December 21, 2011 / Praxis
In this Advent reflection, Tom Ryan wonders whether we really want what Advent prepares us for.
In a world torn by warfare, genocide, poverty, ethnic violence, and countless other injustices, reconciliation seems to be the most important need of our time, and yet the call for reconciliation has in some ways become trendy and superficial. As a result, while the idea of reconciliation has mobilized more people than ever, we are waking up to find that beneath all the talk and visions of unity, conflict persists. And no one knows this reality more bitterly than the people who suffer directly from this injustice and the people who have dedicated their lives to mitigating it. As one of those Christians working for such reconciliation, Chris Rice discusses the catastrophic failures, the flashes of redemption, and the possibilities for hope in a world of pain and conflict.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Working at the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School and having recently released a book, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing, with your co-director, Emanuel Katongole, this past fall, you spend a lot of time talking about reconciliation and its importance in the church. Could you tell us what you mean by reconciliation?
Chris Rice (CR): Well, I think that’s an important question because reconciliation has become very popular in the last ten years. It’s become very popular in the peace-and-justice world, including the secular peace-and-justice world, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa being exhibit A. It’s also become very popular in the NGO world, as ethnic conflict seems on the rise across the world, as well as in the evangelical world, even in organizations such as Promise Keepers.
I guess we should start by discussing not what we mean or don’t mean by reconciliation, but what God means by reconciliation. What does the story of Scripture point to in terms of reconciliation? Perhaps a good place to begin is 2 Corinthians 5, which conveys the Apostle Paul’s vision of God reconciling the world in Christ. It is a passage that points to the reality of the new creation in Christ—that God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ and that in Christ there is a new creation—and the reality that the church is invited to embody and live out that new reality in a broken and divided world. I think that this story points to a new community of friendship with God and friendship with neighbor across the deep divides of the world. Hence, this Christological construction of reconciliation has a deeper, more radical, more costly, and more beautiful vision of community than the shallow visions that we are given, sometimes even by the church and certainly by the world. It seems to me that when Christians speak of reconciliation, we must say something about new creation, new identity, and new community; we must say something about what this looks like as a concrete, living reality as it interrupts the trajectories of violence that are at work in the social, racial, economic, and gender divides of the world.
TOJ: One thing you’ve also written about, and something that is difficult for a lot of people, is the notion that the heart of reconciliation is forgiveness. I know that on a very personal level you’ve written about forgiveness in Grace Matters, as well as in some of the subsequent work you’ve done. Could you talk about why forgiveness, specifically, with regard to the divisions of race, has in your personal experience been so important? As a white man, how do you go about talking about forgiveness across racial boundaries and within a racial matrix where white males have typically held the power?
CR: When I speak of reconciliation, or when I speak of forgiveness, you have to realize that I am speaking out of a story of Mississippi; that is, I’m speaking out of my personal experience living in friendship with Spencer Perkins and the Antioch Community in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m speaking about how we see these things in actual places, histories, contexts, and geographies of brokenness. So when I speak about race and forgiveness, I never want to disconnect it from the story that I witnessed and experienced in Mississippi within that history of distrust, bitterness, and animosity and injustices between whites and blacks. I always want to place this discussion within this context of how people actually worked out a life of forgiveness and grace and mutuality with one another.
So when you put forgiveness within that context, you can see that forgiveness is not just some tool that we can grab and then deploy. It’s not a “how to.” Why would you even bother to forgive if you’re a black person who has experienced the racism of Mississippi? Why would you bother to forgive if you’ve seen that form of white supremacy and if you continue to see its residue in the world around you? It seems to me that the story would end right there.
As Desmond Tutu said, “There is no future without forgiveness.” But for Desmond Tutu, that’s a story. It’s a history, but also a future. Why do you preach forgiveness when you are not winning? What do you gain? It’s very costly; it’s a scandal. Forgiveness is a scandal. What makes you want to pursue a new community? What do you gain by that? These are all questions that point to the specific and contextual nature of the road to reconciliation and forgiveness.
TOJ: How did you, as a white male in Mississippi living in interracial community, discover yourself as being forgiven and also forgiving? Did you find that you were both forgiven and also forgiving? I guess the deeper question here is this: from a personal narrative, what is required of the forgiver and the one being forgiven?
