Dr. Johannes Reimer is Professor of World Mission and Intercultural Theology and Director of the Department of Public Engagement of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), which includes the Peace and Reconciliation Network.
Reconcilers sit between two stools
My esteemed doctoral advisor David J. Bosch (1929-1992) was in every sense the most important mission theologian of the 20th century. His opus magnum, “Transforming Mission”, has been translated into many of the world’s languages(1) and, more than almost any other book, has influenced mission thinking in the global church. Whether evangelicals, ecumenicists, Catholics or Orthodox – they all refer to Bosch and know how to skillfully appropriate him as one of their own.
He himself refused to be appropriated. I remember asking him one day where he would prefer to place himself, with the ecumenicists or the evangelicals. Smiling, my teacher answered: “With none of them. I prefer to sit between the chairs. That’s the only way I can reconcile them. But be careful, no one wants to sit between the chairs, but if someone does, then you usually get nothing but criticism. But if no one does, then there is no unity.”
David Bosch died tragically in a car accident in 1992 on his way to the funeral of a black friend. He bled to death next to his sermon about reconciliation between whites and blacks in a township. Because the emergency call came from a black settlement, the police and ambulance did not arrive at the scene until hours later. The people on the scene did try to free him from the car, but unfortunately without success. When the police finally arrived, the world-famous professor was dead.The disregard of a person between chairs could not be expressed more clearly.
Since my calling in 2015 through the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) to build a network for peace and reconciliation, I can’t stop thinking about my teacher and his attitude. As a network, we work for people’s peace with God, with themselves, with fellow human beings and with creation. Soon after beginning practical peace and reconciliation work, it became clear to me that hardly any other topic is as important and theologically as central to the spread of the Gospel as reconciliation. Together with other missiologists, I understood that reconciliation is the very paradigm of God’s mission in the world.
People long for harmony and peace. However, the realization of reconciliation usually requires reconcilers, mediators who stand between the disputants and ask for ways to resolve the conflict. As soon as they are suspected of being biased, the reconciliation process will come to an abrupt end.
Staying neutral – is that possible?
Mediators are expected to be neutral. They are critically courted by the disputing parties and not infrequently also advertised for their own position by all means. Especially in conflicts in which victims and perpetrators are easily identifiable from the outside. This is the case, for example, in armed conflicts. Often the attacker and the attacked are clear from the beginning. How can reconcilers remain neutral? If they do, they are seen as traitors, especially by the victims, their neutrality is questioned and the service of reconciliation is rejected.
In the current war between the Russians and Ukrainians it is like this. As soon as someone sets out to understand why President Putin started the war against Ukraine, he or she is attacked head-on, his or her integrity is questioned, and he or she is denounced as a friend of Putin. “Whoever claims to be my friend must also become the enemy of my enemy, otherwise he is a false friend,” a good acquaintance from Ukraine told me the other day. In my conversation with him, I had only gently hinted that no war situation can be interpreted only in black and white. My remark was enough to confirm the suspicion of my interlocutor that I am also a so-called Putin-sympathizer and that it would be rather pointless to continue the conversation with me. “You can only help us, Johannes, if you put yourself completely on our side,” he said.
But how can people be reconciled if they only accept the mediators as representatives of their own opinion? How can peace be created if only one side is heard and only one side is believed? As a rule, this is the position of the victims. In this way, one can express solidarity with one suffering party, but still not inspire peace.
Admittedly, one cannot be neutral in the face of brutal human rights violations, murder and rape. Especially not as Christians. We are sent into the world as our Master Jesus was sent (Jn 20:21). Called “to seek and to heal that which is lost” (Lk 19:10). Like him, we are on the side of the abused, the imprisoned and the poor (Lk 4:18). We can never be neutral about injustice.
Does this exclude us Christians as mediators and reconcilers? And how can this be, since we are sent as ambassadors in Christ’s place to speak the word of reconciliation to the world (2Cor. 5:18-20)? What must distinguish us so that the parties at odds with each other accept us as mediators, even if we do not always represent their opinion and even often, rightly so, stand in opposition to their opinion? How do we break through the expectation of being a true friend of the victim only when we declare ourselves the enemy of the perpetrator? How do we become reconcilers when remaining neutral is out of the question?
The answer is: we, reconcilers, should be a friend of God in the first place – like Jesus. He refused to join in the hatred of the Jews towards their Roman occupiers and become a Zealot, a fighter for an independent Israel. But he also refused to agree to any compromise with Rome. Instead, he offered both Jews and Romans God’s kingdom and the possibilities of His rule. He responded to the request of a Roman centurion to heal his servant and even praised his faith (Lk 7:1-10). On the other hand, he called a well-known Zealot, Judas Iscariot, into the inner circle of his 12 apostles (Mark 3:19), knowing that he would betray him to the Romans. Jesus did not let any party of his time press him into their own scheme. He resisted every temptation to side with those who took up the sword.
Reconcilers – what characterizes them?
