudice, and so on) has happened and is still happening, and those who feel more indirectly persecuted because their own values and opinions seem under threat (e.g., Facebook friends recently outraged that “under God” was omitted from the Pledge of Allegiance in a televised event, etc.).

One scary aspect of this mentality is the subtle or overt condemnation of the whole person who disagrees, or whose opinions are evolving.  Both liberals and conservative evangelicals are prone to this. There was a certain time in my life, not recently, when I was interesting in learning certain justice topics and the related struggles for equality.  But I felt looked-down-upon because I wasn’t already on same page as the persons from whom I wanted to learn!  I was probably oversensitive, but I felt a disdain and dismissiveness directed at me because I wasn’t already a full advocate of the issue—and that I hadn’t directed my whole concern toward advocacy of the issue, even though I was sympathetic and open to learning.

Another time, a church official leading a group in which I was a participant said sharply, “I assume we’re all against the death penalty,” implying of course that we all should be. Unanimity of agreement on this issue—which, to me, has strong arguments both pro and con, though I lean toward is abolition---was expected. 

John Wesley preached a sermon called “Catholic Spirit.” His text is 2 Kings 10:15, where two people (Jehu and Jehonadab) relate to one another based on the trueness of each other’s heart rather than opinions and topics.  Wesley sees this as a potent example of Christian love: we seek to love all persons—friends, enemies, and strangers—as we recognize that we don’t all see things the same way and don’t have full knowledge.  We focus instead on the content of the heart and the relationship with God.

But this is all so difficult, especially when you’re pressing a justice issue!   Such an issue will not seem like an opinion but rather something crucial—and we may perceive the content of another’s heart only around “our” issue.  What seems an opinion to me but it will seem like a life-defining justice issue to you, and vice versa.  Paul warned that we must take care when anger arises in the church (Gal. 5:13-15), but there is also the anger responding to feeling “bit and torn” by others—an anger which is a truthful emotion in response to painful injustice!

I hope that Wesley’s vision is something toward which we all can work (whether we’re in Wesley’s theological tradition or not). There are biblical values of peace and reconciliation amid differences that do witness powerfully to the grace of Christ—the grace and love toward which we point, liberals and conservatives alike. There are biblical values of mutual burden bearing (Gal. 6:2), mutual care (Eph. 4:11-16), being fully empathetic toward persons (because we’re in the Body of Christ together) whose experiences are not our own (Heb. 13:3). There are warnings against enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, (Gal. 5: 20), and the affirmation that God has removed boundaries (even though, one could add, real differences of experience and conviction remain among persons: Eph. 2:11-22). Scandalously, Paul even calls us to stop thinking we have to be right on an issue if we’re thereby hurting someone else (1 Cor. 8 and 9)—-although such caution requires discernment and common sense, lest we toss out the truth in the name of keeping someone from becoming upset. Of course, we all know the over-quoted but always relevant 1 Cor. 13:1-13.

The Good Samaritan is another venerable example of reconciliation in spite of real differences: his and the Jewish victim’s real theological and ethnic differences did not simply end, nor were artificially smoothed over, because of the man’s willingness to help.  It is not a sentimental story at all!   Neither is Jesus’ example of washing the disciples’ feet in John 13.  Imagine that you’re called to do such an act of service—embarrassing and disagreeable as foot washing must be---to someone you strongly disagree with on a major issue, or to someone who is strongly against you because of that issue.  I know I couldn’t do that! But that’s the kind of witness and service to which Christ calls us---“See those people, they’re separated by real and painful differences, and yet they actively care for one another.”

Again, I never want to minimize the convictions of persons for whom certain issues are a matter of real justice and urgency. I keep thinking about how we as church people can listen to one another and love one another truly, thus witnessing to the reconciling power of Christ among our genuine differences and evolving understanding.

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