Grace Happens: Reconciliation in a Post-Colonial Age as the New Paradigm for Christian Mission

I’m doing some research on the deconstruction of Christian faith in our Western context, and I’m realizing that much of what provokes a deconstruction of faith—revelations of clergy sexual abuse, the discovery of unmarked graves of indigenous children at church schools, or the sense that a Biblical literalism unnecessarily clashes with science—most have to do with the failures of the church or its complicity with such things as sexual misconduct, colonialism, and racism. For some it has to do with the historical treatment and teachings that address sexual minorities. Whatever it is, it raises questions about the credibility, value, and goodness of Christian faith.

This critique of the faith suggests to me that the doctrine and practise of reconciliation may be a new and necessary paradigm for mission today. The church has been around this planet for 2000 years now, and the Christian legacy is checkered with both social service and horrible self-justified violence. Christians have many things to amend, and the world is hyper-aware of its list of failures. We have seen the usefulness of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa and now in Canada, and while these are not primarily church programs, they can be suggestive models for Christian ministry in this so-called post-colonial era. In order for the church to be Good News, it needs to confess its failures and atone for its wrongs.

Reconciliation is not new to the faith, but as a paradigm for mission, it is being put in a position of greater urgency in Christian practise. Christian mission has been focused in the past on such things as growth, expansion, conversion, social justice, translation, transformation, and renewal. These all all good in their context. But now reconciliation must take centre stage. I’m not the only one saying this.1 Reconciliation is when conflicting parties come to make amends, ideally turning to friendly relations, and right now the Church is one of the offending parties.

I do believe the great good that the church has done—in healing, helping, and providing hope for millions of people—is something often overlooked today. The hospitals, the schools, and the development programs that Christians built are too many to count, not to mention the houses of prayer and ministry that populate almost every country on this planet. But defending one’s own goodness should be done by others, and maybe at a different time. Right now, it seems confession and reconciliation is the order of the day. There is truth to the accusations, and they must be addressed. We are a religion with a past.

Christian mission has been focused in the past on such things as growth, expansion, conversion, social justice, translation, transformation, and renewal. These all all good in their context. But now reconciliation must take centre stage.

To be sure, the need for reconciliation goes deep and wide beyond the church’s misdeeds—in our polarized society, in our fractured communities, in our families and even our own souls. The journey of turning estrangement to friendship, of bringing what was separate back together, of making whole what lies fragmented and forlorn—this is the core of Jesus’ ministry. To be truly honest, we are torn apart inside and out across this pale blue dot. Vaccination debates, trucker “freedom” convoys in Canada, and shifting abortion laws in the USA, and a horrible war in Ukraine. It’s a world of wounding and offence, and psychologists tell us we moderns are especially alienated and anxious in our affluent technological bubbles, disembedded from the stability of traditional society, dizzy with our own mobility to the point of madness. “Multiphrenic” was Kenneth Gergen’s assessment in his book The Saturated Self (1991), meaning fragment, torn in multiple directions at once.

Do you believe in a devil? The Greek word for devil is “diabolos”—meaning literally “the one who throws apart.” The devil is that force that divides, alienates, and tears in two—both institutions and persons. Reconciliation tries to undo what the devil does, creating bridges, drawing close what was pushed apart. Making us as whole as we can be in a broken world. Not towards singularity and homogeneity, but towards peace in diversity.

A statue entitled Reconciliation by sculptress Josephina de Vasconcellos located in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, UK. Photo by Mr. Joel.

Reconciliation is basic Christian practise—and even our very public policy as we see with Pope Francis’ recent apology to Canada’s indigenous people. Theologically, some are saying that reconciliation is a relevant focus for atonement theory, and I’m suggesting here it in fact holds promise as a new paradigm for global missions. But it begins with lament and confession, and that is what the Pope is modeling, even if it took too many decades to happen.

Paul urges in 2 Corinthians 5 that his readers become “ambassadors of reconciliation.” It’s a high and noble calling, and it is in fact the reason for being people of faith; Christians are to be always leveraging themselves and those around them into God’s peace, his shalom.