CR: I think that the question of narrative is important because reconciliation is not an achievement, but a journey, an invitation into a journey. And forgiveness is a journey. I can see within the story of my seventeen years in Mississippi that there was a time that it was necessary for me to learn repentance. I wanted to see myself as the solution to racism, but I first needed to be altered through the discovery of my own racism. It was very painful, experiencing the surprising anger of black people who I thought I had come to help. In seeing their anger and their bitterness, in a way, the first move was my own need to forgive, to offer grace, to try to understand why they were angry. Then, I began to see how they had already offered a kind of forgiveness to me by being in the same church together. Just in this, they had already given a certain kind of grace.
So it’s very organic and complex. It’s not as simple as saying that blacks need to learn how to forgive and whites need to learn how to repent, because even if all the whites had fallen on our knees to repent of our racial sins, which none of us really did, that wasn’t enough to become a new creation. And I think that’s often where the racial conversation in America stops. It’s anti-racism: an equation that says that whites are the racists and they need to repent whereas black people need to forgive, and that this equals reconciliation.
The truth of the matter is that we live within a racialized nation, and that racialization has deformed all of us in terms of our imagination and in terms of our understanding of identity, the church, and the beloved community. Hence, it’s a journey of mutuality in forgiving. And of course, it’s also a matter of diagnosing the disease as well; I think white and black people have different racial viruses, but we are all diseased.
TOJ: As you’ve already stated, the attention to narrative and locality and the complexity of the way in which racial dynamics structure our interactions with one another is very important for understanding the nature and origins of oppression and the way in which it shapes those who are under it. But you’ve also said that the language of oppressor and oppressed is something that Christianity wants to push back against, because we are called on to something greater, which is reconciliation. Could you say a little bit more about what you mean by the relational dynamic of the new creation and how it aims beyond merely pointing to this dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed? I think a lot of liberation discourse wants to stop with the notion of the oppressor and oppressed, whereas it seems from some of your writing that you have tried to push beyond that a little bit.
CR: I am always surprised at the stories of where the initiative for reconciliation and beloved community begins. It’s Desmond Tutu on the black side of apartheid who is calling for forgiveness. It’s Nelson Mandela who is reaching out to embrace his white South African jailer. It’s Martin Luther King Jr. who is casting a vision of communion while saying that the end is not a boycott, the end is not legal integration, the end is in the beloved community and in calling for self-examination within the African American community. It’s Cesar Chavez doing a boycott that he calls a pilgrimage of penance, not penance by the white business owners, but penance by the Hispanic farm workers. And they are all offering a kind of grace toward the enemy with no guarantee they are going to win. Of course Chavez also says “We mean business! We mean to illuminate the injustice.” But there is something significant about how Chavez, King, Mandela, and Tutu work for justice. Their end is a different dimension than human rights. It is more about a kind of conversion of all humanity toward a new place of life together and shalom. I think that what you see in these witnesses is a deep theological understanding that we live in a fallen world that doesn’t leave any of us simply as oppressors or oppressed. All of us are living within a disordered world, and we are all at risk of participating in the cycle of oppression in one way or another. And we see that story over and over again in history. The oppressed, those who are discriminated against, are always in danger of becoming the next oppressors. I think this is exactly what these witnesses were saying. Now this does not mean we all have the same viruses or diseases, so to speak. But it does mean we are all in need of being transformed into God’s new creation.
Does this leave those in power off the hook? Absolutely not! As Chavez said, yes, this is a pilgrimage of penance, but we are not going to rest until the injustices farm workers endure are illuminated and changes are made; we are not going to rest until there is repentance on the part of those in power. There is no beloved community without new relationships.
TOJ: What do you think of the idea that we are living in a new racial time with the election of President Obama? Do you think there are both dangers and possibilities with thinking of this recent event in this way?
CR: The danger is in thinking that we have now achieved reconciliation. This is a danger for white people in particular. And also I think the danger is in thinking that Obama’s election is what black people need: assimilation into power. His presidency, his election, is real power, so the problem might be that white people can think that this means racial reconciliation has happened. And conversely, black people can say that this really is what it’s all about. And what we lose in the end is a deep vision of koinonia. We might come to believe that integration and assimilation into mainstream power is the same as the biblical vision of koinonia and intimacy, the intimacy of sharing life together in local places, eating together, living side by side, and worshipping together.
We have Obama as president, and yet, 90 percent of African Americans worship in all black churches, and 90 percent of white Christians worship in all white churches. And somehow we see that as normal and perhaps even inevitable. So those are some of the dangers.
