The high road of Christian reconciliation

The values and paths to finding trust and peace in strained relationships

Roelf Meyer, Ph.D., is a researcher for the Institute of Theology and Religion, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa.
Gerhard van Wyk, Th.D., is pastor of the Thomasville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Thomasville, North Carolina.

Deeply hurt people often try to find a new future. The secret, however, is to come to terms with the past. How do we cope with a hurting or violent past that cannot be changed? To forget the ravaging violence, buried pain, overwhelming shock, and continuing trauma is not easy. Even worse is to invoke a new start and thereby trivialize the past suffering of the victims. The result could be an open infested wound corrupting new endeavors.

This is why so many oppressed societies experience conflict after liberation. They don't experience reconciliation, instead attempting to build their "new houses" on old rubble. To bring about genuine reconciliation, we need to construct a theology of reconciliation, because "bad theology makes bad politics."1

Reconciliation determines life in the future. The past often pursues and disrupts our plans for a new society or a better marriage. If past beliefs contain distorted views, they may haunt our endeavors to move toward the new. Consequently, a major aspect of reconciliation is "coming to terms with the past."2

It is not, however, the past trauma itself that causes our problems, but the false convictions about those traumatic events. For example, when disasters strike a marriage, those involved are likely to generalize reactively: Men are brutes; women cannot be trusted. Or violence tears apart a community.

Or, one may quickly conclude that the "other" race or faith is "always" the one that ignites the fire, and that they cannot be trusted.

Such generalized, subjective conclusions—not the actual trauma, sin, or violence perse—are the causes of disruption in our lives. A woman, for example, cannot adequately relate in a marital relationship, and she moves from one disastrous marriage to another. Counseling reveals that she was molested by her uncle when she was a child, and this devastating experience of the past has not been properly dealt with.

From this one instance the woman may conclude that the reason for her inadequate relationship as an adult is that single traumatic event of the distant past. However, the real problem may be that she has not squarely dealt with the past, but instead has been carrying about in her life a heavy burden of low self-esteem.

As a result of the trauma, she has reached a wrong conclusion about herself: "I am no good," "I am filthy," or "I am the guilty one." We may try to convince her that she was not guilty. She may even agree with us theoretically, but her self-conceived lies about herself come back to determine the course of her life and to ruin it. Her trauma from the past has to be dealt with if she is to lead a normal life.

Counseling may help, and indeed may be necessary. But more than counseling, reconciliation is needed—the kind of reconciliation that becomes possible when Christ's light dispels false beliefs and when Jesus enables a person to start anew.

Good intentions are often sabotaged from inside. "The lies embedded in our memories are powerful forces which impact everything we do. It is nearly impossible to act outside of the lie's persistent controlling restraint.'" It is here that Christ's enabling power of reconciliation brings about inner healing.

Christian reconciliation or human conciliation?

What is unique about Christian reconciliation when compared to what might be called human conciliation? At least four factors need to be noted.

1. Christian reconciliation is a spiritual act, more than a human strategy. Reconciliation starts with God's reconciling love through Christ's cross, forgiving our sins and trans-forming us. Reconciliation restructures our lives, community, or church, and is a response to God's renewal.

Christian reconciliation comes about not simply through technical, problem-solving methods. It "is a change of personal relations. ... By this change a state of enmity ... is replaced by... peace and fellowship."4 Reconciliation is more than over coming past mistakes or renewing a marriage. It involves a new set of rules, a new conviction. Only changed convictions can renew us after Christ's light dispels the lies we have believed in.

Without that change of conviction, without a total commitment to the love that comes from Christ, genuine reconciliation cannot take place.

An abused wife, for example, may continue to live with her alcoholic husband, but cannot experience the true joy of reconciliation, unless she has had that transforming experience that comes from Christ alone.

2. No reconciliation is possible with out liberation. Without liberation, conflict is continuous, especially where the causes are covert. Often this is the case when structure violence or economic exploitation and racism remains hidden.

Conflict is never superficial; it is intertwined within a relationship and if one ignores it as peripheral, the problem continues. An alternative societal structure or a changed marital attitude will only come with liberation.

Liberation is the prerequisite of reconciliation. Take, for example, a marriage in which the husband con tinually abuses his wife. He wants to find resolution to the problem, his intentions are good, but operating within an oppressive structure that tolerates wife abuse, he needs to be liberated from that structure before he can solve his marital problem.

The wife also needs liberation from the structure of oppression. In the new light of freedom, both can begin again with the realization that marriage is more than two persons living together. It is two persons living together in a far-reaching covenant and commitment of love. Such liberation Christ offers.

Reconciliation is not merely forget ting past conflict, as that would never uncover the causes of evil, and may eventually open the Pandora's Box of struggles, after a so-called peace.

Appealing to "forgive and forget" indicates that the suffering was not important. It conveys the shocking message that a person's God-given rights are not important to reconciliation or to life itself.

Reconciliation is viewing the suffering through the eyes of victims, so that cycles of conflict will not happen again. No quick fix can work, as long as cruel dominators, in their terrible orgies of verbal or physical abuse, erase the sacredness of human life.

Perpetrators have to humbly confess and make amends.

3. Usually, the oppressor does not initiate reconciliation, but when the victim does, he or she regains his or her dignity and "humanity." Generally we expect reconciliation to start with the perpetrators asking for forgiveness, but often this is not the case. The gospel suggests that shattered victims can receive God's healing wholeness when they come to Him.

With the peace and assurance victims experience from God, they in fact are ready to offer forgiveness to their oppressors. Is this not what Jesus meant when He said, "Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39)? Such an attitude on the part of the victim will cause the oppressor to move toward repentance.

In this process, victims regain their humanity through reconciliation, and challenge others to discover their humanity.

