One result of the wars, violence, divisions, and turbulence of our time has been the growing field of peace studies. This response is understandable: faced with the horror of conflict, is there anything we can do to change it? Traditional approaches include conflict management, conflict resolution, and peacekeeping. They are mostly focused on negotiation, mediation, and diplomacy. A later paradigm of conflict transformation went a step further to engage both the roots and the grassroots of divisions. The next development, peacebuilding, added the insight that the end of one conflict rarely marks its resolution, and it included concerns about how to make peace sustainable. Restorative justice provided another corrective by reframing the focus of justice from punishing offenders to restoring broken people and relationships.
In 2005, a leading voice in the field, John Paul Lederach, departed from the approach outlined in his own ground-breaking book, Building Peace. He declared that the idea of the “engineering of social change” is fundamentally flawed. “The evolution of becoming a profession, the orientation toward technique, and the management of process in conflict resolution and peacebuilding have overshadowed . . . the heart and soul of constructive change.” His new book, The Moral Imagination, argued for less emphasis on technique and skill and more on the “art and soul of building peace.”
So when we talk about reconciliation at the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School, which of these paradigms do we mean? Actually, none of these fully captures a Christian vision of reconciliation. If the God of Israel changed the course of history by raising Jesus from the dead in order to reconcile a world of destructive conflicts back to himself—if the heart of what Christians profess to be the gospel is true—then reconciliation demands the Christian vision of power and life that transcends conflict resolution, peacebuilding, or even moral imagination. What Christians believe and who we worship make it possible to embody a fresh presence for peace and justice in the world.
The New Reality of Reconciliation
A Christian vision of reconciliation is not just another program to help us get along with our neighbor. It is an invitation to enter a new reality that God has created, another vision of life where we are called to be God’s new creation.
This reconciliation is grounded not in strategies, skills, or sociology, but in a story. The short version goes like this:
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view. ... So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself though Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:16-20).
Several crucial things emerge from this story:
• Healing conflict and divisions does not begin with us and our strategies. Reconciliation is God’s initiative, restoring the world to God’s intentions. Reconciliation is therefore a gift, participation with what God is already doing with the gifts God provides.
•God reconciled the world to himself, not just individuals. The scope of God’s reconciliation is personal, bodily, social, material, and cosmic.
• The “message” of reconciliation is far more radical and beautiful than a call to humanitarian tolerance. God’s “new creation” is a whole new dimension, a way of thinking and living that is different from our cultural assumptions.
• Reconciliation is not a theory, technique, or achievement. It is a journey. And this journey has not been entrusted to professionals and specialists. Reconciliation’s ambassadors are “anyone in Christ,” everyday people. It is the ministry of the whole church. Because reconciliation is “in,” “through,” “for,” and “of” Christ, this journey is shaped by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
• Reconciliation is both “already” and “not yet.” The change is real and happening, but also yet to be fulfilled, for “the old” resists. It takes time to learn and live into God’s new reality. This is the call to conversion into the way of Christ, a profound turning from an old place to a new place.
What does stepping into this story look like? And how does it shape a rich imagination and practice of reconciliation in the world? Four questions help us begin to see the heart of reconciliation as a fresh and exciting vision, each question pointing to a distinct gift that reconciliation makes available.
Reconciliation toward what? The first and most important question concerns where reconciliation is headed. God’s gift of new creation provides this answer.
New creation is about interrupting the world’s brokenness with signs and foretastes of God’s reign. One example of this is the worldwide L’Arche movement, founded by Jean Vanier. L’Arche creates places where people who are disabled and people who are not disabled live together in households. Vanier said a few years ago during a visit to Duke Divinity School: “I want justice for the disabled in society; I want them to have access. But I also want more than that. I want to see the disabled and the not disabled eating at the same table together.”
The “toward what” of new creation redirects equality and diversity toward a telos, or goal, of a new future of life together. Reconciliation moves toward this future without divisions.
This vision of mutuality requires the church not only to bear witness to who the reconciling God is but also to become like Christ. Missiologist Andrew Walls drives at this when he writes in his article “The Ephesian Moment”: “The very height of Christ’s full stature is reached only by the coming together of the different cultural entities into the body of Christ. Only ‘together,’ not on our own, can we reach his full stature.”
Another powerful glimpse of new creation’s “toward what” is seen in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. He insisted that a legal victory and the boycott were necessary. Yet these were not ends in themselves. “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.”
For the church, the journey toward new creation requires this “type of spirit and this type of love” that is steeped in the cross and the resurrection. New creation means dying to one way of life and being raised into another. The beautiful, joyful shared life the New Testament calls koinonia is not possible without metanoia, a deep turning in the power of the Holy Spirit.
What is the story of where we are?
The modern confidence in our ability to fix the world asks, What’s the solution, and what do we do? But Christian reconciliation seeks a deeper understanding of the truth about where we are and how we came to be here. One gift God gives to help us answer this question is lament.
Praise and lament are the twin sisters of the Psalms, and they are always walking hand-in-hand. To lament is to learn to see, stand in, describe, and tell the truthful story about the brokenness around us and in us. To lament is to learn to refuse to be consoled by easy explanations or false hopes. Lament is bringing our analysis into conversation with God and learning to pray with urgency. Lament is the practice of becoming joined with others into God’s desires, a journey into seeing what God sees and feeling what God feels.