In what follows I will elaborate on what reconciliation means (using Paul’s thoughts in 2 Corinthians 5), but not in a triumphalistic way, as if Christians are the people everyone is hoping will show up and restore all that has been messed up. No, in many ways I’m saying the Christian church is the party to be reconciled with! So I want to emphasize that reconciliation is most basically God’s work, that it is a work of grace that Christians are privileged to participate in; and knowing that it begins in God, it can overwhelm followers in the call; and finally, we must recognize that it will never be complete until God’s good time. 

1. Reconciliation Begins with God

“Be reconciled to God,” says Paul in that Corinthians passage. That’s everyone’s deepest need and greatest hope.

One of the dangers in talking about reconciliation is that it becomes a works-righteousness approach to faith. Reconciliation is the heart of the gospel, but its not Christians’ reconciling work that is the Good News. “Love God and your neighbour as yourself” is not the heart of the gospel. This is what Paul emphasizes to the Corinthian church, who were a little suspicious of Paul: he says in II Corinthians 5:18, “all this is from God”—its God’s initiative, God’s work in Jesus Christ, whereby humanity’s cruelty and selfishness estranged us from the love that energizes the Trinity, but instead of abandoning recalcitrant humanity, God draws near in Jesus, restoring relationship by taking on sin and death at the cross. Bringing what was separated by sin, near again.

Followers of Jesus become a new creation says verse 17, a different kind of person, as Paul writes. This is the Christian story: outer-space is not empty; life is not simply competition between species for survival; technology and energy are not the most powerful thing in the universe; for the heart of reality beats with the pulse of a love that reconciles what is broken, heals what is wounded, and brings together what has been separated. This love is stronger than lies; stronger than bombs; stronger than death.

“Be reconciled to God,” says Paul. Stop resisting and resenting and surrender. Rest in the divine promise of blessed reunion. Reconciliation is a spiritual beginning in faith, a part of spiritual formation in the Christian tradition, and a practise that can expand to social policy and even national change. It is a public truth.

For the heart of reality beats with the pulse of reconciling what is broken, healing what is wounded, bringing together what has been separated.

I’m reading theologian Kelly Kapic’s You’re Only Human and what he says from the start is that the wonderful news is not just that God loves us—as if he’s obligated as a parent to seek our best. He actually likes us—our gifts, talents, personality, and idiosyncrasies. He delights in us. Kapic insists that reconciliation must be tied to creation. It is a renewal of an original pleasure God has in us as his creatures.

The gospel message is this: repent, for the kingdom of God is near, and its near because God is reconciling humanity to himself through the life and death of Jesus Christ. God is especially fond of each of us in our particularity, as William Paul Young emphasized in his story The Shack. What follows from that foundation is this: Paul says he has given the faithful the message and ministry of reconciliation—to be its ambassadors. Christian reconciling work is thus a response to the Good News of God’s affection for humankind and his kindness to us.

Sakamoto’s Story

It’s good to reflect on reconciling moments in our own lives, and in our own extended families.

That is what Canadian writer Mark Sakamoto has done in his memoir Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents (Harper 2014)He tells two World War II stories: first, of his grandfather, a British-Canadian soldier captured in battle in the Far East, brutally treated and starved in a Japanese concentration camp; and second, the story of his Japanese-Canadian grandmother, torn from her home in Vancouver, deported to a dust-bowl farm in Alberta, deprived of all that her family owned by the Canadian government. Both have ample reason to bitterly resent their respective oppressors.

The remarkable turn in the story is that while these two people marry within their own ethnic groups, their offspring meet and fall in love and get married. That is how Mark Sakamoto comes into the world. His dad is Japanese-Canadian, and his mom is British-Canadian.

Sakamoto reflects on these two families coming together through this unlikely marriage: “My grandparents bore witness to the worst in humanity. Yet they managed to illuminate the finest in humanity. However did they manage that? Forgiveness is moving on. It is a daily act that looks forward. Forgiveness smiles.”

What was far apart and alienated is brought close, as close as man and wife. However did they manage that? he asks. It’s a reconciliation they could not have imagined or arranged on their own. This is not the story of great people, but about a grace that makes love and peace possible in the midst of a deep hurt born in past atrocities.

“Forgiveness is moving on. It is a daily act that looks forward.”

Mark Sakamoto

Now this story is spectacular in its depth of pain and radical surprise, but it also carries something common to our experience. Violence can break into our lives like a bandit, black with randomness and irrational wanton destruction. But forgiveness and grace, too, can slip into our lonely seasons of crippling pain and redeem some of what was bruised and lost. Sometimes a cliché can say it most simply and best: grace happens.

