As our nation seems to be falling apart before our very eyes, more and more, I see people calling for us to “move forward” and proclaiming that now is the time for “unity, not division.” In almost every case, the person making the declaration is not talking about their side moving to the middle – but instead, calling on the other side to agree with them, to not take issue with their position, to move in their direction, etc. In other words, they want to lower the temperature, but only if it means the other side changes, while they maintain their self-declared moral high ground. And I just keep thinking to myself, “that is not how this works.”
By coincidence, I was also recently thumbing through a whole bunch of old notes in a notebook that I have at various times used for devotions, sermon notes, and thoughts on topics that I wanted to write about, either in this blog or the book I have always claimed to want to write. As I was thumbing through, I realized that unity, forgiveness and reconciliation are common themes (something I probably need to understand better).
These themes have been on my mind a lot in the last week and less significantly in recent months as our political climate has heated up. The idea that keeps sticking with me recently is that we Christians are really missing the mark when it comes to how we view our political opponents — the villainized “other side”. I’ve been thinking about the concepts of unity, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation in the context of what is happening in our world. What does reconciliation look like in this context, and what does it mean in the context of my faith? To help with that question, I turned to Google and found some quotes that resonated.
“Differing from forgiveness, reconciliation is often conditioned on the attitude and actions of the offender. While its aim is restoration of a broken relationship, those who commit significant and repeated offenses must be willing to recognize that reconciliation is a process. If they’re genuinely repentant, they will recognize and accept that the harm they’ve caused takes time to heal.”
“Reconciliation involves forgiveness. But it goes beyond forgiveness. When I forgive someone, there is no guarantee that we will have a restored relationship. It may well be that even after I have forgiven someone that we remain estranged. Reconciliation, however, restores the relationship.
Forgiveness may be one-sided. But reconciliation requires both parties to be willing to participate in restoring the relationship. It is always possible, and expected, for me to forgive. But reconciliation will not be possible if the other party is not willing to participate.”
Even these snippets imply that reconciliation is dependent on someone else changing. And although it is true that true reconciliation requires both parties to want it, I fear that we will never get here if our first focus is continues to point outward.
As Christians, we are always expected to forgive. Over and over, the Bible is clear on that. We must forgive when the offending party has repented, and when they haven’t. We must forgive when they have changed their behavior and when they haven’t. We must forgive even in the midst of the harm the offender my still be causing. That forgiveness is as much for ourselves as it is for the person we are forgiving. But what about reconciliation? Is that something we must do even in the midst of harm? Must we attempt to reconcile no matter what? Reconciliation requires both parties to examine their behavior and turn away from what is harmful. We like to point at the other side and talk about what they need to do in order for reconciliation to occur, but rarely are we willing to examine ourselves in the same way. In American politics, we seem to be entirely unwilling or unable to participate in honest self-examination. I would argue that this characteristic in ourselves and our elected representatives is the biggest issue facing our country right now. In the midst of our differences, if people of faith could commit to self-examination rather than recrimination of others, perhaps we could truly create the world we want to live in. That collective commitment feels like a big impossible scenario. But what is possible is change is for each person to focus on just one person to start and they simply need to look into the closest mirror to find them. We must look inward first. We must each lead by example. Before we expect another to cross the divide, we must be willing to cross it ourselves.
I have reached the point that my expectations for elected officials is stunningly low. I no longer expect or believe it is possible for them to do the type of honest self-reflection that is necessary for reconciliation. I believe that self-reflection is almost always lost in a quest for power. Further, I think the everyday American, those of us who are not in a position of authority or power, are on the brink of passing that threshold as well. We have assigned blame exclusively on the other side while refusing to acknowledge any of the damaging behaviors on our own side, regardless of how they compare in size and scope to the wrongdoing we assign to the “other.” We could argue all day about who is more guilty, who needs to go first and who is the bigger hypocrite. But that is a losing conversation, and does nothing to move us closer to the path that we are called to as Christians. In American politics, I see Christians everyday who have made idols out of symbols and people, and even the Constitution. We declare our rightness in the name of a God who has been completely forgotten in our quest for being right, attaining power and having the last word. We have forgotten where our salvation comes from and in our quest to save our nation from the evils of the other side, we have forgotten the admonition of Jesus in the sermon on the Mount. He taught us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek and do not keep records of wrongdoing. And we have certainly forgotten what He called the greatest commandment — to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to LOVE OUR NEIGHBOR AS OURSELVES.
Reconciliation will require that we first turn away from our idols and turn our hearts toward a greater truth, one that requires more of us, all of us. I know this is an area that requires work. I am appealing to my friends on both sides to join me in this work, because unless there are visible signs that we are unified in our commitment to a more peaceful future, I fear that neither side will bend. “You go first” will never get us there. Moving forward together in reconciliation is the only thing that will. And yes, that means you have to accept that I WILL NOT see the issues the same way you do. I will not concede to being a communist who wants to turn us into Venezuela any more than you will concede to being a fascist racist. See how that works? We both need to lay down those swords, even if we think they will protect us, and even if we believe they hold truth.
What is happening now is not Christian, and it isn’t American. As long as we believe that the only way to survive is to destroy the other side, we will be lost…lost as Christians and lost as Americans pursuing a common ideal.
My prediction is that nobody is going to like this piece. Those on my side will believe that I am asking them to ignore the wrongs of people who have done great harm. They will accuse me of both sides-ism. Those on the other side will think I am asking them to ignore the damage that my side has done and will do, and that I am pointing a finger and casting blame. Neither of those things is my intent, but both may be true. I know that all of these words are meaningless if I am not wiling to start with me. And believe me, I feel the same resistance to bending as I’m sure many others will feel when reading this. I am not asking any of us to throw away our values in the pursuit of peace. Reconciliation does not mean an absence of accountability or justice. Reconciliation means that we agree to look forward together, even in the midst of the current conflict. It means that we agree to hold our own sides accountable in the same way we demand accountability in the other side. Are we capable of that? Am I?
I admit that MANY times in the last week, I have shouted in frustration at what I consider a “too little, too late” tone or statement made by officials who I think should have known better all along. I point my finger and accuse them of softening their rhetoric out of political calculus rather than true accountability. I see a grappling for power and the resulting speechmaking rankles me and sets my teeth on edge. If I allow myself to pause, I ask myself how that aligns with the behavior and attitudes that I am called to. Does God look at my stubbornness and wrongs in the same way? Does He look at me when I am FINALLY expressing remorse and say, “too little, too late”? I know the answer. And I know I need to do better.
Remember that when God forgives, He wipes the slate clean, and when he invites us into a process of reconciliation with Him, He doesn’t first assign blame and a severity scale for our wrongdoing. But He does ask us to repent of OUR OWN wrongdoing. In repenting, we are turning away from our own behavior that caused the hurt or the wrong. The resulting reconciliation is the end of estrangement and represents wholeness. And it always starts with an inward, rather than an outward view.
I don’t believe that God is interested in American politics. I think He is interested in the hearts of Americans. I’m sure He is grieved by all that he sees because he sees how our collective actions are poisoning our hearts. I don’t think He chooses a candidate. I think He chooses US. Are we choosing Him in return?