Reconciliation is the heart of the gospel message: “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself ... and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19). And because reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, it is also at the heart of the Divinity School’s mission.
Sometimes people think of this “message of reconciliation” exclusively as the offer of a way for human beings to get right with God. It is that, to be sure, but the range of its meaning is broader. In ordinary Greek usage of Paul’s time, reconciliation was not a “religious” term. It did not refer to appeasing God by offering sacrifices, nor did it have anything to do with cleansing guilt or receiving divine pardon for sins. Rather, it was a word drawn from the sphere of politics; it referred to dispute resolution. In the ancient Hellenistic world, one could speak of the diplomatic reconciliation of warring nations or, in the sphere of personal relationships, the reconciliation of an estranged husband and wife (as in 1 Corinthians 7:11).
So when Paul uses the verb “reconcile” with God as its subject, he is declaring that God has launched a dramatic new diplomatic initiative to overcome human alienation and to establish new and peaceful relationships. This is clear in Romans 5, the other key passage where Paul uses this terminology: “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10). God has unexpectedly taken the initiative to overcome our hostility and alienation from him and to restore us to peaceful relationship—not only with God but also with one another.
The church is the community of reconciled people who are now “entrusted” with the ambassadorial work of embodying and representing God’s reconciling work in the world. Thus, Duke Divinity School seeks to be a place that equips students and faculty alike for the hard work of making reconciliation visible. The need for that hard work is painfully evident in our time. In the public sphere, our politics seem to have become uglier than ever. The popular media feed on resentment and polarization of opinion. We seem to be in danger of losing the art of civil discourse, as opposing factions withdraw to their corners and hurl angry slogans at one another over the airwaves and the Internet. The fracturing of our communities exposes many fault lines—divisions of ideology, gender, race, and nationality. And of course this same tendency infects not only our political culture but also the culture of the church.
In this poisoned, distrustful atmosphere, it is crucial for the church to recover and exemplify the politics of reconciliation: not just tolerance or compromise, but the deep reconciliation that comes from discovering our common identity as God’s people who participate in new creation as sharers in the divine mercy.
In this issue of DIVINITY magazine, you will find a sample of testimonies and reflections about the ways in which we are seeking to respond to God’s message of reconciliation and to become its ambassadors. One instrument of that ministry at Duke is the Center for Reconciliation, whose activities over the past few years have had a powerful impact. But as you will see in these pages, the work of reconciliation extends beyond any one institutional program or activity. The reconciling love of God radiates through our curriculum, our common worship, and the many acts of service in which members of our community are engaged. It informs our ministry to prisoners and our field education placements. It infuses our study of Scripture and theology. This is a place that takes seriously the call to be theologically and practically engaged in reconciliation with God’s creation, from the earth to our enemies. The fruits of this formation extend across the country and around the world.
What would it mean for a Divinity School to be a place where our imaginations can be reshaped to experience, embody, and share the message of reconciliation? That is what we are seeking to discover at Duke Divinity School.
As you read this magazine, I hope you will join us on that journey of reflection and discovery.
Richard Hays is the Dean and George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School.