by Inderjit Bhogal.
When Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa 25 years ago he made his former enemy F. W. De Klerk of the national Party his Deputy.
The handshake between two extreme enemies, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness at the beginning of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland is miraculous.
People who are poles apart can be friends, reconciled, and work together.
I love Charles Wesley’s lines:
“He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join.”
Focus on the words “widest extremes to join”.
It is possible.
We, as a church, are a rich mixture of people.
We have all the range of diversity, not least the widest extremes in terms of theology.
We want to enable each other to grow and flourish in our relationships.
In any context we do make mistakes.
We hurt each other.
We can be become poles apart.
But we are called and committed to a ministry of constructive dialogue and reconciliation.
We can go down two tracks as we do this.
We can see conflict as a place of different opinions, good or bad, depending on your place in the conflict.
In this scenario, one side tries to overcome the other.
Conflict can get ramped up and up and up, and can build resentment, hatred and mistrust.
It is then about conflict management, or conflict transformation – neither of which tackles the root causes.
Alternatively, we can see conflict in terms of mistakes that have been made, come to admit the mistake made, confess, repent and respond with grace and respect, and learn from our mistakes.
In either case, the important factor is to cross the river of turmoil upstream, before it becomes a torrent, or so wide that people are on two sides wondering how to bring the parties on different sides together.
The Bible gives us two important pillars, two legs, on which we build our theology of community and church.
Image of God, and the Body of Christ.
All are made in the Image of God. This mean we are all created, not the same, but equal.
The theology of the Body of Christ brings in the idea of difference.
These two themes of Image of God and the Body of Christ allow no room for any practice of exclusion or discrimination.
The Body of Christ model is used in the early church to address diversity and integration, and holding people together, preventing disintegration.
In Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12, this model is used to address hierarchy, factions, divisions and disrespect within congregations, especially if not only at Holy Communion.
1 Corinthians 12 particularly refers to “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (verse 13). In using these categories, the writer is referring to people who were the furthest apart from each other in terms of ethnicity and rank, and is insisting that with all the differences in a congregation, all are one.
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (verse 12).
And all of us are called to exercise the ministry of reconciliation.
The Bible records and reflects Gods continuing reconciling work in the history of a people on a journey who are in regular conflict, constantly desiring nothing less than a restoration and renewal of their relationship with God, and their relationships among themselves, and ultimately the renewal of all creation.
There is a claim in the New Testament that this journey reaches a climax in the decisive revelation of God in Jesus Christ, following which God’s work of reconciliation moves to a new level towards renewing and building a “new heaven and a new earth”, realising the fullest potential of all creation.
The crucifixion of Christ at the centre of God’s work of reconciliation insists that reconciliation comes at a cost, even to God.
Reconciliation requires holding and healing each other through remembering, sharing stories of hurt, arriving at repentance, forgiveness, and a commitment to living with more grace and generosity.
We dare to hope for and dream of a different society, a decent society where “widest extremes” can be joined, all people can be safe, flourish and have equal opportunity, and enjoy the fullness of life; where different parties agree to be in an open and honest relationship in which they can share openly and honestly in what are undoubtedly difficult conversations.
A reconciled society, or congregation or church will not be one without differences and disagreements but it will be one where division is not destructive because there is a shared commitment to the enhancement of life for all.