The hard, critical work of reconciliation

The life of reconciliation is the deep reality in our world. This was why Jesus came: to reconcile us to God and to one another.

Yme Woensdregt

One of those whose writings I enjoyed was a Baptist preacher named Will Campbell. He died last June. He was a renegade who joined the civil rights struggle in the 1950s, long before it was a popular thing to do. Often, he was the only white face at the beginning of that very important movement.

He characterized his approach to his vocation this way: “My parish is kind of scattered all over the country. I’m strictly a bootleg preacher.” Most of his scattered congregation were poor whites and blacks, plain people alienated from mainstream Christianity and wary of institutions, churches and governments that talked about progress, but achieved little. They called him Brother Will.

Part of the reason I’m such a fan of his was that from beginning to end, he held that the heart of Christian faith is the message that in Christ, we are reconciled. He was inspired by 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul writes that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” That sums up everything Brother Will said and did.

Simply, he said, “be reconciled, with everyone. More precisely, recognize that you are, in Christ, already reconciled to every human being. The goal, then, is simply to be what you are, a reconciled person.”

For Campbell, that reality is understood in three steps.

First, reconciliation is a new social reality that has been created by Christ. The life of reconciliation is the deep reality in our world. This was why Jesus came: to reconcile us to God and to one another.

Second, we recognize that this reality erases all other human categories and boundaries. It doesn’t matter whether you are saint or sinner, criminal or law abiding. It doesn’t matter whether you are NDP or Liberal or Conservative. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, male or female. It doesn’t matter whether you are gay or straight, white or black or native, male or female. It doesn’t matter whether you are religious or irreligious. Because of the reconciling work of Christ, these boundaries simply no longer exist.

The third step is that we are called to enact this new social reality. We are called to live as if these social boundaries do not exist. We no longer regard anyone from a “worldly point of view.” We live reconciled to everyone. Simple as that.

The practical upshot of the ministry of reconciliation according to Brother Will is that we don’t have to really do much of anything to be a Christian. We simply have to live as people who have been reconciled.

It’s a breathtaking vision of life. He summarized it once this way, “Do? Nothing! Be? What you are — reconciled to God and other human beings.”

Do nothing. Be reconciled. Simple as that.

A biography of Brother Will written by Thomas Connelly shares an observation Campbell once made where he describes the incomprehension he would face giving lectures about reconciliation on college campuses:

“Somebody always wound up saying to me, ‘Reverend Campbell, what are the practical implications of your message? What are you saying to us? It sounds as if you are preaching that we should do nothing.'” Campbell smiled. “When I hear that, then I know I am getting through to them. That’s when I say “Now you are finally getting the message. Do nothing. Just be something. That is the whole message of being a real Christian anyway. Just be what you say you are—a Christian.”

It’s a simple vision, but it’s far from being simplistic. Campbell knew that it would be hard work. That way of living is going to cost us something. Brother Will faced enmity for his participation in the Civil Rights movement. People hated him, called him names, beat him up.

It’s much the same kind of belief Nelson Mandela expressed when he said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

That work of learning to love, especially those who are different than us, is what makes life rich and whole and good. That was Brother Will’s work: “I believe in Jesus. Through Jesus we have all been reconciled to each other. So if we accept this gift, we’re free. There ain’t no need to hate anyone! Getting the word around about that—that’s my business.”

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook