The Divisive Ministry of Reconciliation. How to Make Enemies by Loving Everyone.
There is this tension, contradiction if you will, in the Gospels that has always bothered me. On the one hand, you have this message of the Messiah who has come to bring peace. The angels declare at Jesus’ birth, “Peace on earth! Goodwill towards men!” (Lk 2:14). John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus by “turning the hearts of the fathers back to their children” (Lk 1:17). Jesus’ own words, teachings, and life were marked by peace and goodwill. Moreover, Jesus was a reconciler. He brought people together. He went out of his way to include the outsider, even when his disciples took issue with it. Years later, the Apostle Paul seems to echo the connection between faith in Jesus and reconciliation. He says the apostles were “ministers of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19-20), he tears down the barriers of gender, nationality, and social class (Gal 3:28), and he says the barriers between races has been torn down (Eph 2:14).
But if Jesus intended to be a reconciler of people, we might say Jesus was a failure. He was never able to get the Pharisees and the other Jewish temple authorities on his side. In fact, the more he went out of his way for others, the more he caused friction between himself and the religious elites. Yet, he remained undeterred. I don’t get any feeling from the Gospel texts that Jesus felt the need to let up on his efforts to reconcile sinners to God, and to one another. Ironically, his efforts will not bring the religious folk into that same kind of relationship. And to that point, Jesus says something so contradictory to the rest of the gospel narrative that I scarcely know what to do with it.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ (Matt 10:34-36, NIV)
Looking back at the Apostle Paul, again we see that he experienced this paradoxical relationship between being a reconciler and a divider. While leading a massive, and highly successful movement reconciling Jews and Gentiles, he couldn’t even maintain a relationship between himself and his Jewish kinsmen (2 Cor 11:26).
This week I had an epiphany. The ministry of reconciliation is divisive.
We can see this no more true than within the context of American pop-evangelicalism. As soon as an individual or church shows any openness to groups or individuals that the religious have been trained to ostracize, division is formed within the ranks. The more you open up to outsiders, the more you turn off the insiders. And when you were once a part of the insiders, the fall from their graces can be quite traumatic (trust me, I speak from experience here). There is no quicker way for a Christian, especially among the ranks of conservative evangelicalism, to be ostracized by the church than to be open and accepting of everyone.
Pop-evangelicalism has no capacity for understanding the goodness of reconciliation. In that world, it falls too close to the movement of “tolerance” it loathes. They don’t understand why those who champion “tolerance” aren’t tolerant of them. First of all, I think the frustration lies in a misconception of what the tolerance movement intends to do. Second, I think that there will always be a disconnect between those who hold historically bigoted views, whether vindicated by the status quo of a religion or not, and those who seek to bring people together in common communion. This is historically the case. Even Jesus couldn’t bring the holier-than-thou crew under his big umbrella of love and forgiveness. Finally, I think that some forms of the Christian faith need division to sustain the message. There’s a theology necessitates an “us and them” approach to human relationships and church communion. Any movement that threatens that demarcation shakes the boat, and will, ironically, cause even more division. The ground of pop-evangelicalism is dry and parched. Almost every pressure point increases the possibility of division.
This epiphany came on the tails of a conversation I had with a fellow Christian about the Confederate flag issue. Any time I challenged the narrative he had been handed (one of the white savior who helped poor Africans by rescuing them from Africa and making them slaves), I was met with his plea for love and mutual respect. He expressed a deep fear that we didn’t share enough love and respect any more when discussing these things. What I heard was: “Please show me respect and love by not challenging the narrative I cherish.” I do love and respect this fellow Christian, but the discussion we were having could not be tempered with goodwill if his understanding of goodwill was that allow his ignorance of historical fact go unchallenged. His fear was that these issues “divide us.” In my efforts to highlight the symbols and memorials that divide us racially as a people, I was accused of being divisive. See how that works?
So for all those out there trying to do the good work of reconciliation, but keep making as many new enemies as you do new friends, be encouraged, you’re in good company.