It was during our time living in Jerusalem, alongside Jewish people and Arabs (Christian and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian), that I gained a deep concern for reconciliation. In fact, it was a sense of obligation to further reconciliation.
My first priority is to encourage reconciliation between human beings and God through Jesus Christ. That will always be the most important reconciliation. I see reconciliation, appropriately, as cross-shaped. Through the cross of Christ, God was seeking to bring about a cross-shaped reconciliation: “vertical” reconciliation between people and God and “horizontal” reconciliation between human beings. It is the “horizontal” reconciliation about which I am writing in this paper.
Why emphasize reconciliation? Does the Bible show any interest in reconciliation other than in the context of church membership? Is the Bible is only interested in reconciliation in Christ? Here is my response to these questions:
1. God, who is love, calls all human beings to love our neighbour, and even our enemy.
Jesus said: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:39). When the expert in the law, seeking to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus basically replied that Jewish people and Samaritans were neighbours. There was bad blood between those two communities, partly because of religious differences. There is some similarity to the relationship between Jewish people and Palestinians today.
Jesus also said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemiesand pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:43–44)
So we are to love all our neighbours and even our enemies. This is a foundation for seeking reconciliation.
2. God sent the Holy Spirit to work in the world as well as in the church.
The Holy Spirit was active in creation and he is active in the world today, not just amongst Christians and not just drawing people to faith in Christ. Theologians sometimes call this general work of the Holy Spirit, “Common Grace.” Jesus teaches that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:45). In other words, he shows grace to all human beings. Paul teaches that when unbelievers do good they “show that the requirements of [God’s] law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” (Rom 2:14–15). He also teaches that even pagan governing authorities “have been established by God.” The person in authority (even though an unbeliever) is “God’s servant to do you good … an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer … the authorities are God’s servants.” (Rom 13:1–6)
The Holy Spirit inspires the enormous amount of goodness and creativity in the world. Part of that goodness is encouraging unbelievers (as well as believers) to love their neighbour and to foster reconciliation. If God is at work amongst unbelievers, including fostering reconciliation, it is certainly something in which Christians should be involved amongst people of all faiths and of none.
3. God calls Christians to be peacemakers.
Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matt 5:9). James affirmed: “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” (James 3:18). Paul wrote: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Rom 12:18) cf. Heb 11:14 “Make every effort to live in peace with all men.”
Peacemaking is therefore a Christian responsibility.
4. God’s aim is to bring all things into unity in Christ.
Paul writes that God “made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (Eph 1:9–10). So God’s intention for the universe is unity and harmony under Christ. True, this speaking of an eschatological (end times) unity under the direct Lordship of Christ. But, as we have seen, we are to be peacemakers or reconcilers now, not just wait for eschatological (end times) peace to be inaugurated by Jesus at his return. However, complete peace will only be established then.
5. Areas of reconciliation
Clearly reconciliation takes many different forms and can be achieved at different levels, whether in-depth or more superficial.
There can be reconciliation between nations, which may mean anything from cessation of hostilities to co-operation over trade or in other areas.
There can, similarly, be reconciliation between tribal or ethnic groups, within neighbourhoods, in families, between religious groups, within denominations. This need not involve compromise of beliefs, but rather acting on a desire to live alongside one another in harmony, co-operating where possible.
It is generally accepted that the Ecumenical Movement took a wrong turn in trying to encourage a homogeneous unity, but rather should celebrate unity in diversity.
One major issue is the whole matter of interfaith dialogue, which has much relevance to seeking to achieve reconciliation in the Middle East. How far should Christians go in relating to other faiths? After much thinking about this issue I offer the following guidelines:
- It should go without saying that people of different faiths should respect freedom of belief, respect one another, share hospitality, combat fears, ignorance and racism etc.
- It is good for people of different faiths to co-operate on community and moral issues (e.g. matters of peace, justice, reconciliation, disaster relief, etc).
- It is good for mature people of different faiths, who feel able to do so, to discuss matters of faith together, respectfully and honestly facing up to differences. But we must not compromise our beliefs.
- Praying or worshiping together, in my view, raises serious problems. Christians believe that God is revealed in and through Jesus and that all prayer is through Jesus, on the basis of his sacrifice. That is not negotiable and should not be compromised, even by implication, which, in my view, happens in interfaith worship.
We Christians are called to take a lead in reconciliation, but that does not mean we should compromise biblical truth.© Tony Higton