Reflecting on the Summer Institute for Reconciliation
For the past six years, the first full day of Duke Divinity School’s Summer Institute for Reconciliation has been shaped by the question: “Reconciliation towards what?” The question aims to remind Christians that reconciliation is not our possession, but God’s gift. Reconciliation so envisioned echoes out from God’s people, shaping the witness of God’s church. At its best, this Christian vision of reconciliation refuses to be deployed as a denial of our histories while masquerading as serious theological reflection. Instead, this is reconciliation as the difficult promise of a painful joining, drawn together into the hope that is God’s life. It is a diurnal turn toward Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of lords, the new determination for our lives.
During the first session, Dean Richard Hays interpreted this vision by turning our attention toward New Testament understandings of table fellowship. Responding to the question—“Reconciliation toward what?”—Hays described an eschatological image: “Toward one table.” In a room of 80 participants representing 16 different countries, Dean Hays began our week of theological reflection with the end in view: a people summoned to a table that is not ours, toward a future not our own.
And this eschatological promise did not allow us to escape the histories we carry within us, but brought our tension -filled stories more clearly into view. It sharpened our questions. Reflecting on this one-table vision, Summer Institute participants asked: “Whose table?” Or, as one participant aptly put it: “Who has to come into whose neighborhood?” The eschatological vision of “one table” produced questions about the shape of our lives now, questions that refuse abstract reconciliation or the illusion of neutral space in a divided world. It was a brief glimpse, I thought, of what difficult joining might look like.
Professor Bill Turner deepened this vision of difficult joining by rejecting a “dreamy-eyed optimism,” calling for a “hopeful spirit” amidst powers bent toward domination. Turner did not let talk of reconciliation evade the horrifying depths of America’s enduring racial wound, but instead paid homage to those faithful witnesses in his life who continue to sustain him, people who sing songs stitched together by hope amidst death dealing fear. Turner became one such exemplar among his listeners at Summer Institute, displaying a thorny patience that is also a protest, summed up in the prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit.”
Summer Institute co-facilitator Edgardo Colon-Emeric put it similarly: “We are trying to raise some sails,” he told participants, “able to catch the wind of the Holy Spirit.” Yet waiting on the Spirit’s wind to blow where it wills often places us inside the psalmist’s lament: “How long, O Lord?”
And it is precisely this lament that, at its best, makes space for mutual confrontation. Lament, understood as the “spine of hope,” inclines our ear toward one another inside cries that keep us from withdrawing from God’s good world. The Summer Institute’s practice of lament attempts to facilitate this kind of theological speech that brings the truth of our lives more clearly into view. For when the cry finds a listener, lament creates a space where encounters can surprise us, making us attentive to the quiet laments we carry with us. In those moments of surprise, the room becomes a place where people grieve, where confrontation makes repentance and conversion possible. When our lives, pulled into focus, do appear before one another, there is often much to lament. Yet the truth of our lives is this: we are God’s creatures, our gifted lives poised to encounter the risen Christ, the suffering servant with arms outstretched, who says to us: “Take, eat; this is my body,” the bread of heaven.