Christian reconciliation does not originate with the overpowering and the affluent. The powerful transna tional ideologies such as capitalism, communism, liberalism, or socialism cannot reconcile people. Claims of superiority based on race, color, nationality, religious schisms, language, and tribe are not easy to erase without the liberating, genuine experience of a new relationship with Christ and a commitment to His claim that every human is made in God's image and is precious in His sight.

Witness what happens when we rely solely on human efforts and strategies as we seek reconciliation without that power that only Christ offers: Ethnic wars erupt repeatedly defying one peace accord after another; ethno-religious convulsions destroy communal peace; and racial strife tears apart the world's cities. Without Christ, conflict is our only status and legacy.

Can we not cooperate with the alienated, or be reconciled in our failing marriages? The human answer is "No!" Envy, fear, aggression, and greed spell out "business as usual." But the good news of the gospel is that through Christ's reconciliation "others" in our world need not be a source of insecurity, but rather God's variety in God's world.

4. Reconciliation is collaboration rather than cooperation. Cooperation means working together. It suggests that I invite you to work together with me as I seek to fulfill my goals. I am the center and my view is the norm. In contrast, collaboration is to be a part of our combined task; to join forces, to team up, to work in partnership and to pool resources. The biblical word is co-workers.

Imagine what would happen in our marriages if we actually collaborated, joining forces, teaming up, and becoming co-workers with God. Imagine again what kind of churches we would have through cultivating the spirit of being co-workers with God.

Cooperation is merely a superficial agreement toward goals for rewards. It is a merely human approach in relationships, but it does not go deep enough. Collaboration, on the other hand, is a covenant relationship that extends acceptance and friendship toward the other, providing life sup port and security in an atmosphere of unselfish love.

To forgive others is to forgive our selves and to abandon revenge.

Look at the Cross. There we see forgiveness, and we become whole. If our neighbors look into our faces and see that wholeness, they too can turn to Jesus and have a similar experience. And together we can join our lives, deal with the past, and experience genuine reconciliation. If we merely ignore the past, we will never terminate the pain of the past and will be fated to live it over and over again.

Why is reconciliation possible?

Reconciliation is possible because we are created in God's image and redeemed by divine love through His Son.

First, the image: "God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:26, 27, NIV).

Because God created humanity in His image, reconciliation is possible between alienated people when they discover and affirm their common roots. God's image finds a common bond between the most estranged, and forms the basis to accept others as one's equal, to overcome the worst enmity and to forgive the most terrible hurt.

Theologians interpret God's image in many ways: rational powers, con science, spirituality, personhood, moral responsibility, fellowship with one another, and possibility of communication with God. Bonhoeffer adds another powerful dimension: He sees in the motif of the image of God, the moral responsibility of the humans for personal and political decisions.

As such, there is a dynamic meaning to the image of God.5 And the dynamic can be located in the phrase, "let them rule." God reigns. He forms the world and creates humanity in His image.6 Then He shares this concept of rulership with humans. But the concept of rulership must not be interpreted as a concept of power over others, subordinating them, denying them their rights and dignity. Nor does it mean exploitation of the others through political, social, or gender discrimination.

Genesis 1:26-28 is so broad and powerful that it sees the equality and dignity of all human beings and even the necessity to exercise proper stewardship over the environment in which we live. There is no room for oppression, domination, a superiority complex, or lordship at the cost of others.

Thus the Genesis endowment of rulership authority upon humans has an entirely different thrust: it is to rule, but only according to His image, fully reflected in Christ, as the loving and liberating Servant (see Phil 2:6-12).

Christ's kingship was atypical. His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), nor of power, but of love. His disciples were not to exercise power as the heathens, lording over one another, but to serve in humility (Matt. 23:11, 12; Mark 9:35). He Himself came not to be served, but to serve and to sacrifice His life as a ransom for others (Matt. 20:28).

What happens when we renounce economic wealth, oppressive power in politics, controlling relationships in marriages, and become passionate servants of Christ? Reconciliation and harmonious fellowship open up the high road of love and joy.

Reconciliation ultimately means for us to become one with Christ. When will this happen? Now. How does this happen? The glorious mes sage is that we need not afflict ourselves trying to imitate His image, but rather we accept reconciliation as a free gift that is already ours from the Christ of the Cross. If we believe in Him as our Savior, we shall be like Him—forgiving as He did on the cross, and reconciling as His life's purpose was.

It is as Paul stated it: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:17, 18, NIV).

Indeed, it is our wonderful task as ministers of the gospel to proclaim and live out this reconciliation.

1 G Baum and H. Wells, The Reconciliation of Peoples: Challenge of the Churches (New York' Orbis, 1997), 2

2 R J. Schreitcr, "Reconciliation as a Missionary Task," in Missionalia: An International Review, xxix (2001): 417

3 E. M. Smith, Beyond Tolerable Recovery: Moving Beyond Tolerable Existence into Biblical Maintenance of Free Victory! (Kentucky: Alathia Publishing, 1999), 51.

4 W. C. Robinson, "Reconciliation," in Baker's Dictionary of Theology (London. Pickermg and Inglis, Ltd., 1960), 439

5 G. A Jonsson, The Image of God-Genesis 1:26-28 in a Century of Old Testament Research. Tt. L. Svendsen. (Lund: Almqvist and Wiksell, 1988), 219-225.

6 F A. Bird, "Male and Female He Created Thenr Genesis l:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account to Creation," in Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981) 2:129-159

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Roelf Meyer, Ph.D., is a researcher for the Institute of Theology and Religion, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa.
Gerhard van Wyk, Th.D., is pastor of the Thomasville Seventh-day Adventist Church, Thomasville, North Carolina.

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