Sunday, August 9, 2009

Reconciliation Book Reflections #1: Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision For Justice, Peace and Healing, by Katongole & Rice

Even in the secular world, where most do not live into God’s grand narrative, the desire for reconciliatory studies, programs, and commissions is greatly increasing. Though modernity has promised new levels of peace as our understanding increases this has patently not materialized. Instead we see ever deepening divisions across racial, economic, cultural, religious, and familial lines in such alarming ways that people are crying out for some sort of reconciliatory procedures. But, as the authors point out, without a coherent narrative framework our definitions of reconciliation will lack clarity. And thus we find some of the most prominent notions of reconciliation today to be: 1) reconciliation as individual salvation, 2) reconciliation as celebrating diversity, 3) reconciliation as addressing injustice, and 4) reconciliation as firefighting. The first of these focuses completely on the reconciling relationship between God and humanity without concern for social realities. The second, celebrating diversity, fails to offer a higher vision than of simply celebrating one’s own uniqueness. Reconciliation as addressing injustice is limited when it does not cast a new vision of former enemies restored and living together. And reconciliation as firefighting, often done by “experts,” cannot offer a long-term alternative vision for victim and victimizer embraced.

In contrast to these distorted understandings of reconciliation the authors propose that the concept should be understood as something that emerges out of and is sustained by the story of “the living God of Israel who raised the crucified Jesus from the dead” (42). This story reveals a God who gifts reconciliation to humanity as well as enacts transformation in the world and lives of people. Reconciliation is God’s mission in the world and he calls his church to join him in this costly journey of intimate relationship, worshipful community, belonging to places of pain, forgiveness, and living in the gaps where bridges between former enemies can be built.

The journey toward God’s new creation requires a community that is steeped in the story of Scripture and the life of God. While the church itself is flawed and does not perfectly represent the new reality of all things reconciled, in its life, ministry, and practices it is nonetheless called to be a demonstration plot that points beyond the conflict to an alternative way of living in communion together. If the church is to properly play her role in “reconciling all things,” she must join in conversation with others and be a voice that points to God’s realities beyond the visible (interrupting church). Moreover, the church must have a constant openness to be interrupted by the stranger and the needy. This all points to the fact that the church belongs very much in the material realities of everyday life, revealing that reconciliation is inexplicably tied to incarnational living.

Christian leaders, though they may not even call themselves leaders, also play a significant role in the ministry of reconciliation because they have radically dedicated their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ. These are men and women who are inspired by a vision of God’s future, see and are disturbed by the gaps of injustice and pain that exist, and then go out of their way to respond to these gaps. One cannot point to the marks of “normal” leadership for these people: efficiency and control. Rather, it is their determination to be faithful, remain in the gaps, respond to the Holy Spirit, suffer with others, and be continually transformed by God in the process that makes them so indispensable for God’s work of “reconciling all things.”

After reading Miroslav Volf’s two works, Exclusion and Embrace and The End of Memory, I found this book to be much more accessible to the “everyday” reader. Although this is a much less “academic” piece of writing I was still a bit surprised that they did not engage any of Volf’s material -- especially his exegetical work regarding the Passion. However, I feel like Katongole and Rice still offer excellent introductory insights on what a Christian vision for reconciliation should and can look like in our world today, a vision that is cogent and accessible enough for passionate followers of Jesus. My guess is that the authors are targeting ministers who are awake to the growing interest in the subject of reconciliation so that these ministers can get this book into the hands of their people.

In their argument the authors do well to show that many prevalent notions of reconciliation are watered down and lack the vision and power that God’s new creation of a community enveloped in shalom inherently evokes. Yes, reconciliation needs a narrative framework, and the authors provide theological grounding for their arguments throughout, using such stories as Creation, Ramah, and the Passion. Still, I would have liked to have seen at least a small bit of work explaining why reconciliation is so central to the biblical narrative. Overall, their argument is strong, though now having read The End of Memory, I feel like the section on “no reconciliation without memory” needs to be nuanced with the insight that there can be no reconciliation without remembering rightly, as Volf would say.

I found the section on the discipline of lament to be especially instructive and powerful. Before we can point out all of the great things about God and a future hope, we must “learn the anguished cry of lament” (77). In order to learn the practice of lament the authors say we need to unlearn three things: speed, distance, and innocence. In unlearning speed we begin to see the places of brokenness, attend to our own local places of pain, and pursue peace and reconciliation without the boastful talk of great deeds. In unlearning distance from suffering we allow ourselves to be “interrupted” by the suffering of others in our daily lives. And when we unlearn innocence it teaches us that the church is also a part of the problem and that we too must be transformed. The practices of pilgrimage, relocation, and confession can help us to engage the discipline of lament. These concrete examples help take reconciliation out of the realm of the esoteric and into simple yet challenging practices that everyone can grasp.

I also appreciate the way that the authors remind us that reconciliation is central to God’s mission, and that God’s mission has a church -- a group of people dedicated to embodying his story of new creation. We need to remember that reconciliation is not just something that individual believers decide to take on. The community of believers is a “demonstration plot” that the world can observe and see that an alternative way of living is possible. If the authors do indeed desire for this book to get into the hands of more and more laypeople, I will be right there along side of them, encouraging others to read this important book.
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