For almost as long as I can remember, the word “reconciliation” has kept popping up in Christian circles in South Africa.
I think I was first made acutely aware of it in the mid-1960s, when a small group of Christian Institute members met in the Congregational Church Hall in Pietermaritzburg. There were about ten or twelve of us, lost in the vastness of the hall, sitting around a table, studying the Bible and following the study notes produced by the Christian Institute head office in Johannesburg. We were a mixed group, young and old, black and white, male and female, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Congregational, Quaker, Presbyterian, Zionist. The leader of the group was Colin Gardner, a Roman Catholic, an English lecturer at the university where I was a student.
We studied Ephesians chapter 2. The reconciliation it speaks of is primarily between Jews and Gentiles, but the core of it was “For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end” (Eph 2:14-16).
It became very clear to us as we studied the Bible that apartheid was trying to re-erect the “dividing wall of hostility” and thus to undermine and nullify the work of Christ. Apartheid was not merely an undesirable political policy. It was blasphemous.
A few years later, in 1968, some of this was put into words in A message to the people of South Africa. But the message didn’t seem to get through to our rulers, and to many of the white members of the Christian churches. The government pointed out that many of the Christian churches practised apartheid in their own structures, and so their opposition to the government policy was hypocritical. The Anglican Provincial Synod passed a resolution in 1970, directing the Department of Education in consultation with the Department of Mission to make available to dioceses and parishes a three-year educational programme of planned change in racial attitudes and a programme for community development among underprivileged people. A course called Motes and beams was produced, aimed at changing racial attitudes. “Challenge Groups” were set up, to challenge instances and expressions of racism in church structures.The programme was called “Human Relations and Reconciliation”, or HR&R for short.
Other denominations did something similar, and most had, or started, departments of “Justice and Reconciliation”, and ecumenical bodies like the South African Council of Churches did the same.
In 1972 I was visiting Cape Town, and took ill with a bad dose of flu, and was taken in by a Methodist minister, Theo Kotze, and his wife Helen. Theo was also director of the local office of the Christian Institute, and so was very familiar with all these efforts to promote reconciliation. While I was sick in bed he gave me a book to read, which he said showed a more excellent way, and one that was far more radical than anything any of the churches were trying to do. He said that if we were ever brave enough to do the things suggested by that book, it would be real dynamite. The book was Up to our steeples in politics by Will D. Campbell and James Y. Holloway. I opened it and read…
In one of his letters to the Christian in Corinth, St Paul uses the imperative, katallagete: In Christ’s name, we implore you to be reconciled (katallagete) to God!” (2 Cor 5, 20). This word, directed to Christians and the Christian communities, is of interest to “the world” only if the world find it interesting, or if God should, in his own purposes, decide to interest the world in it.
This book is primarily an effort to understand the implications of Paul’s imperative, katallagete, for Christians at the end of the 20th century. We agree with those who have reminded us in recent years that the Christian faith is indicative (the fact that God reconciles the world in Christ), not imperative (Go to church! Do not drink bourbon! Feed the hungry! Search and destroy!). But we believe that St Paul’s use of “reconcile” calls attention to a special kind of behavior by the Christian toward the world. Behavior which “does” by being, “acts” by living – that is, being and living as God made us in Christ.
This book is a series of statements about our understanding of why St. Paul uses the imperative form of “to reconcile” and how that “why” speaks clearly and unmistakably to what the world defines today as social issues and political problems. It is, for that reason, a discussion of our conviction that the Christian communities have failed in their calling, their ministry, because (at their liberal best) they sought to do for the world what God has already done for the world in Christ: the work of reconciliation. This book talks about our conviction that “already the axe is laid to the root of the trees” (Lk 3, 9) because the Church is trying to share shirts and food with the poor as imperative programs of social action, programs the Church apparently believes are required by a law of God.
We are trying to argue in these pages that St Paul’s imperative – Be reconciled to God! – means that God wants not doing, but being, not welfare, but witness. Sharing? Yes! Not as a program, but as a parable, a thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ.
In our day, we in the Church have tried to do God’s job, while at the same time rejecting the only job God puts before us. We have tried to reconcile people and groups of people by using every gimmick and technique that culture uses to sell its automobiles, deodorants, civil repression and international warfare. We have tried surveys, group dynamics, T-groups, political activism, sociological and psychological processing, and all the well-known foolishness of church socials, retreats, picnics, bowling alleys, swimming pools, skating rinks, gymnasiums, counselling centers, marriage-and-the-family instruction, relevant ministries and updated theological schools – all pleasant, on occasion even controversial, but having nothing, absolutely nothing to do with the mission of Christians as ambassadors of, witnesses to, what God has done for all men in Christ.
