08 March 2013

Radical Reconciliation

"Tell me, who did this?!  Why did this happen?  Whose fault is it?!  Someone will pay!"  These are just a few of the pointed and often intense questions and exclamations delivered when an event occurs that either shocks or incites pain or anger.  One cannot say that it is particular to our time and place as the human community.  It is part of the very fabric of who we are from the earliest recorded time.

I will not provide a history lesson here; but I will interject one example in history to set a point.  The Civil War is arguably the lowest point in America's growth history.  It was a time of "brother against brother"... using that phrase as an icon of divisive anger/hatred  that left more than 600,000 people dead and more than 1 million permanently wounded.

Leading up to and during the years of this brutal time, both sides believed stridently that God honored their cause and blessed their efforts in battle.  At each moment of advantage, generals in the field could be heard quietly uttering, "God's Will," as they ordered troops into the fight to secure that advantage.

As the war was ending, President Lincoln was adamant that north and south would be reunited in full reconciliation.  He was developing a plan for that reconciliation at the time of his assassination on Good Friday 1865.  His plan was greatly criticized by many northern leaders as being overly generous and lacking sufficient "punishment" for secession and creating the great strain both economically and in cost of human life.

After Lincoln's death, what emerged was a long period known as "Reconstruction."  It was a painful period that was reconciliation in name only.

I call your attention to the painting that accompanies this blog post.  It is Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son," which was one of the last of the master's works prior to his death in 1669.  This is a poignant reflection on the parable of Jesus told by Luke (Lk 15:11-31).  There are several things in the painting worthy of careful reflection.

  • The son's head is shaved...a sign that he may have spent time in prison.  A shaved head was a sign of disgrace in Hebrew culture of that time.
  • The son's clothing is actually the undergarments of that time.  He has no tunic or cloak.
  • His sandals are worn and broken.  His left foot shows both sores and scars.
  • His posture is one of humiliation and defeat.
  • The father's hands tell a big story:  They don't just touch the son; they are holding him close.
  • The father's left hand is strong and muscular..fingers spread and holding his son's shoulder.  Even though it appears sensitive, there is a firm, reassuring grip.
  • The father's right hand is different.  It is not holding or grasping.  It is more refined...soft and tender.  It appears that he may even be caressing or stroking his son.  It is almost like a mother's hand.
  • The father is not simply the great patriarch; but he is also a tender, caring, loving parent.  It is a conjoint masculine/feminine nature at work simultaneously.
  • The elder son is standing at the right of the painting.  His hands are together in a pensive posture.  His eyes bear a skeptical and not altogether approving look...almost as if he is considering turning away from the scene altogether
The term "reconciliation" is from the Greek, "kata" & "allasso":  "transformed throughout".  It can also mean, "make whole again."  Both meanings can apply to the story of the prodigal son.  Using Rembrandt's "icon" of the story, the father's action is one of transforming the son from errant renegade to being fully one in community...family.  But what about the older son?
In Jewish law of the time, if there were two sons, the elder would receive two-thirds of the estate and the younger son would receive the other one-third.  When the younger son left home and asked for his share, he received one-third of what was in the estate.  Now that he had returned and been reconciled (as the above meaning implies), the estate goes back to a shared whole.   In modern terms, the elder son could well be thinking, "My trust fund has just been hacked by this scum brother of mine!"

I ask you to give some thought to another parable in Matthew 20:1-16.  It is called the Parable of the Vineyard.  In summary:  the workers who come to work the last hour of the work day receive the same wage as the workers who have worked from the beginning of the day.  The day long workers are hugely incensed by what appears to them to be a radically unfair decision on the part of the owner of the vineyard.

Place these two parables side-by-side.  Jesus told these stories to create a tapestry that provides a big picture.  Behind the characters in the story are immutable truths about the nature of God.  The operative term for this nature is Love.  In Christian theology, we call it Grace (defined as God's unconditional love, freely given, without consideration of return).

I share these two parables to make a point.  Our culture is currently at a juncture where several things could happen.  As a backdrop, I think both social media and news media play major roles in creating both fear and distrust.  We don't just disagree with one another, we say destructive things and make damning judgments about folks with whom we disagree.  We engage in prejudicial actions...masking them as ideological differences.  We have created a kind of radical dualism that has not been seen since the era of the Civil War, which is why I led with that reflection.