TOJ: What do you think of the suggestion that the work of koinonia must be understood in relation to the eschaton? More specifically, how would understanding the work of koinonia in this way not be escapist, that is, how can it still gain traction in the reality of people’s lives in the present?
CR: I think that theologically we have to see what it means to embody hope in the time between Jesus’s resurrection and his return. It’s important to recognize that we are on this side of the eschaton but that we are also on the other side of the resurrection. I think that’s the tension right there—the already/not yet that we live in.
We live in a traumatized world that is still in the grip of the old order, but we are on the other side of the resurrection. We live in a new time; we live in the time of resurrection. We live in the time of new creation. I think one of the most important things this means is that we don’t need to be desperate about trying to achieve reconciliation. In other words, we can take the time to embody a deeper kind of life together. We don’t have to fix it because it’s not all going to be fixed right now; it will be fixed when Jesus returns. Yet this is not to say that in the time that we are in reconciliation is merely a dream; instead, it is to say that reconciliation can become a new reality in real places right now. So in other words, it’s not a dream: it’s real.
The New Song Community Church in Baltimore is real. Blacks and whites—who because of their journeys with Jesus, because of their imagination, because of the ways their lives have been reshaped—are sharing their lives together in the inner city of Baltimore. They are doing health care together and doing education together and addressing violence together and worshipping together. And they are becoming new people. They are no longer just black or white; they are becoming something new. That is the new reality that can break into this world, similar to what I experienced in Mississippi. But these are signs and interruptions. It’s not yet the fullness of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, but there are signs; there are deep alternative ways of life that point to the kingdom and bear the life of the kingdom while not yet being the fullness of the kingdom.
TOJ: There seems to be a tension or connection between patience and hope implied in what you are saying about the kingdom.
CR: The way that Clarence Jordan described it within the life of Koinonia, the interracial community in Georgia in the 70s, is that “Koinonia, this interracial community, is always dying and is always living at the same time.”
It’s fragile. There’s a pervading fragility, but it’s deep. We’ve become new people, and yet at the same time, our new existence is fragile. And I would bear witness to that from what I’ve experienced in Mississippi. We had an incredible, deep, interracial life together, but it was always a bit fragile.
TOJ: It seems to me that one thing you’re doing is giving a quite different understanding of the eschaton, and eschatology, than the one that seems to dominate the popular imagination. That is, your understanding of the end of things seems distinctly different from the notion that emerges from those readings of Scripture where things have to get worse before Christ returns.
CR: Right. Because saying that we are on this side of the eschaton and the other side of resurrection is to say that the resurrection has changed the world.
It intensifies responsibility rather than absolving us of responsibility. We are not called to sit back in quietism and wait for Jesus to come back. No! The kingdom is near and pressing in. It’s “at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Can you see it? Can you feel it?
To begin to see is to point to these stories: the New Song Community Church and L’Arche communities sharing life with the disabled; this incredible community of Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi called Maison Shalom who are building a new life together and shalom on top of what was a killing field in the history of ethnic conflict; and Bishop Taban in the wilderness of Sudan with his Holy Trinity Peace Village. And there is Lawndale Community Church on the west side of Chicago.
These are incredible signs of hope. These are places that have to be seen to be believed. I mean it really is like Jesus’s invitation where he says that he can’t really tell us; he can’t teach us everything in his words; we must come and see. (John 1:38-39). These are places of “come and see” that I think embody this type of hope. They are signs of the invitation. They are Christians who have received the invitation; they’ve embraced the invitation into the new time of resurrection and are performing a prophetic act that points to new possibilities rather than absolving us of responsibility.
TOJ: Let me shift the conversation a little bit and ask another question on the topic of reconciliation. Christianity, in general, as sociologists and church historians have shown us, is shifting. That is, the Christian world is shifting from the West, and specifically North America, to the Southern hemisphere and other geographic locations. How do you think this shift is changing the discussion of reconciliation and the way in which we think about reconciliation? What ought we as North Americans do to receive in this shift? And how might we perceive it?
CR: I probably have a more complex view of that shift than others do because I think it’s a much more complicated story than simply noting that the vitality of the church is now in the East and the South. Christianity in Africa is still full of problems. And most of these problems are the same kind of problems that we face in North America: the predominance of the prosperity gospel, the overly simplified vision of reconciliation, a conception of reconciliation where people just “get saved” but that doesn’t deal with the political and economic realities of their lives. On the other hand, there seems to be a very optimistic view in the church that thinks if somehow Christians get into government, then everything will turn out OK.
