THE RECONCILING COMMUNITY
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The Reconciling Community
2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2
When I was sixteen, I went to the store with my friend Crystal. As we approached the checkout I remember her pulling something out of her pocket. I asked her what it was and she showed me her Indian Status card. She explained to me that if she showed it to the cashier, she didn’t have to pay any tax, then she put it back in her pocket and said, I don’t want to use it though. I couldn’t understand why. Having become recently employed and introduced to the world of income tax, I thought it was great that you could flash a card and not have to pay more than the price shown. But Crystal explained to me that showing this card in the past had made her the recipient of rude looks and even racist remarks, and that buying a coke, wasn’t worth the price of people’s judgment. She seemed embarrassed as she told me this, maybe even a little ashamed. We left with our drinks and I didn’t think too much about our conversation. We went back to talking about what sixteen year old girls talk about. I didn’t give another thought as to why as a teenager would carry so much shame about her identity and her culture.
Years later, I would discover the answer to that question. I would learn the history of Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit people and hear about efforts to reconcile the atrocities that had been committed against them. Before Canada could make attempts at reconciliation, the truth had to be heard. This is the truth: over the course of more than a century, aboriginal girls and boys were taken from their parents and required to attend church-run, government-sanctioned schools. The goal of these schools was to “civilize” students so they could adapt to Canadian society. When children arrived at the schools there hair was cut, their names were changed, their clothes were destroyed and they were told not to speak their language. If they were caught speaking their language they would often be punished. Many of the schools ran under substandard living conditions meaning that children were underfed and underhoused. They were taught to be ashamed of their language, their culture and themselves. Physical, emotional and sexual abuse was the norm for many of these children. When they returned home for a 2 month summer break, they found they couldn’t speak their language anymore and they didn’t have the skills required to live on a reserve and when they finished school and returned home for good they found they had no place in their own community. Those were the ones who survived residential schools and many children did not.
The truth doesn’t begin with residential schools. It goes back much further than that. All the way to the sixteenth century when Europeans took control of Indigenous peoples lands all over the world. Canada was no exception and Europeans moved in to spread Christianity and their view of civilization. They also spread diseases, used up valuable resources and through the Doctrine of Discovery, took lands that had belonged to the Indigenous people for thousands of years. The next four centuries would see several government policies that would try to assimilate Aboriginal people into the larger Canadian society to the point where they no longer had a distinct culture, government, or identity. This was all done in the name of progress. Even more horrendous is that often, it was done in the name of God.
In the 1990s, calls began for government and churches to acknowledge the harm that was done through Residential Schools. In 1996 the last Residential school closed its doors but the effects of them and the centuries of racism they endured live on. Among the Aboriginal population, alcoholism rates are high, alcohol and drug-induced deaths are high, the infant mortality rate is twice that of the non-Aboriginal population and youth between the ages of 10 and 29 living on reserves are 5 to 6 times more likely to die by suicide than non-aboriginal youth. When Jonathan Kakegamic was here a couple of weeks he put it into perspective for me that 5-7 generations of families have been affected by these schools. The shame they carry is not their own but rightly belongs to the perpetrators, the government, and the church.
That’s the truth. It was important that before any attempts at reconciliation were made, the truth was and continues to be revealed. A question I’ve been asking myself is in light of the truth, is What is our part in reconciliation? Do we as members of a small Baptist church have a part to play? And if we do, then where do we start?
Reconciliation for Paul
The Bible has a lot to say about reconciliation because it’s at the heart of God. We see in our reading that there can be no reconciliation without the truth. Paul is concerned with the truth of his ministry when writing this letter to the Corinthians. Paul had paid a visit to the city of Corinth and after leaving to stay in Ephesus, he receives reports that the church is struggling. He writes them a letter, what we know as First Corinthians, only to receive reports that things are worse than ever. Not only is the church struggling with Christian living but they are questioning Paul’s legitimacy and wondering if his ministry is really from God. Paul responds to these concerns with the second letter to the Corinthians. Some theologians believe that 2nd Corinthians should actually begin with chapters 10-13 where Paul is admonishing the church. Chapters 1-9 then deal with reconciliation.
Paul has to remind the Corinthians of what is truly important. They’re evaluating him through the eyes of the world and this leads them to question his worth. We don’t know exactly who they were comparing Paul to but we can imagine they were teachers who dressed well, had good education and were of good standing in the community. For some reason, they made Paul look inadequate. They apostle now has to instruct them on true worth.
The New Creation
This misconstrued idea of worthiness hasn’t changed much since Paul’s time. We’re still told that our worth comes from how we look, how we dress, how many titles we carry, how much money we have or what culture we come from. Or maybe we find our worth in the number of likes we can get on our posts or in the person we’re dating. If we don’t have money or status or education then we are worthless. The gospel gives us a different view of worth and new way of advancement. We are to serve others and put their needs above our own, we are to invest in the wellbeing of the community and care for those who are the most vulnerable. We recognize the value in every person because each one is made in the image of God and each one is loved by Him. As such, we are called to stand up for those who have been abused, ignored and labeled as unworthy.
