I’ve been reading a book by Fleming Rutledge titled The Crucifixion. The author covers a lot of ground in the book, but one issue she tackles is why our reconciliation to God required the sacrifice of the Son of God. Couldn’t he just forgive and forget?
That question hit home with me because I’ve often heard it from Muslim friends. I remember one friend who asked me in all honesty, “why all this drama of God being born and then dying a horrendous death, nailed on a cross? Is all that really necessary?”
Rutledge gives some solid answers to those questions, so I commend her book. For me, it posed some questions about reconciliation.
Do we make it cheap?
Paul says that now that we are reconciled to God, we become servants of that reconciliation in the world…ambassadors of God. You might say we go around doing, on a small scale, what God did on a big scale—removing the enmity, making peace, sowing seeds of love and harmony and all that good stuff.
Who wouldn’t sign up for that? We all want to think of ourselves as the good people, the ones who are righting the wrongs and healing the breach. Right?
But then the rubber meets the road. We encounter a situation where there is real conflict.
I recall a man who I greatly admired for his spiritual maturity and leadership. He was concerned for the city he lived in and the spread of poverty and racial violence. As he watched neighborhoods of his city transition from white residents to people of color, he noticed the visible effects on the neighborhood. He concluded that racial integration brought poverty and its visible effects. For him, the evidence spoke for itself. When the whites move out, the problems begin.
I’m guessing those lines stir some passion and anger inside you. They do the same for me.
But is integration really the goal? There is a more profound work that will take more time, be more costly, require sacrifice—the work of reconciliation.
The story of the Bible is extreme. God dies on a cross…and that’s the good news! It is so extreme because human alienation from God is so tragic, so deep, so all-encompassing. We humans had to be released from the grip of alienation from God in order to live again. Jesus, as the Son of God, took human alienation (sin) into himself, absorbing it into his divine being, taking it to the grave. He left it there as he rose to life, reconciling to God all who would receive it. Yes. It is a dramatic story and a costly one.
And do we expect that we can bring about reconciliation at no cost…on the cheap?
The agent of reconciliation in our world will pay a price. He or she must stand in the middle of a battlefield between ethnic groups, religions, political perspectives and opposing worldviews. No way to come out of that unscathed. Absorbing the enmity of our fractured world will not come cheap.
Rutledge discusses the example of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in post-apartheid South Africa. The white regime wanted to hand over power on condition of total amnesty. A compromise was reached based on amnesty on a case by case basis, on condition of full disclosure. Stories of torture and murder were told publicly before the families of victims. Imagine the agony of hearing how a brother was tortured or a sister was raped. Rutledge comments:
After three years of intense public hearings, the commission released the report of its investigations to a barrage of criticism from both ends of the political spectrum,… However, it is now largely recognized that the evenhandedness of the TRC was one of the most striking aspects of its work, for it detailed not only the extensive crimes of the white government but also the misdeeds of the Inkatha Freedom Party, the ANC and President Mandela’s own ex-wife, Winnie. (Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion, p. 117)
Archbishop Tutu knew something that we must also learn: “Forgiveness is not cheap, is not facile. It is costly. Reconciliation is not an easy option. It cost God the death of his Son.” (Rutledge, p. 115)
The US has its own racial tension. The murder of Ahmaud Arbery is a recent reminder. We await justice, painfully aware that it might never have occurred had a video of the incident not been made public. It is one event among many that demonstrates that true reconciliation between African Americans and whites continues to be a long and costly process. Agents of reconciliation will be needed on both sides of the divide. It requires a willingness to absorb the enmity, to listen empathetically and to change attitudes and behavior. We won’t get reconciliation of that kind from a court ruling or a new law against hate crimes. That may be a step, but authentic reconciliation does not come that easily.
If we are to have reconciliation, it will hurt our ethnic pride. It will spotlight the dark side of our collective history and it will strike our bank account. True reconciliation will change the balance of economic prosperity. Are we ready for that? If not, let’s stop talking about reconciliation because it won’t come cheap.