The phrase “racial reconciliation” is increasingly being questioned and then abandoned in favor of the alternate term “racial conciliation.” But should it be?
“Reconciliation” presupposes a preexisting unity, the argument goes, and our nation has never enjoyed true racial harmony and equity at any point in its history. While “conciliation” has been used in academic literature for decades, the term has recently skyrocketed in popularity among evangelicals, due in part to the compelling work of various Christian writers and speakers.
To be sure, the view that “reconciliation” is a misnomer deserves careful consideration. We can affirm that our shared history is riddled with grievous racial sins, particularly against Natives and African Americans; that false historical narratives regarding race relations have been perpetuated in American society, even in and by the church; and that there’s no prior Golden Age of racial righteousness to which we can or should return. In this regard, “conciliation” may be the more precise term for our civic efforts to achieve racial healing and justice in American society.
But how about in the church? Should Christians abandon the language of “racial reconciliation” in our local churches?
In short, no.
Creational Unity, Not National Unity
While the phrase is used broadly in civic and other non-religious contexts, for Christians “reconciliation” is derived from Scripture.
Take for example its use in Ephesians 2:15 and the surrounding context. Paul declares that Christ’s death has shattered the “dividing wall” that separated Jews and Gentiles (v. 14). That barrier included the covenantal identity markers of the Mosaic law such as circumcision (vv. 11–12). But it also included a sinful, inter-ethnic “hostility” that resulted in part from legalistic applications of the law (vv. 14, 16; cf. Gal. 2:11). Paul’s use of “peace” and “reconciliation” (vv. 14–17)—language that clearly points to the resolution of conflict—further indicates that more than mere covenantal transition in view. He’s talking about “racial reconciliation.” And the Jew-Gentile relationship—because of the “hostility” that defined it—serves as an archetype for ethnic divisions in the church today.
“Reconciliation” as the mending of racial divisions, therefore, is a biblical term. As such it can’t be easily removed from our lexicon. Moreover, the English prefix “re-” accurately reflects the Greek prefix apo in apokatallássō (typically rendered “reconciliation” in English translations of Ephesians 2:15). Christ breaks the dividing walls that separate his redeemed people, bringing them “back to a former state of harmony” (as Thayer’s lexicon puts it).
When exactly was this “former state of harmony” to which God’s people are called to return? Here’s the key: the biblical-historical reference point for “reconciliation” isn’t the birth of our nation but the birth of the human race in Adam. Even a cursory examination of Paul’s thought points us in this direction: Christ died to “create in himself one new man [NIV: humanity] in place of the two” (Eph. 2:16). In the new Adam, we’re restored to our original design (Rom. 5:12–19; Col. 1:20). When used in the church, then, “reconciliation” harkens back to our creational unity, not a national or ecclesiastical unity.
The biblical-historical reference point for ‘reconciliation’ isn’t the birth of our nation but the birth of the human race in Adam. . . . When used in the church, ‘reconciliation’ harkens back to our creational unity, not a national or ecclesiastical unity.
So our little, controversial, time-referencing prefix “re-” serves a critical function: It locates us in the narrative of redemptive history. It reminds us we’re not (fall) what we were supposed to be (creation). It reminds us we’re not what we will one day be (consummation; Rev. 5:9–14). And it reminds us that Christ, our Reconciler, has already purchased with his blood every spiritual resource needed to make us increasingly united day by day (redemption). “Reconciliation” grounds us in a story—creation, fall, redemption, consummation—that’s bigger than ourselves.
Given the intractable nature of our interracial challenges, we badly need this meta-perspective. We need the biblical vocabulary of “racial reconciliation.”