Reconciliation and the Unreconcilable

Published by Hillary Watson on

God reconciles all things. That is our vision of the how the world goes, in a nutshell.

But there are some things that are irreconcilable. Each of us could make our own list: murder, rape, abuse of children, dipping French fries in mayonnaise.

There is a definitive category of actions that are unreconcilable with the shalom—the setting right of all things—that God is working in the world.

And that paradox is what brings us to this worship series on Reconciliation: what does God do with unreconcilable things? What does God do with unreconcilable people?

What are we to do with unreconcilable people?

We Christians—particularly those of us who grew up in Anabaptist traditions where our identity was formed as peacemakers in the world—can be tempted to look at everything through the lens of peacemaking. It is our vocation and our calling to leave the world more peaceful than it was when we arrived. We come from a legacy of men who saved the lives of the soldiers who hunted them; women who sang while burned at the stake; farmers who turned the other cheek to thieves and a strong belief that there is no one so far below us that we cannot share a good meal with them, particularly if it is a starchy, carb-heavy meal. This is important and serves us well.

HOWEVER. We do not serve God by sitting silently next the ones who burned our loved ones. We do not serve God by turning the cheek so we cannot see violence carried out against our neighbors.

When we see pictures of extremists in self-styled paramilitary uniforms attacking a building full of lawmakers, peacemaking is not a very helpful lens. The idea of dialogue and common ground have lost both their luster and their integrity this week.

I want to share with you an image one of my Mennonite friends shared with me on Facebook this week. It’s a twist on the “This is Bob” meme, from c. 2015. If you don’t remember this meme… you were probably doing more interesting things in 2015.

I’ll read it aloud.

Maybe this meme makes you laugh. Maybe it makes you shift uncomfortably in your seat. For me, it does both, and becomes not just meme, but art.

There is a line of human behavior beyond which repentance is a prerequisite for peace.

There are things that a person can do to us that are so beyond the pale we must cut off contact with that person until their behavior changes.

There are acts so harmful that any overture to peacemaking becomes a willingness to tolerate violence.

The problem is that that line is different for each of us. Some of us would like to know more about Bob before deciding whether Sally is a coward or courageous. Some of us are like, “uh— forget you Sally, forget Bob, too.”

But in the wake of events that we’ve seen this week, the question is not,
“What can I do to reconcile with those pointing guns at capitol security guards?”
it is, “What are the places where my overtures to peacemaking have tolerated violence?”

Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon have—finally, for once in their institutional and soulless lives— modeled for us what it looks like to ask that question.

I can’t make that call for you. No one gets to make that call for someone else. But the question is one that I, in being faithful to the gospel, have to raise.

BUT.

But.

Jesus calls us to reconciliation. Right?

What about Zacchaeus?

I was this close to singing the Zacchaeus song, but then I realized we’ve been through a lot this week and I don’t need to put you through that, too.

Jesus designs a moment of reconciliation with Zacchaeus who is, indisputably, a sinner.

But that reconciliation is not a meeting in the middle, it’s not like Niccodemus, who I preached about several months ago. Remember, Nicodemus was with whom Jesus had this long back-and- forth about how the radical justice movement can make itself more palatable to the mainstream, and who admired Jesus from afar, but when it came down to it, he didn’t really show up in the movement until Jesus was already dead.

Zacchaeus has a very different interaction with Jesus. This is a meeting of the minds, but it is not “let’s meet halfway” this is Zacchaeus takes 10 steps toward Jesus and Jesus stays absolutely still. Well, maybe Zacchaeus takes 9 steps, I’m a little ambivalent about this “I’ll give away half my wealth.” I tell myself “well, Zacchaeus was wealthy, but he wasn’t, like, Jay Z and Beyonce wealthy, he was like Chance the Rapper pre-Coloring Book wealthy.” Half his wealth left him with a reasonable income—though I think there’s room for debate there.