For Paul, living for Christ makes us a “new creation” and God’s spirit dwelling in us will make us different. A little peculiar even. Part of our responsibility and our privilege as new creations is the ministry of reconciliation that God has entrusted to us.
Reconciliation is different than forgiveness. Forgiveness is the choice of one individual it is often for the benefit of that individual. Reconciliation requires at least two people and is often for the benefit of a community. Forgiveness is an inward decision while reconciliation requires outward action.
A very simple answer to the question of why we should work for reconciliation is that God sought and is seeking reconciliation with us. We don’t initiate reconciliation to God, God begins the process. He did this by giving Christ to bear the consequences of our sin. The best definition I’ve heard for reconciliation is that it is the removal of hostility and the restoring of relationship. God has removed the barrier that existed between us and Him. He now invites us into a relationship. Biblical reconciliation is threefold in that we need to be reconciled to God, reconciled to each other and reconciled to ourselves.
Reconciliation to God
Paul makes it clear that God has initiated reconciliation for ALL people. This is the message of the gospel. Everyone can be restored to a relationship with God. Paul is someone who was educated in the laws of Moses and who knew religion well. His choice to accept God’s invitation of reconciliation didn’t come as a result of his education or his hours in the synagogue or his attempts to purify religion by killing those heathen Christ followers. No, his reconciliation to God came when he met Jesus. His eyes were opened to the truth and he became a new creation.
Reconciliation to self
One Christian leader describes our need for self-reconciliation as “healing the inner wound that every person experiences within himself between the ideal to which he aspires and what in effect he is able to accomplish between his own will and behaviour.” In other words, we know who we want to be, and we know who we are, and we’re constantly struggling with the gap between the two. That can come back to questions of value. Where do we find our worth? What is it about you that makes you valuable?
Our reluctance to forgive and to reconcile with others can sometimes be caught up in a misunderstanding of our own worth. When we question our own value, we become threatened when others treat us as though we are worthless. When someone wrongs us, we want to hold on to a grudge. We need them to acknowledge our value and only then, can we offer forgiveness. The person who is a new creation, knows that they are valuable and knows that God’s approval is what matters.
Reconciliation to others
Paul was working to form what Martin Luther King Jr. would later call “the Beloved Community”. Paul’s ministry was based upon the conviction that in the Beloved community there is “neither Gentile nor Jew, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female”. In the Beloved Community there is no class, race, gender or economic disparity. In the Beloved Community, women and men seek out those who have been discriminated against, wounded and neglected, and make efforts to right the wrongs that have been committed. This is the reconciliation that God is calling us to participate in.
The best story I’ve heard that encapsulates a Biblical vision of reconciliation is the story of the Amish School shooting in 2006. On an October morning, a man walked into a school classroom and held ten little girls ages 6-13 hostage. The police arrived at the school within minutes and tried to negotiate with him, but he fired off several shots at the girls and then killed himself. Five of the girls died and three live with severe disabilities. The shooter’s name was Charlie Roberts and his mother Terri, wrote a book where she details the events of that day. She talks about the shock and horror as police described to her what her son had done. She also describes that afternoon, when a member of the Amish community came to visit her. He was an elder in the community and he wanted to tell her that he was sorry for her loss, that he and his community held no grudges. For her son’s funeral, this man and others members of his community, showed up to make a human shield between the Robert’s family and the media. Over the course of the last eleven years she has spent a lot of time with the families of the girls her son murdered. They have opened up their homes and lives to her because they believe of their strong belief in reconciliation. Terri Roberts writes I discovered by their example that submission and surrender, love and forgiveness are not weaknesses, but the strength our world so desperately needs. Her story is a story of God’s grace, because true reconciliation can only come about by the grace of God.
We’re heading up to Mistissini in a few days to spend time with a Cree community and to see how God is working through Faith Bible Chapel. We’ve been invited by Pastor Gordon and Mary Jane Petawabano to preach and pray and to listen. I met the Petawabanos at a Pastor’s conference last Fall. Pastor Gordon was asked to close one our sessions with a prayer in his own language, Cree. He stood and with tears in his eyes explained that growing up in a residential school, he was not allowed to speak his language. For him to be asked to pray, over a group on non-Aboriginal people in Cree, was a moment of healing for him. Then he prayed. And as I closed my eyes, I couldn’t understand the words he was saying, but my spirit stirred within me. I knew that God was pouring out his grace on our small gathering and that a darkness that had been lingering for some time now, had been swallowed up into a beautiful light.
We have been reconciled by God in Christ. As such, the ministry of reconciliation is not only our privilege and our responsibility, it is our calling. Let us be faithful in spreading the message of reconciliation, that Christ paid for our sins, and that for all who believe him, regardless of race or class or gender, he has given the right to become children of God. May God continue to form us into his Beloved Community.