To learn to lament is also to protest against the way things are. Lament is the voice of Rachel at Ramah, weeping for her slaughtered children and refusing to be consoled (Matthew 2:18). Lament is Desmond Tutu crying out from the gravesite of a murdered apartheid victim, “God, we know you are going to win, but why are you taking so long?” In their book Living Without Enemies, Sam Wells and Marcia Owen tell the story of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham. Every time someone is murdered in Durham, N.C., (about 25 people per year), the coalition holds a vigil at the site to pray and remember. The vigil is a way of saying, “Listen city! Listen churches! See what happened! This is not normal! This is not acceptable! God, we are here, crying out to you—come and intervene!”
These vigils of lament reveal a side of the city that’s often ignored by the privileged. They become a place of conversion that brings people together beyond “us” and “them” into a new community, a new “we.” Years of vigils have led to strangers becoming companions in a common mission. Eventually this birthed a “Reconciliation and Re-Entry” program, connecting victims, perpetrators, and those people no longer content to remain on the sidelines.
The coalition’s story reveals God’s powerful truth: the spine of lament is hope. The prophet Jeremiah warned about cheap and shallow versions of reconciliation, of those who love to say, “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). Shaped by the biblical discipline of lament, we see that hope requires that we truthfully name the brokenness, the pain, and the divisions.
What do hope and peace look like?
Reconciliation depends on the hope that God is always doing something new in the world (Isaiah 43:19). And so Christian reconciliation also requires the discipline of learning to see and to name that hope (1 Peter 3:15). In order to do this, God has given us the gift of stories.
Scripture teems with stories of “a cloud of witnesses” for peace that illuminate what hope looks like: Abigail daring to confront David and turn him toward mercy for an enemy (1 Samuel 25); Jesus washing the feet of those about to betray and deny him (John 13); Peter agreeing to go to the house of a Roman military commander named Cornelius and learn there that the gospel includes reconciliation with Gentiles (Acts 10).
We are also surrounded by many witnesses and signs of hope in our world today. These stories confirm God is already breaking through the stubbornness to invite us into his revolution of love. In a post-9/11 world, at an epicenter of Christian-Muslim antagonism, the work of our friend Paulus Widjaja in Indonesia teaches us what this looks like. At the university where he teaches peace studies, Paulus insists that Christians and Muslims learn in the same classroom. He requires the Christian students to study the Koran, and the Muslim students to study the Bible, to enter into intense conversation by walking in one another’s shoes and learning to see the world from the standpoint of the other.
The dominant peace paradigms focus on tools for addressing conflict. But the vision of Christian reconciliation assumes that we are the ones that need to be worked on—and this happens in part through stories. This is both internal work within individuals and external work within communities, and reconciliation recognizes the inextricable relationship between communal and personal hope.
In his book Resurrection, Rowan Williams speaks of “communities of resurrection” that are “deliberately created in response to an overwhelming failure in the society,” communities such as “multi-racial ‘cells’ in a racist society” and the “giving-and-receiving of the L’Arche communities.” Communities of resurrection provide stories that correct and expand our imagination about new possibilities. We learn from them what it means to practice an incarnational reconciliation that is enmeshed in history, time, place, and structures. These are more than ministries—they are a means of grace, a school of conversion, a ground where people are being saved by dying to old identities and living into new ones.
Why me? Why bother?
This journey of reconciliation that God invites us into is beautiful, yet it is not sentimental. It is an invitation to be raised into new life with the one who “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Reconciliation calls us into the hard space between the “already” and “not yet.” The questions “Why me, why bother?” will confront us at critical times when the cost is too high, forgiveness too painful, the hurt too deep, the resistance too strong, Christ seemingly too far away.
This requires a way of living that names the truth—and the gift—that we are not God. Christian reconciliation keeps God’s action, not ours, at the center.
Desmond Tutu held together three truths usually forced apart: seriously engaging the truth of past and present captivities; the vision of a shared future between estranged enemies; and the truth that there is, as Tutu puts it, “no future without forgiveness.” We must take seriously the work of God behind Tutu’s witness. We have two favorite images of Bishop Tutu. One is from the cover of his biography, Rabble-Rouser for Peace, where Tutu is preaching before a large crowd. This is the public Tutu, the fiery prophet speaking truth to power, the Tutu people know. We have much to learn from this public Tutu about what reconciliation requires. Yet inside the book is another photo, one of the hidden Tutu. He is sitting quietly in the beautiful chapel he built in his own backyard, gazing at a cross of the crucified Jesus, worshipping and listening to God. This is the Tutu we don’t know. We have just as much to learn from this hidden Tutu about what reconciliation means. There is no public Tutu without the hidden Tutu. He teaches us “there is need of only one thing” in this journey of reconciliation, seen in the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42): sitting at the feet of the Lord.
God’s gift of reconciliation is an invitation into restless advocacy for peace, justice, human rights, and an end to war and discrimination. But as Jean Vanier and Martin Luther King Jr. teach us, these are not the ultimate end. To sustain this struggle for a more just and peaceful world requires not only extravagant mercy and justice but also extravagant devotion.
This is why reconciliation requires worshipping communities. There is no work of conversion, no beloved community, no “new we,” without the central, prior action of the resurrected Jesus whose wounds did not disappear. The full equation of peace is not “us” and “them” becoming a new “we.” Rather, it is “us,” “them,” and God. Reconciliation is as big as engaging the great social divisions from America to Africa to Asia, as well as our rupture with all of God’s creation. Yet reconciliation is never bigger than the person nearest to you who is most difficult to love. The greatest force in learning to embrace and embody this new creation is not our love for God or for the world, but God’s love for us. This is why a Christian vision of reconciliation matters for each one of us.