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The tension of liberation and reconciliation
Dialogue keeps us connected and protects our gravity. I love that proverb. Our truth is found in relationship, in conversation, in even a tension that’s revealed in dialogue. We’re interested in working together toward commonality and mutuality. I think that learning from each other is more important than winning an argument. I’d rather get along than win, most days. But, to be fair, I am conciliatory to a fault. But just like we say in our proverbs, Being reconciled is more important than being right.
I think the voice of the person articulating that proverb matters, though. We are moved toward reconciliation, mutual forgiveness, because of how Jesus reconciled with us. God is the author of reconciliation. The cross is emblematic of this very reconciliation. It has a vertical beam that reconciles us to God, an horizontal beam that reconciles us to one another, and it is rooted in the earth, so we are reconciled to Creation. The heart of the Gospel is Jesus reconciling all things until himself.
But when put in the hands of the dominators, reconciliation can simply mean submission to evil powers and power structures. To be sure, if you read 1 Peter, you can see that our ultimate reconciliation with Jesus means that the powers of hell and death have truly no power for us, because they have been conquered by Jesus and the cross. So while we aren’t saved when we beg for and receive institutional rights, if the oppressors never stop oppressing, they will not have a chance for peace.
And if the oppressor is the one requesting the reconciliation in order to “quiet down” the oppressed, or even assuage their guilt, we’ve got some big problems on our hands. The Christian rule of forgiveness and reconciliation can be abused to further perpetuate sin in the world. Nietzsche called Christian forgiveness something for the weak.
Of course, the late existentialist’s main concern seems to be power collection for the sake of assigning meaning. Yes, that’s a little too philosophical for my purpose here, but his influence resulted in the kind of postmodern revolution that gave the dominated the ability to dominate. When put into the world’s hands, the cycle of violence and counterviolence and oppression goes round and round.
This idea, of course, for those of us suffering in late capitalism, is hard to imagine. The ruling moral elite has cemented its grip on power so resolutely that any idea of change seems impossible. So we fight and fight for justice and for liberation because the possibility of ever becoming the dominator is so beyond the pale that we never consider what we might do should we be armed with such power. It’s a complicated problem for the oppressed.
To be sure, an unjust Gospel is a fake one. One that doesn’t reconcile is hardly good news, too. Liberation and reconciliation, justice and forgiveness, can easily be opposed to one another. And academics often like to pin ideas against each other (see the Anabaptists and their critique of Niebuhr, for example, or perhaps the tension between the liberationists and the pacifists), sometimes it’s fun (and easier and safer) to debate, but it’s better to get along and work toward commonality. It's easy to be loud and discover our own echo chamber, but I'd rather do something more rewarding, even if it's harder. We are neither one thing or another. And we probably do not monopolize the market on truth. Jesus shows us another way. Here’s one way to tell the story:
The nation of Israel in the Old Testament (and it won’t be hard for you to make corollaries to the modern nation) is oppressed by the Egyptians. God liberates the people from their Egyptian oppressors and promises them a place to call home. God leads them, via Moses and His Law, through the wilderness and they eventually find their Promised Land. They end up dissatisfied with God’s leadership and long for a king like the other stronger nations. Despite Samuel’s warning, they have a period of United Monarchy, after which the kingdom divides, and the cycle of captivity and freedom begins. They longed for liberation.
The prophets of the Old Testament are deeply sympathetic to the pathos of God, rebuking the people of their rebellion, offering them a way to reconciliation, demonstrating the compassion of God, and concluding with a remnant of hope. They continue to pursue liberation through their own power, and through their own evil alliances, but continually fail. God’s mercy extends, though, and his love is greater than his law—so he forgives and forgives. By the end of the era, the Jewish people and their faith is scattered across the region and they are looking for hope, looking for a liberator Savior, again looking for that Promised Land.
The remnant of hope comes in the person of Jesus Christ. Though this time the liberation he offers is not a new united kingdom. It is not a new organized power structure or political apparatus. No, it’s much more than that. That kind of attitude, one of inclusion and reconciliation, led him to death. Not only was his subversion seen as sedition by the Romans, it also was seen as treason by his own people. He weeps for them as they reject him.
As he was nailed and hanged on the cross, Jesus looked into the eyes of his Roman killers and oppressors—the people that have oppressed his own people—and asked God to forgive them. In his death, Jesus conquers the ultimate consequence to our rebellion: death.
And through that freedom from death, true justice and true liberation could be had. We are free from death, and free to receive forgiveness and a chance at reconciliation despite our mistakes and despite our sins. This gift is offered to all, and all nations are reconciling themselves with God. There isn't a single earthly power organizing the reconciliation, it's Christ himself. It is not the state, the oppressor, of the chief social agents that offer us or author this path toward liberation and reconciliation. But God alone, who became like us, incarnate, in order to reconcile all things unto himself.