2. Overwhelmed by the Call

Sakamoto’s story is a grand story, and it’s worthy of the remarkable story Christians profess to live inside. Reconciliation begins in divine action, and the call to be ambassadors of this wonderful surprise can be daunting.

We can imagine it this way: the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Canada, Melanie Joly calls you up, says she would like to speak to you on behalf of the Prime Minister and the Government of Canada. Here is the reason for the call, she says: “We want to send you as an ambassador to Moscow, to call the Russians to withdraw from Ukraine and begin peace talks and the enforcement of reparations. We need you to make this your number one priority. And then when you are done, we need you in Taiwan and then off to the Vatican, as there are other tensions that need addressing.”

Well. No doubt you’ll ask for some help, and request a full entourage to accompany you. You can’t do this on your own. But you will become a new kind of creature in the process, for sure.

Now consider Jesus Christ’s call on the Christian’s life, as those entrusted with the message of reconciliation. Paul elaborates in Colossians 1:20 saying, Jesus is the one in whom all things are created and hold together, and since it’s all tainted by corruption and cruelty, he is reconciling all things to himself, on earth and in heaven, in order to make peace.

Think of that: “All things”—let me just name a few areas on this planet in need of some stalwart help. Consider reconciliation between male and female; being reconciled with our bodies; then there is reconciliation between races, the differently abled, and across generational divides; between settlers and indigenous people; between science and faith, secularism and faith; and perhaps most importantly, reconciling with our suffocating planet, the creation itself.

This is quite a vision. No one should complain that Christianity is dull. The vision is overwhelming, and thankfully such believers are not alone.

Truth and Reconciliation with Indigenous People

We in the West have an especially challenging task attached to this vision because for many in our dominant culture, the church is one of the culprits charged in their wounding. The ambassador of reconciliation is the source of the damage.

We see this in Pope Francis’ visit in July 2022, where he comes as an ambassador of reconciliation to Canada, but the reconciliation is with his own community, the Catholic Church. Now it took decades, but let’s note that the pope has taken ownership of the broken relationship and he confesses the wrong done. He is careful in his apology, and in many ways he was specific, naming residential schools, the separated families, the sexual and physical abuse, and the forced assimilation and church support for colonizing mentality of Canadian settlers and the government. Specificity in apology is important.

Downtown Guelph, Ontario, after the news of the Kamloops residential school unmarked student graves, May 2021. Photo by aka Tman.

Consider this: Christians don’t always have to accept personal blame and guilt in order to take responsibility for what they have inherited. As the Pope himself said, saying sorry is not enough. Repentance and action are necessary. Confession is the first step and now many are waiting to see if the $25 million dollars in reparations will follow, and whether the old Doctrine of Discovery will be renounced, that ancient code of European supremacy and dehumanizing terminology that still has the Vatican’s stamp on it.

This is key: Cheryl Bear, a First Nation’s speaker and singer, has said that reconciliation is not an event but a process. It’s fragile and always on-going and so it requires vigilance. It takes practise.

Reconciliation is best begun close to home. Some say it’s good to start a list of people you associate with hurt, done by you or them or both, and before death takes us, try to make amends. I recently tried this with someone, asking if I had been a jerk years ago, and he completely denied it, saying it was nothing he noticed. Good. It doesn’t always go that way. Now I can move on to the next person in the list. Writer Philip Yancey writes about a sort of “tour of amends” he does later in his life in Where the Light Fell (John Murray 2021). It doesn’t always yield the desired results, but it opens a door for God’s shalom.

3. Reconciliation is Never Final

If reconciliation begins with God, and overwhelms followers in the immensity of the task and its complexity, it is both humbling and assuring to know that reconciliation is never final. Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian and author of the book Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon 1996)He knows the horror of genocide firsthand from his homeland, the former Yugoslavia. Such violence seeks to destroy diversity and coerce a homogeneity. Reconciliation doesn’t force uniformity: it brings a peace to diversity. And it’s never complete.

Volf says that the right question is not how to achieve final reconciliation but rather what resources do we need to live peace in the absence of final reconciliation? Yes, the faithful still have hope of final reconciliation, but that is in the end time, through an act of God. Reconciliation on this side of heaven is always partial. It remains an unfinished symphony.

