We sat in a circle in the living room of the president’s house at Fuller. Its windows overlook the lighted domes of Pasadena’s City Hall, the center of a beautiful town with a complicated and painful racial history. Fuller’s buildings can be seen a block away. The Jackie Robinson memorial statue is just out of sight. Various church spires punctuate the skyline, telling stories of communities of faith. Most black congregations are on the other side of the 210 freeway, where the sounds of faith mostly sound like the blues.
The faces in the circle of the living room were all male, current students, from each of our three schools of theology, intercultural studies, and psychology. I was moved by their stories of being African American young men in Southern California, in Pasadena, and at Fuller Seminary. The personal and spiritual maturity these brothers embodied was significant, but so was their articulate honesty about their own difficult, erratic, and troubling experiences. Their shared bonds were palpable and encouraging, in laughter and tears.
I can’t imagine being in a better circle. Everything about a true, faithful, and courageous community of faith was in that room: living and seeking God in a world of daily need and injustice, together trusting faith and pain to God who, in Christ, is our deepest brother, and yet who is also beyond our comprehension. Being entrusted with one another’s stories was a profound and vulnerable grace repeatedly given and received over our long evening together.
As human beings, we were made for this kind of communion, to be in this circle together. We were created by God to live and share in life-giving, honest, loving community. The instigating reason for this particular conversation was our common knowledge that we all live in a world that is a place of fear, insecurity, racism, inequality, poverty, exclusion, and injustice. We were made for thriving communion but our world is full of broken relationships.
Except for One Thing
If only we weren’t human, reconciliation wouldn’t be such a problem. That is, if we had no emotions, relationships, memories, hungers, ideas, values, bodies, politics, religion, money, or tongues, conflict wouldn’t occur and reconciliation wouldn’t demand so much of us. But there never has been and never will be a time in human history when reconciliation is less than a primary human need and dilemma. That conversation in our living room left no doubt.
In this world of broken relationships, reconciliation-talk may be essential, but it’s also risky. You don’t have to be in Darfur or the West Bank—you can be in the Mall of America or downtown Pasadena. Reconciliation is difficult. First, efforts at reconciliation do not necessarily make things better, especially where damaged relationships are involved. Second, reconciliation-talk can seem naïve or impertinent. Victims of violence, for example, are not helped when talk of reconciliation is little more than a cover-up for suffering. Third, talk of reconciliation raises the fear of injustice. Each of us measures our suffering, or that of others, in our own ways, but measure we do. Instead of justice, reconciliation can seem like a declaration of defeat. Fourth, diagnosing the roots of the brokenness is difficult because we are immersed in it, embedded in the context so fully that it is very hard to see and understand what is happening. What to “us” seems so clear may or may not be so clear to “them.” Fifth, reconciliation means hard work. It involves venturing into what is seen and unseen, it means realizing that we really only experience life in our own terms and the “other” at an alienated distance.
At the root of any Christian understanding of reconciliation is a basic claim: at the juggernaut of our relational and systemic brokenness lies a broken relationship with God. Put negatively, in a world made for thriving relationships, our broken relation with God intertwines with our distorted relations with ourselves and with one another, which, in turn, further distorts our relationship with God. Put positively, God’s loving capacity to make all things right, and all relationships reconciled, is the essence of the kingdom of God. When we face the extent of our personal and systemic needs for reconciliation, we may rightly despair.
“We need a unity that goes across every kind of dividing line because that is the perfect will of God—that we be one in the body of Christ. Because of the silence of the evangelical church in the past, we need a strong opposition today to racism in every form. We need that strong position from our church leaders. What of those who have perpetrated racism in the past? There needs to be an admittance of that reality, repentance of that reality, and restitution! Don’t just say, ‘What can we do to fix it? What can we do to set it right? What can we do to bring justice?’”
+ Caleb Campbell is a first-year student in the MDiv program, a youth minister at Southside Christian Palace Miracle Center, a published author, and attended the conversation mentioned at the beginning of President Labberton’s article. Read more from him and other members of the community here.
Reconciliation Centered in Jesus Christ
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph 2:4–5). God in Jesus Christ has entered and undone those broken relationships and systems. Herein lies our ultimate reconciliation hope.