But I guess, at the same time, what we are learning is that there are incredible gifts coming from the church in Africa and Asia, remarkable stories of sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. I think there is the possibility of a rich mutuality, an exchange of gifts, from North to South and from East to West. The story of us going to save the African continent or Asia—although there is still a lot of this going around—is at its end. I think we see new stories of mutuality and of exchange emerging.
Perhaps, we truly have the possibility of tasting and building the holy catholic church of the Apostle’s Creed.
I’ve been part of a Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization project on reconciliation that brought together Christians from twenty-five different countries in a journey over two years. These were leaders of many different countries who were full of brokenness and division, and what emerged was a new “we.” Strangers became companions, giving birth to a new “we” born of a shared vision for Christian life and witness in a divided world. That was very powerful and very real. And this nucleus of Christians is now working together collaboratively in many ways. So I think things like this are a part of the fresh work the Holy Spirit is doing in this new vitality and the shifting reality of North and South.
TOJ: To some extent would you say that these types of global activities are giving a larger view of the flashes and the signs of reconciliation in the church that you were talking about before?
CR: Yes, and these journeys, these global, catholic fellowships are almost birthing a new family, which is illuminating hope. In other words, we are seeing in new ways that God is always planting seeds of hope. New stories start to emerge of what’s been happening.
The stories of what’s happening in countries like Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, et cetera—incredible stories that have provided an alternative to shallow visions of Jesus without justice, or justice without Jesus. These places show this deeper incarnational life and mission amid deep, deep brokenness. And that’s really important.
TOJ: It seems that what you’re saying is that part of your work, or any work of reconciliation for that matter, is learning to look at the small, specific locations where flashes of new reality pop up. I want to end by asking how we do that. How do we pay attention to the small stories of re-creation? The re-creation of the cosmos seems like such a grand narrative, so how do we pay attention to the small ways in which it takes place?
CR: I think that’s an enormous challenge because it’s not simply a matter of saying, “Well, let me tell you the stories.” I think American Christians have imbibed the deep habits of modernity, that is, of believing that we can fix the world, that we can fix our lives, that we can fix Africa, that we can fix our children, that we can be successful. I don’t think these are necessarily Christian ideas.
The slowness that reconciliation requires, the slowing down, the unlearning, the proximity to pain, the learning to lament, the taking the time to pursue a deeper hope grounded in repentance and Koinonia, these are practices that are not easily learned. Unlearning our desire and even belief so that we can fix ourselves and the world—how does that happen? I think it has something to do with actually connecting our lives to these places, and I mean bodily. It means actually learning how to go on pilgrimage, how to connect our lives, how to relocate to places that say to us “come and see,” and I think in doing so we’ll see that there’s something far more beautiful than our vision of fixing the world. That’s life together, which is far more beautiful. It’s far more desirable.
Maybe this is why there seems to be such a restlessness in the church now, especially among youth. Maybe it connects to Augustine’s idea that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee,” that these places of a deeper, more beautiful reconciliation actually begin to awaken God’s desires within us for that new creation. It’s costly, yet it’s beautiful. And I find that as people connect to those places, they are drawn to them. And they start to see the shallowness of their lives, and in doing so, they begin to believe that it’s worth it to pursue a deeper, more beautiful vision of mutuality and beloved community, of koinonia. The cost is worth it. It’s a journey of both cross and resurrection, of both sacrifice and hope, but it’s worth it exactly because it’s a more beautiful vision than trying to fix the world.
To read more from Chris Rice about reconciliation, visit his blog Reconcilers. Also, click the images below to purchase these books from Amazon.com and help support Chris Rice, Dan Rhodes, and The Other Journal.
Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008).
Chris Rice, Grace Matters: A Memoir of Faith, Friendship, and Hope in the Heart of the Deep South (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass: 2002).
See Desmond Mpilo Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York, NY: Image Doubleday, 2000).
Chris Rice is co-director of the Duke Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School. He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.
Dan Rhodes is Editor-in-Chief of The Other Journal. He is also Minister of Political and Missional Life at Emmaus Way in Durham, North Carolina, and the author (with Tim Conder) of Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community (Baker Books, 2009). He is currently a candidate for the doctorate of theology at Duke University Divinity School. He lives in Raleigh with his wife, Elizabeth.