The Ministry of Reconciliation
Text: Romans 5:7 and II Corinthians 5:16-19
Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.
Paul sensibly writes to the Romans, “For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.” I think Paul’s assumption is quite true: if one is to be perceived invincible or whole in one’s own right, the impulse to take salvific action is not as strong as it is when one is perceived to be vulnerable and weak. That simple peculiarity of human behavior is one of the things that military commanders build upon in order to create what is called “unit cohesion.” One, I am told, does not usually go to battle in order to support vast imperial claims or one’s allegiance to a banner — all the ballyhoo not withstanding. One goes into battle to support one’s buddies from a carefully matched cadre of others who bond, deeply, and in order heroic actions, however they are lauded in the end, are not about patriotic acts, they are about saving some particular one of one’s own from the shells or shots of the enemy.
Today is Trinity Sunday — in fact, the only Sunday of the year when we’re supposed to be talking about academic theology. But, most ministers and priests and theological students I know will admit (at least, after a few drinks at the local pub) that they really don’t understand the point of the Trinity, and are generally confused when talking about it.
The closest I have ever come to understanding it is through what is known as St. Augustine’s “psychological” definition: The Trinity is Lover, Beloved, and Love.
And, in the coincidence of this day of Trinity being with Memorial Day it seems germane to agree with New York Times columnist and Harvard Divinity School grad Chris Hedges that war, in the end, “is always about betrayal, betrayal of the young by the old, of soldiers by politicians, of sons by their fathers and of idealists by cynics.” War, in the end, is always about these things.
It seems fitting then, to note, that the first Memorial Day happened, when the nation had come to its senses, in 1868, as bereaved on all sides put flowers on the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery. But, perhaps I, and perhaps many of us, are among those idealists who always demand to know, why must it always be thus? War is folly and senseless and yet, repeatedly, for as long as history has been recorded, the forces and factors that lead up to war are always the same. One party is offended because of the transgression of another. Each party begins to demonize the other. The other party goes from being “You” to “Them.” The “Other” is depicted in effigy, in cartoons, in print as not only wrong but inherently evil, while the “We” depict ourselves as the custodians of righteousness and right. And, sooner or later someone throws a stone, shoots an arrow, or fires a shot — and then we’re off. We know not how many thousands or millions of lives will be cut short by the enterprise — only that we are right. And it goes on until it cannot go on any longer, and then someone is declared the winner, and to the victor go the spoils of battle be it gold and silver or territory or a newly re-established worldwide reputation as being the peacemaker. Until the next time — when the same thing happens all over again.
What love or belovedness is there in that? There is not. It is all and always about betrayal.
You may have heard this story before. If so, forebear with me and hear it again, please. One of my most cherished possessions is a letter, found in the attic of the ancient family home in which I grew up. The paper is of obviously high quality and it is decorated with regimental colors. It looks as though it could have been penned yesterday. It is from an ancestor who was serving in a Union outfit during the American Civil War to the people back home. He was near Peachtree Creek in Georgia a few days before the famous battle there. He writes of meeting the boys of the other side while both were taking their ease swimming in the river. He writes that while swimming in the water he met one of the Confederate commanders who, after some initial conversation, said to him, “You boys are in the right on this, and we are in the wrong.”
A few days later, on July 20, 1864, 6,506 soldiers lay dead on either side of the Creek: 1,710 on the Union side and 4,796 on the Confederate and nothing had changed, neither line had bent.
Is there Lover or Beloved or Love in that? It would be hard to imagine in the gore of such a battle.
And, it would be one thing if we could learn — but, for whatever reason, humankind does not seem to. My colleague Sue Hyde from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force spoke to me last week of visiting Senator Brown’s office to advocate the repeal of “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” and she had brought with her a thoroughly heterosexual supporter — a retired Army captain who had spent two years in Bahgdad. On the way home from the senator’s office the captain said to her, “You know, all this business about why we are there makes no sense at all. We are doing much more harm than good, and there is no way to change that.” Increasingly, those involved in military operations are aware of those realities, and yet, war continues.
John Dominc Crossan, in outlining for us the world in which Jesus grew up, spends a great deal of time telling us about the Romans — both their good sides and what was wrong with them. Tellingly, he says, “You can have a republic or you can have an empire, but you can’t have both for very long.” He says that from time immemorial, civilizations have attempted to stabilize themselves and gain more influence militarily, and to gain successively more territory by surrounding their borders with soldiers — and these, always, seek to expand territory in successive waves of incursion. What we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan is nothing more than that, I firmly believe, only this time, the world is global and the territory is oil and access to it.
So it all begs the question: what to do with Memorial Day? What would a loving God, Lover, Beloved and Love, have us do around the memories of those who give their all — sometimes to save their buddies — sometimes to save their unit — sometimes to save more intangible things — and sometimes just from being in the wrong pace at the wrong time?
I believe they do deserve our respect — our awed silence. We were not there — we know not why they volunteered — was it to respond to what they were told was a “good deal” by their recruiters? Was it because their friends went? Was it because it was the only shot at a decent life for them and their families? As access to education becomes less and less likely for the lower income earners in our society, these are great reasons. But, similarly, we were not there as the bullets were flying and the shrapnel was hitting. We were not there to see and hear the final moments of the dead whom we honor this weekend. We were not there. The least we can do is be Lover, Beloved and Love where there was none before.
We, who were not able to reconcile these issues and these persons in life can be ministers of God’s reconciliation in death. We can honor them and pray for enlightened leaders and for peace at the same time. Such is the ministry of reconciliation to which we have been entrusted.