When Christians talk this way, we are not suddenly changing the subject from “reconciliation” to “religion.” This is no sleight of hand. According to the Bible, no one takes reconciliation more seriously or passionately than does God. No one is more invested in, nor more capable of, addressing the realities of broken relationships than God. The whole narrative of the Bible conveys the vivid and persistent steps God takes to bring about reconciliation for Israel or for the church—for the sake of the world.
Human beings are significant secondary actors in the deep work of reconciliation, for which God alone carries the primary burden and capacity. In New Testament terms, full reconciliation will only be possible through the mediating sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is the measure of the difficulty and of the hope of reconciliation. All other Christian efforts at reconciliation must center here. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,
[Jesus] stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality. Since the whole world was created through him and unto him (John 1:3; 1st Cor. 8:6; Heb. 1:2), he is the sole Mediator in the world.
Jesus Christ comes as God incarnate to be the primary agent of reconciliation whether or not this is acknowledged and confessed by any of the parties involved. The more those involved seek to be in tune with Jesus Christ—to see, listen, and love as he does—the stronger and more hopeful the reconciliation efforts. “The One who alone makes all things new” vests our humanity with the capacities to do good in alignment with our true human identity and in the context of community.
The cross is no sweet epiphany but an act of grace dying for the sake of reconciliation. In the Gospels, Jesus’ story turns toward Jerusalem as the fulfillment of his call from the Father to give his life. When we face broken marriages, families, friendships, churches, towns, cities, and nations, the cross of Christ enables us to do so without naiveté. We know real brokenness is always deeper and graver than it appears. It means every party in a situation holds a self-justifying stake in something that is not true. Even so, we grasp our position desperately, determined that we cannot let go and that the responsibility for change belongs primarily to the other party far more than to us.
The christological hope of facing and living into this reality means there is no depth of need that is beyond the reach of our Lord’s reconciling love. No suffering or broken relationship is outside the reach of “God [who] so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16) that we might live in reconciled relationship with God, ourselves, and our neighbor. This underscores that the diagnosis of human need is more profound and daunting than we can readily see or fix. No wonder healthy relationships elude us, for “we cannot save ourselves.” We don’t get to sit in a circle in our living room and work up a simple answer to a broken world. We need to be saved from ourselves. “But God . . . ” is our only hope.
“The African American community has been subjected to repeated interpersonal, cultural, institutional, and systemic forms of oppression that have marred identity and subjugated development. Minority communities suffer at the unjust hands of oppressive law enforcement. As this occurs, followers of Jesus stand by idle, passive, and neutral, hoping for God to bring justice, shalom, and restoration to each unique situation. The people of God must be conscious, informed, active, and engaged. It is an imperative that the love ethic of the people of God becomes an embodied, public practice.”
Living from a New Center
Christians are to be those who live converted to the hope of reconciliation in Christ. Conversion is the ongoing, reality-orienting transformation centered in our Lord that changes life here and now. To come, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to confess that “Jesus is Lord” involves acknowledging that all relationships and all power are placed under the reign of the One who alone properly orders love. “God is love.” God’s forgiveness and mercy are the very gifts we most need for personal or societal reconciliation to move forward. Indeed, that is the beginning of personal Christian reconciliation. Our living room conversation is founded on the conviction that our only hope lies beyond us, but must take place in us and through us in a Christ reordered life.
If sin is “disordered love,” as church father St. Augustine says in City of God, then reconciliation must in some measure be about the reordering of loves. It turns out to be healing and reviving news, for example, of giving up the notion that life is principally about me or for me, a disordered claim that goes on to define and distort every relationship. Confronting, confessing, and reordering this is at the core of spiritual rebirth, being born again, being given life in place of death. We come to face it and learn it by degrees as we move further into life in the heart of God.
Any person’s ongoing conversion in-volves a life of following, imitating, and conforming to Jesus Christ, that is, a call to new relationships, and therefore, to a full participation in “the ministry of reconciliation.” To become authentically reconciled to God involves reconciliation with our neighbors: we pray “to be forgiven, even as we have been forgiving”; “we cannot say we love God and hate our enemy.” To receive the benefits of reconciliation moves us to offer the same to those around us.
