What will it take for the church to be reconciled?
That question gets posed a lot. It’s a good question even though sometimes it’s offered in exasperation and as a reflexive defense against what some view as incessant and ambiguous demands.
But whether the question gets posed honestly or disingenuously, it needs answering. A number of book-length treatments of ethnic or “racial” reconciliation exist and repay careful reading. But for the sake of a communication culture that increasingly prefers snippets, sound bites, and short things, here’s a very rudimentary answer to a very important question.
I think the practical experience of reconciliation (as opposed to the spiritual achievement of reconciliation through faith in Christ) entails six experiences together in our local congregations and our personal friendships. They are:
Common truth telling. About history. About our forbears. About the effects of injustice and sin against others. About the asymmetrical participation of individuals and groups in that common history. About Jesus, the Bible, and sanctification. Truth—both capital “T” and little “t” truth—is absolutely foundational to any effort at putting back together any estranged or frayed relationship. Without truth we build on sand and delusion. Unless we inhabit the same true stories we will find it nearly impossible to emerge with a common sense of reconciliation.
Judicial forgiveness. The wonderful folks at CCEF in one of their booklets on forgiveness helpfully distinguish between judicial and relational forgiveness. Judicial forgiveness is the heart work we do to ready ourselves to forgive even when folks aren’t asking. It’s what the Lord has in mind when he says we are to forgive seventy times seven times. Judicial forgiveness is a posture, an attitude, a readiness to remove another’s guilt for wrongs done to you. Judicial forgiveness falls more heavily on the shoulders of the offended, the wronged. Thus it often feels like an unfair burden. But it’s actually the path to freedom and the best way to live since our Lord requires it of us. In American conversations about ethnic reconciliation it falls to Black folks especially.
Judicial contrition. Alongside judicial forgiveness there must also be a judicial contrition. That is, we must do the heart work to ready ourselves to confess sins and wrong even when folks won’t receive our confession. We must remember that a broken and contrite heart God will never despise (Ps. 51:17). In contrition, we seek to live at peace with all men as much as it depends upon us (Rom. 12:18). The “as much as” includes doing everything to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3), where “everything” includes weeping with those who weep (Rom. 12:15), confessing our sins to one another (Jam. 5:16), performing deeds in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20) and the like. In the matter of ethnic reconciliation in America, judicial contrition is the cross to be carried by White brothers and sisters. Judicial contrition readies our white brothers and sisters to admit or confess the sins of their forebears and where necessary confess and repent of any present iteration of those sins. Like judicial forgiveness, it often feels like an unfair burden, but it’s the path to freedom and restoration. Repentance always is.
Relational forgiveness. With parties committed to truth telling and readied to forgive and to confess, relationships can be restored and breaches in fellowship closed. Often we try to skip to this step without having done the prerequisite work of documenting the truth and readying the heart to confess and forgive. So when we attempt relational forgiveness it feels fragile, temporary and even fake. Often it’s a peace-faking rather than a peace-making exercise. But genuine relational forgiveness built on truth and readied hearts possesses durability, integrity and permanence. This is loving each other deeply from the heart (1 Tim. 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:22) and that imitation of God in Christ that we’re called to (Eph. 4:32-5:2). Relational forgiveness is what we most often think of when we think of reconciliation between parties. But there’s more to the reconciliation we hope to see in the church.
Solidarity. Once truth is admitted, hearts readied, and relationships are restored, then we must continue in all of that hard work of getting to know and understand one another. We must stand together in genuine Christian friendship. In a word, there must be solidarity. Solidarity is friendship’s “greater love” that “lays down its life for others” (John 15:13). Solidarity is the kind of friendship that comes from more fully knowing one another and taking up each other’s godly agenda (John 15:15). We sometimes envision reconciliation as merely “kiss and make up,” after which each party goes back to their corner. But in deep reconciliation there’s a newfound camaraderie that faces the world together. The reconciled in Christ stand together wherever possible and biblically wise for redress of sins past and present. The reconciled stand together to defend one another against recrimination and blame from the unforgiving or further injustice and attack from the unrepentant. We’re not deeply reconciled if we “make up” then abandon one another to the same assaults that broke our bonds in the first place.
Practical pursuit of righteousness and justice. The final point is implied in the above paragraph on solidarity. I simply wish to draw it out in clearer fashion. If we are practically reconciled, we have to put our shoulders to the plow to change the church and, by God’s blessing, some part of the world. Do we merely want a society where “those bad things don’t happen as much any more,” or do we want a society positively aimed at the full flourishing of all its citizens? Which kind of church do we want? Everyone will not agree on all the entailments of “the good life.” But discussion and disagreement about the good life is precisely the debate we should have and the work we should then pursue. We serve a God who calls us to “correct oppression; seek justice” (Isa. 1:17) and who requires us “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly” with him (Micah 6:8). We worship a Lord who demands we keep the lighter matters of the law while emphasizing the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matt. 23:23). If we fail to do our duty in these things, then even if we experience greater reconciliation in our era we will set up future generations for injustices that harm reconciliation in their era. The reconciled stand together for righteousness and justice. Yes, we become “social justice warriors,” because the Word of God bids us to love and do justice just as our Savior God loves and does justice every morning (Zeph. 3:5).
So, that’s a rough sketch of “what it would look like” for the church to experience deeper levels of reconciliation. All of this, of course, grows out of the prior reconciliation we have through the cross of Christ. These six things are the practical outworking of that spiritual in-working. We are not to think experiential reconciliation comes without the disciplines, duties and graces of truth, confession, forgiveness, solidarity and the pursuit of righteousness. We put skin in the game (pun intended) when we commit to these Christian responsibilities. We grow in sanctification.
Christianity, after all, is not magic. We don’t grow by chanting mantras. We grow by the grace of God as the Spirit of God uses the means of God to perfect the people of God. There’s a lot of relational sweat equity in the practical experience of this thing we call “reconciliation.”