  1. Every human being on the face of this planet...regardless of ethnic origin, nationality, gender or orientation...is created in the image of God.  
  2. Every human being on the face of this planet has the same genetic material, which means we all came from a common ancestral root.  As before, I ask you to look at the work of geneticists Spencer Wells and Francis Collins to verify this.  There is no "us-them" in terms of who we are.  
  3. Our nature reflects God, and God is Love.  That Love permeates all of creation.  It is the centerpoint.  
  4. Out of Love comes Compassion, Mercy and the kind of Justice that leads to a Radical Reconciliation.
Two examples:
  • When Pope John Paul II was nearly assassinated in May 1981, the assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was captured immediately and sentenced to life in an Italian prison.  Pope John Paul went to see him in prison and is said to have embraced Agca in an act of full forgiveness.  Agca kissed the Pope's ring in an act of humility not considered possible in light of his original hatred.  Radical Reconciliation.
  • On 6 October 2006, Charles Roberts entered an Amish school in Lancaster County, PA and killed five girls before committing suicide.  In response, the parents of the slain girls (and the other five girls also held hostage and surviving), met with the Roberts family...forgiving their son/husband/father and, in an even more conciliatory manner, set up a trust fund for the care of Roberts wife and children.  Amish leaders told media, "Do not hate this man...God is just..."   Radical Reconciliation.
I recently received a message from someone who plainly said, "he bears the mark of the beast...666," referring to President Obama.  I wish that would be the worst thing I have seen in social media over the last two years.  The person I just cited claims to be a Christian.  I cannot judge that, but such a statement is not one of Love.  It is one of a radical dislike bordering on hatred.  The video/television media models a kind of paranoia and vitriolic speech that fosters fear, anger and, yes, hatred.  I now rarely watch newscasts. 

For Christians, here is a thought:  

"The cross is the standing statement of what we do to one another and to ourselves.  The resurrection is the standing statement of what God does to us in return." (Fr.Richard Rohr)
A large crucifix hangs on the wall above my desk.  It was given to me by my sacramental theology professor, mentor, & spiritual director, The Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, when I was a senior seminarian...early 1978.  It has always hung near my desk, and I have had innumerable comments about "the dead Jesus on the cross."  It does seem macabre on first look.  However, it is counter-intuitive.  It was not God who crucified Jesus.  It was the desire of the Sanhedrin and the actions of the Roman government that did that.  As Richard Rohr states...we do this to one another.  God's action is to raise up...radical reconciliation.  The crucifix is a reminder to me that we are not above doing this even now...we do so daily.  It is an invitation to radical reconciliation.

Another thought:

"When God sees us, God sees our uniqueness, our particularities, our peculiarities, our strengths, our weaknesses, etc.  And God loves us for who we are, warts and all."  (Br. Mark Brown, Society of St. John the Evangelist)

When we are in judgment of others, we are like the elder son in the prodigal parable.  We believe ourselves better, purer and superior to "them"... whoever the "them" may be.   We are the elder son...looking for someone to blame; seeking punishment; projecting our fear of what we might lose...even in our bounty.  Think of the person(s) you currently most dislike...or someone whom you reject for whatever reason.  Can you simply love them the way you want to be loved?  It does not matter that the person thinks, acts, or looks different from you.  Can you love that person, as God loves them...and loves you?
This is the only question that really matters in creating a true oneness with God and with one another.

Finally, sit quietly in a place of your choosing...a place apart from distractions of the moment.  Relax your body...starting with your facial muscles.  You will be surprised just how tight you really are.  Now, take in a deep breath through your nostrils and, then, slowly exhale through your mouth...forming your lips as if you were using a straw.  Repeat this breathing practice two more times.

Let your mind drift.  Let go of the day and the inner ego chatter.  Just be still.  Now, in whatever tradition most comfortable to you, invite the Divine to embrace you.  Feel the love that comes with that experience.  Simply rest in that feeling for some time.

Whenever you feel complete, simply say:  "May I share this love with everyone around 
me...May I see every other human being as an extension of your Love.  You accept me as I am; may I accept every other human being just as they are....Make me an instrument of Reconciliation."

May it be so.

Much love,


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