Conversion language is something the church typically uses when it talks about those outside its ranks. But sitting in the living room circle with African American brothers as they told their stories of being “unseen,” “invisible,” or “good as ghosts” in a dominantly white culture or even in Fuller Seminary, shouts out the need for deeper conversion inside and among the people of God as well. While the church cares about the conversion of society, it must display its own conversion deeper than it often does.
To be a participant in reconciliation does not require our conversion, but our conversion does require our engagement in reconciliation. This is Christian work and witness every day. We “don’t let the sun go down on our anger”; we “go and get things right with the one who has something against us before then making our offering.” If we follow the one who rightly orders love, seeking reconciliation and justice in daily life is to be normative. We are not converted by our efforts of reconciliation, but it should be that we are converted for our efforts of reconciliation.
“There are a lot of people hurting. Racism is seeping into the church because the church is too afraid to be confrontational. The church was the bedrock of the black community, so to not be at the forefront of conversations that matter to the community is not right. It’s a vacant hole that is not doing what God said: ‘feed my children.’ Movement toward justice should be launched from the church! Instead, we are not salt anymore; we are washed out.”
+ PJ Johnson is a Washingtonian (from DC) who has called Pasadena home for over 15 years. She is an MDiv student with an emphasis in international and urban development, and she wants to start a global conversation about God with marginalized peoples that can move them to be active agents in their own lives. Read more from her and other members of the community here.
What we believe should affect how and whom we see. What then do we, as disciples of Jesus, see as we live in this world? How do we see what we see? Why do we see what we see? What matters most and why? And most importantly, whom do we see or not see and why? The peculiarity of being followers of Jesus ought to show in our answers to these questions. Being part of the new community of God’s people should mean we see reconciliation issues among our highest priorities.
Jesus declares in the Sermon on the Mount that his followers are “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth.” These metaphors assume darkness and death are everywhere. God’s people are called to provide what is urgently needed and otherwise absent. Surely “light” (truth-telling) and “salt” (restraining decay) are critical aspects of any true reconciliation. But do we live this way? “Light” can be hidden, and “salt” can be diluted, Jesus warns. Are we in the church exercising the agency of change that Jesus says is our very identity in a broken world?
When we sat with our brothers for that long evening in our living room, it was after many powerful events that brought our national attention to the declaration that “Black Lives Matter.” Nevertheless, it was before the Charleston Nine had been killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, before the families of those nine offered shocking forgiveness, and before the first African American president led us all in “Amazing Grace.” It was also before the Confederate flag was taken down from the South Carolina capital.
Every act of reconciliation is always “after” and “before.” The cross and resurrection fit just there too, amidst the most intimate, public, systemic kinds of brokenness and sin. That is just where we were in the living room, between what has been and what will be. The communion we shared together that night was filled with intertwining discouragement and despair that honesty and trust can allow. Reconciliation is so hard, so needed, takes far longer, and is more illusive than we ever expect. But interwoven in our conversation was the assurance that the God “who holds all things together” will one day “bring to completion” the reconciliation that God alone can produce. The communion in the living room was a foretaste of that reconciliation.
It was not an evening of advocacy, but in their conversation these students cared enough about Fuller to hope for change and to let me know what would really matter to them. Several mentioned the importance of more African American faculty, especially more men. Others said how our commitment to a diversity of authors and of racial and cultural perspectives in class often didn’t reach nearly far enough or feel truly integrated into the lectures or the classroom discussions. The academy still feels too white or non-African American for some to imagine themselves pursuing such a professional pathway, even though this was their dream. They recounted that some of their professors really listened and heard them when they spoke in class and this was life-giving to them, though painfully not all faculty communicated this.
As the white man who lives in the president’s house and occupies the president’s office, my story is different than that of my brothers who left that night to return to the vulnerable, sometimes violent world of racial prejudice and hatred. Unless the communion of that night is reflected in how I live and how I lead—in how Fuller is and how Fuller develops—then the gift of that night will be violated. Still, it would be hard to think of any greater evidence of God’s grace at work in this season of our lives than if our seminary and our graduates became wellsprings of the communion of God that offers the true reconciliation for which we and our broken world yearn.