AT ANY RATE. Zacchaeus was a Jesus-sympathizer whose life was at odds with Jesus’ message and vision. However, unlike Nicodemus, he made a public commitment to change and articulated clear goals about how to measure his progress toward creating a more just and equitable Roman Empire—if not outright rejecting the Empire and becoming a citizen of a different kind of kingdom.

Zacchaeus was not an extremist. He was not a militant. He was not carrying 12 spears and a slingshot and some pipebombs when he climbed up that tree. The Bible may leave out some details, but I think Luke would have mentioned that one.

What happened to Zacchaeus was full-on conversion. What Jesus asked of his disciples was not meet halfway in a good-nature and spirited debate. Jesus said, “Here is what we are called to, and here is what we are called from.” And Jesus does not try to reconcile with everyone. There are some scenarios where Jesus takes reconciliation off the table and says, “I can’t talk to you anymore, come back when you’ve changed your hearts and minds.” I’m thinking of the rich man who was not willing to give away his possessions, or the soldiers Jesus encounters at Gethsamene, or the amoral vendors he drove out of the temple.

What then is our role in God’s reconciling work?

It is to build systems of justice and envision new and abundant and healing ways to be human together. We must understand the ways white supremacy hurts all of us. White supremacy is not just harmful to BIPOC, it is harmful to white people. How has it hurt you?

We must lean into the root causes of racism and injustice, lean into the work of voter enfranchisement and decarceration.

When I say root causes: consider, for example, that Amazon finally got around to removing Parler from its web-hosting services this week. But what if Amazon committed to placing x many warehouses in rural areas AND urban areas with high unemployment and offering starting salaries at $20 an hour? Amazon has decided to play wack-a-mole with white supremacists instead of investing in root causes that take the wind out of white supremacy—but that’s a conversation for another time.

Dream big. And while you do, participate in the alternative systems being constructed right here—I could give you a list. But you know.

In this season of New Year’s Resolutions, make a resolution around becoming anti-racist. What is the next step for you? Where do you need to learn and grow more? Maybe it’s 3 books you want to read this year; or several movies to watch with predominately black casts; maybe it’s attending certain presentations or lectures; identifying an organization where you want to volunteer; or ways you want to push your institutions more.

We are not called to start with the person whose views are furthest from us, particularly the person who wants to put our friends in concentration camps, and then work backwards toward the middle from there.

We do need people to do the work of deradicalizing white men with guns. That is highly specialized work, because that is the work of dismantling terrorism. If that is work you are called to do, embrace the skills you need to do it. Talk with others, begin working with other organizations doing this type of work.

Mennonites DO need to take an active role in constructing offramps for lost souls on the highway of white nationalism. I would love to see Mennonite leaders and thinkers pave the way for a framework of deradicalization.

But most of us are not ready for that work now. If that is your call—I cannot wait to support you. Maybe your commitments are to attend particular trainings, or connect with certain people, or learn more about organizations doing that work, or help found an organization doing that work.

If that’s not work you’re called to do, then do ask yourself: “What is the next step on my journey to reconciliation?” Maybe it’s giving away half your wealth, or paying back four times what you took from those who suffered as you burned the trail to your success. Maybe it’s making a public declaration. Maybe it’s coming down from your tree and confront a crowd of impoverished neighbors whose names you hadn’t bothered to learn, but you’ll start now.

This is a year for all of us to become visionaries and dreamers.

One of the things that was pointed out many times this week is that this mob had no end goal. As one Twitter user put it, “What does it say about you that you break into Nancy Pelosi’s office

and the best thing you can think to do is put your feet on her desk and write her a note calling her an expletive?”

We do have an end goal. Our end goal is a more just and equitable world; a Green New Deal; an end to mass incarceration; a humane immigration system that provides real opportunities for refugees fleeing their countries; housing for all; healthcare for all; low-carbon transit.

Cast a vision so beautiful it avalanches itself.

Keep dreaming. Take steps on your own journey; invite others to join you. That is how we practice reconciliation.

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