Here’s a thought: he says, “Forgiveness is the boundary between exclusion and embrace” (126). Yes, forgiveness breaks down the wall created by the original wound but leaves a space, a neutral zone, in which people might embrace, or instead go their separate ways in “peace” – it’s the best future possible in some cases where embrace is not possible. Them and us remain. Embrace may be the goal, but sometimes the blessing of peace may have to do.

“Reconciliation is not an event but a process.”

Cheryl Bear, Singer and Story-teller From Nadleh Whut’en First Nation

So reconciliation involves forgiveness. But it goes beyond forgiveness. It also goes beyond justice. You can forgive someone, or you may have won justice in court and have reparations enforced but in each case you may not have a restored relationship. The separation and alienation may remain. It takes two to reconcile, and when enemies truly become friends, it’s certainly grace that is at work. Reconciliation happens because grace happens. But it’s not a guarantee this side of heaven, but a wonderful surprise.

Reconciliation Within Ourselves

There is one more thing about grace, and it gets back to the fact that reconciliation is also something that needs to happen internally, in the fractured tumble of our own vulnerable souls. Resentment can be an acid that burns within us. We may suffer nightmares, flashbacks, or just be consumed by what was done to us. We may feel shame.

We are all broken inside, and in unique ways. Lenard Cohen said: forget your perfect offering; there is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in. Some have added: And that’s also how the light gets out.

Paul struggled intensely between how he wanted to act and what he ended up doing (Rom 7). He had a thorn in the flesh that never left him. “We see through a glass dimly,” he said in the great love chapter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13). His life, too, was an unfinished symphony, and at times a cacophony of spiritual struggle.

Note that the word “reconcile to” is an idiom in English. When you reconcile yourself to something means you accept the reality of a situation even though you don’t like it. You have come to terms with something unpleasant, difficult, or that which you were hitherto at odds. For example, some indigenous people in Canada reconcile themselves to a church they both love and lament. This may be the best we can sometimes do, always with the hope for something more radical and restorative to come.

I wonder if in acting as ambassadors of reconciliation, Christians might at the same time become reconciled to themselves—as well as those whom they seek to renew relations with. Paul suggests: “Be reconciled to God” because the message and the ministry are God working his appeal through Christians: his bumbling, be-deviled and beloved messengers.

To conclude: Reconciliation may be the new and necessary paradigm for Christian mission. It is the heart of the good news for the battered soul. It’s part of the overflow of love in the Trinity, and it’s what heals and holds our fractured world together. That burning love is the heart of the Christian story, and it beckons the faithful, commissioning them in fact, for an overwhelming vision and a task on this planet, to be reconciled to God and share that blessing of peace, knowing that it’s on-going, a process and not an event, never finalized until Jesus Christ returns to restore all things to himself. In the meantime, we make amends as best we can, God helping us.

Endnotes

  1. I attended the Evangelical Mission Society Canada annual meeting in March 2022 and the theme was “Reconciliation: God’s Mission Through Missions for All.” One paper in particular, “Reconciliation: The Emerging Paradigm Shift in Mission” was presented by Phil Wagler, who works for the World Evangelical Alliance. Drawing on David Bosch’s Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in the Theology of Mission (1991), he suggested that the “emerging paradigm” that Bosch wrote about may be a focus on reconciliation.  ‘(T)he entire modern missionary movement is, to a very real extent, a child of the Enlightenment’ wrote Bosch (274). The Enlightenment paradigm means a focus on the individual’s conversion, the “civilizing” motivation, education, the primacy of science, rationality, universals, and the fact/value split. Something post-modern, more relational is pressing, and reconciliation may be a central concept.

    I also found an article by P. Verster from In de Skriflig (31:3 1997:251-266) that pushes for reconciliation as a Biblical focus that may get lost in Bosch’s broad treatment of mission. His view of reconciliation may be more narrow than mine.

    A further example is “Mission as Ministry of Reconciliation: Hope in a Fragile World” in Transformation Vol. 31(4) 264-272, 2014, by Knud Jorgensen. Its based on a process of compiling case studies on reconciliation for a book on Mission as Ministry of Reconciliation by Robert J. Schreiter (Regnum 2013).

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