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What is Reconciliation?

An excerpt from Roadmap to Reconciliation

What exactly is racial reconciliation? If you asked ten different people, it’s likely you’d get ten different answers! At a gathering I attended of national multiethnic leaders — pastors, professors, diversity practitioners and leaders of multicultural ministries and denominations – the answer to this question proved quite confusing.

For some, reconciliation meant bringing together a multiethnic group of people who are from similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. For others, it meant the pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity but did not include the participation of women in leadership. Still others operated from a model of social empowerment, and for them reconciliation meant that Christians are called to address the discrimination and racism faced by black and Hispanic people in our society.

During the two-day gathering of this elite group, some of whom had written books on the topic of diversity, leaders shared their most poignant beliefs regarding racial reconciliation and best practices for building it. What was most interesting to me, however, was the lack of agreement among the leaders gathered about the term reconciliation. There was no single definition or understanding of what reconciliation actually entails.

Do you see the problem? While many of us care about reconciliation and feel called to pursue it as part of our discipleship, there is no clear understanding of what it means to do so! Even among the leading diversity voices of the day there are vastly different beliefs about what it means to pursue reconciliation. Sure, most of us believe that reconciliation means the ending of hostility in order to bring people together, but we still differ, sometimes wildly, in how we believe God calls us to address and engage it.

Defining the Term

For a while I sought to come up with a new term altogether. I felt that reconciliation had perhaps been overused and too often misunderstood. It seems like many people have developed a bias or preconceived notion about what they believe the term means. For example, some people believe racial reconciliation is an oxymoron because there has never been a time in American history where racial harmony has existed. One cannot reconcile those who have never enjoyed a conciliatory relationship in the first place. I agree with that, and I fully understand why this term has been disavowed by many, especially when looking at it from a historical and sociological perspective.

Others have a very negative reaction to the word reconciliation for a different reason. They feel fear, guilt or shame when they hear the word because of experiences they’ve had in the past. Meanwhile, some hold the term in a very positive light. For them it denotes a Christian concept, a biblical call for multiethnicity and cultural integration. They eagerly support the process and want people to be challenged to deal with their racism and prejudicial attitudes. However, their notion of the term rarely extends to confronting and changing unjust systems and structures. Moreover, there are those who shy away from the term because it carries the connotation of a “liberal agenda” or the complaints of a vocal minority with no real basis in fact. Whatever the reason, it’s challenging to change our thinking and accept a new set of meanings, and I wondered if we might be better off with a new term altogether.

I considered the term intercultural competence, but while I could appreciate some of the added clarity it offered, the word competence implies that a person can become proficient and the task can be completed. I believe that reconciliation is an ongoing journey, and intercultural competence puts an overemphasis on “doing” rather than “being.” So I moved on to cultural credibility and then later to intercultural integrity, hoping to home in on the dynamic interchange between people who are ethnically and culturally different. However, it still lacked something fundamental to my understanding of the term reconciliation.

We are called to go beyond simply making peace or getting enemies to stop fighting – beyond repentance, justice and forgiveness. The Bible invites us further.

Among those who seek to follow Christ, it is generally understood that in order for reconciliation to occur, there must be repentance, justice and forgiveness. A wrong must be acknowledged and the cause for the lack of unity identified. There is no sustained peace without justice and no sustained relationship without forgiveness. These are crucial in this conversation, yes, but I do not believe that justice and forgiveness alone are enough to produce reconciliation. As with the phrases intercultural competence and intercultural integrity, something central is still lacking because the church is called to go beyond even this. We are called to go beyond simply making peace or getting enemies to stop fighting – beyond repentance, justice and forgiveness. The Bible invites us further.

Reconciliation is about how to relate even after forgiveness and justice have occurred. It’s about how to delve even deeper into relationship with one another. An absence of hostility is possible without a spiritual dimension, but reconciliation is not. Reconciliation is possible only if we approach it primarily as a spiritual process that requires a posture of hope in the reconciling work of Christ and a commitment from the church to both be and proclaim this type of reconciled community.

Redefining the Term

With this more complete appreciation and understanding of reconciliation I have come full circle. Since reconciliation is a biblical concept that is rooted in and modeled by the reconciling work of Jesus, I have chosen to reclaim the term instead of replacing it. I want to redeem it and recover its holistic, mysterious and profoundly biblical meaning. It invites us into the bigger story of God’s redemptive work in the world. For the purpose of this book and all following conversation, I therefore offer this new definition of the term reconciliation:

Reconciliation is an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.

This definition acknowledges the historical wounds that must be healed and transcends an individualistic view to include the need for systemic injustice to be addressed as well. However, it is also rooted in a biblical understanding of God, which is why we must take a close look at the theological principles that undergird it.

Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice, InterVarsity Press, ©2015. Used by permission of the publisher. ivpress.com

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