Christian reconcilers are reconcilers “in Christ’s stead” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). They work for peace and reconciliation as Jesus did. And like Jesus, they are sustained by values that are clearly external to themselves and even more so to the people they seek to reconcile. They know themselves committed first and foremost to God. By Him they are sent, to Him and to Him alone they are accountable. Apostle Paul brings it to the point when he writes of himself and his co-workers to the quarreling believers in Corinth:
“This is what everyone thinks of us: as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Now no more is required of stewards than that they be found faithful. But it is of little consequence to me that I should be judged by you, or by any human tribunal; neither do I judge myself. Though I am conscious of no guilt, yet in this I am not justified; but it is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Cor. 4:1-4).
Paul is accountable to no one but God alone. He is His servant and His steward of the mysteries of God. He has to be faithful to Him. What men say is unimportant. And in his service he wants to be like Christ. For him, “Christ in us is the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
What character traits distinguished Jesus as a reconciler?
Three stand out in particular.
- Jesus loved all people long before they proved to be lovable.
Apostle Paul can write to the Romans that Christ loved us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). Did that include the bad criminals? Sure! Enemies? Sure. Jesus taught His disciples to love even their enemies and to pray for people who persecute us unjustly (Mt 5:44).
Followers of Jesus in the ministry of reconciliation refuse to acknowledge that there are people on this earth whom they should not love. Their struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against powers and forces of evil (Eph 6:12). They understand the pain of the victims, but they do not share their anger and even hatred. They suffer with the suffering, condemn injustice, but they leave the vengeance to God and God alone.
2. Jesus showed his love for us, human beings, by being gracious to us.
How did Jesus reconcile us sinful people who lived in anger against each other to God and to each other? Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians:
“God, who is rich in mercy, in his great love with which he loved us, made us also, who were dead in sins, alive with Christ – by grace you have been saved; and he raised us up with him and seated us in heaven in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the abundant riches of his grace by his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-7).
It is the mercy of God, his grace, that overcomes the limits of hatred and anger, resentment and rage. And nothing less than this is what Jesus teaches his disciples. When Peter asked him one day how often he should forgive his brother who had done wrong against him, Jesus responded with a phrase that describes a culture of permanent forgiveness. In Mt. 18, 21-22 we read:
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother who sins against me? Is it enough seven times? Jesus said to him, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Seven times seventy times, that stood in the language of the time for always. In fact, it is people who can always forgive, indeed who live a culture of forgiveness and are thus able to reconcile with their enemies and forgive each other. (2)
3. Jesus showed His grace to us human beings by taking our guilt upon Himself.
Jesus does not leave sinners with their guilt. He takes it from them. He takes responsibility for the offence of the offender and pays for it with his life. He bore our guilt on the cross. Apostle Peter writes:
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring you to God; having been put to death according to the flesh, but made alive according to the Spirit. (1 Peter 2:21).
No, we Christians, do not have to take the punishment for the sins of the criminals whom we try to reconcile on us, but we can help them to unload their guilt at the cross of Jesus. We know the place because we have taken our own guilt there. And we can stand by the offenders as they face the just consequences for their actions. It is the freedom of God’s children from guilt and sin that enables them to be reconcilers. In Christ, they are a new creature. “The old has passed away – new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17).
Apostle Paul beautifully summarizes what has been said when he writes to the Ephesians about who they now are by the grace of God. In Eph. 1:3-8 we read:
“Praise be to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heaven through Christ. For in him he chose us before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him in love; he predestined us to be his children through Jesus Christ according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has graced us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace, which he has lavished on us in all wisdom and prudence.”
Christians are made perfect in love by Christ through His grace in that they have been forgiven their sins and now become rich in wisdom and prudence. So are reconcilers who can sit between the chairs. They come without prejudice, bringing God’s perspective, and strive first and foremost for the conflicting parties to know God’s truth and to experience the loving, gracious and forgiving God who has a solution in every situation.
Reconciliation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit
Of course, we Christians are also human and are not immune to losing the overview in difficult situations. That is why Jesus gave us His Holy Spirit, who guides us into all truth (Joh. 16,13) and is Lord of our mission (2 Cor. 4,17). To the church in Ephesus, Apostle Paul writes effusively:
“Therefore, having also heard of faith among you in the Lord Jesus and of your love for all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, and remember you in my prayer, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation to know him. And he gives you enlightened eyes of the heart, that you may know to what hope you have been called by him, how rich is the glory of his inheritance for the saints, and how abundantly great is his power toward us who believe through the working of his mighty strength.” (Eph. 1:15-19).
It is the Holy Spirit who helps us Christians to overcome our shortcomings. He works among us His fruits that overcome every strife, contention, division, hatred and strife (Gal. 5:16-25).
Yes, we Christians are called to act as reconcilers in an unreconciled world, in the midst of the entangled positions of the enemies, between the chairs, so to speak. But we are not alone here, we are held by God, the Holy Spirit himself. Through him we can love, be merciful and free to give hope where there is no more hope.
(1) David J. Bosch: Transforming Mission. Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991).
(2) See more details in: Johannes Reimer: Living Forgiveness. Ways to a culture of reconciliation in the congregation. (Mittenahr-Bicken: Werdewelt 2020).