But we in the Church persist: we are still hopeful that though all these means we can build a kingdom in which all things will be set right between man and man (and occasionally between man and God), refusing to recognize that these means are an attempt to build a kingdom by our guidelines and blueprints, by our sociology and politics, not by what God’s reconciliation has already done for the world in Christ.
In this book we are trying to confess that the goals of the contemporary Church – that is to say, the Church of St John’s by the Gas Station, the Christian College, the denominational and interdenominational seminary – the goals of these Christian communities are blasphemous. The reconciliation the Church is seeking to accomplish today by these subterfuges has already been wrought. The brotherhood – the “one blood” of Acts 17, 26 – that the Church makes its goal today is already a fact. And because this is so, that very fact judges our goals and our efforts to achieve brotherhood by social action as blasphemous, as trying to be God. Instead of witnessing to Christ, the social action of the Church lends support to the totalitarianism of the wars and political systems of the 20th century. By its social action, the Church permits and encourages the State and culture to define all issues and rules and fields of battle. The Church then tries to do what the State, without the Church’s support, has already decided to do: to “solve” all human problems by politics. And this is specifically the political messianism of contemporary totalitarianism and of Revelation 13. “Politics” by definition can only “adjust” and “rearrange.” It cannot – as politics – “solve” anything. But the Church’s social action encourages the very movements in the contemporary political processes which are moving us straightaway into 20th-century totalitarianism.
And it seemed to me that the “programmes” being cooked up by the churches in South Africa bore a remarkable similarity to the “programs” that Campbell and Holloway were referring to, and likely to be just as ineffectual. As a friend of mine, John Davies (who was one of those who had contributed to the drafting of A message to the people of South Africa) had said in a paper read at a student conference ten years earlier. 
The worst single thing about our Church in this country is not colour bars and all that, but its godlessness. There is a tremendous lot of things done, services and meetings held, tickets signed, public talking, money raising, cake-sales, building and painting, and hosts of religious routine activities. How far is all this just religious armour? Is all this saving grace or damned disgrace? How far are we insulating ourselves from the real demands, the invasion of the Holy Spirit? How far are we trying to fob God off with a few routine acts instead of laying ourselves open to his revolution? We come with our accepted standards of the dignity of the minister; in the richer dioceses we raise and raise his pay (higher if he is white) so that he can maintain a status that he happens to have in parts of Europe, a status that bears no relation to the kind of ministry Christ had. We assume that a specific type of expensive structure is always necessary, we slave to raise money for these things, with scarcely a thought of trying, within the Church fellowship, to do anything to redress the unjust inequalities which our society enforces, that we so righteously denounce. Half the churches, and half the Christians, in this country are immorally rich, and have to be told so. But this would be unnecessary if we had before our eyes the poverty of the one true God instead of the prestige that is needed to maintain the satisfaction of a religion. We don’t want to look a failure, and just for that reason we are one. We want a responsibility for God and not to him; so we must put on a good show, we must join the competition of others who claim to wash whiter than white.
There is a remedy. Before every act, service, cake-sale, what not, that can be remotely construed as an act of the Church, this question must be asked: how far does this represent Christ? Will it really speak of him who came to be poor among the poor, and express some part of the gospel? Or will it be merely another boost to our godlessness, our religious image? Why do we want this thing we are doing – for Christ’s sake, or for our own as part of an organization with prestige and wealth to maintain?
`We are afraid of our problems because we fear that nothing short of a miracle can solve them, that nothing short of a miracle can save us. But we are never saved by anything short of a miracle.’ Christianity is God’s activity, not ours – even our prayers are not ours, all that is worthwhile is God’s, all that isn’t is our interference (Romans 8:26). He makes the fellowship, not us; he chooses who shall be in or out. I cannot say what my brother in Christ should be like; he may look highly unconvincing or useless to me, as ungodly in appearance as the Crucified. But `every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of fellowship.’ We are where we are in the Church not by our deserving but solely by what God has made us in calling us. When the Church learns better to depend on God’s call, when it realizes that it possesses nothing on earth but a grave, when it stops depending on grace preserved from past days (for the manna goes mouldy after yesterday) then Christ will be its king, and this inertia of godlessness, this disease of religion, will be cast out.
I read Up to our steeples in politics on 13 April 1972. A month earlier, on 12 March, Bill Burnett, the Anglican Bishop of Grahamstown and another contributor to A message to the people of South Africa experienced what he called “the release of the Holy Spirit”, and as a result he came to realise that “the one who does God’s work is God”. Over the next couple of years many others had similar experiences, in what came to be called the Charismatic Renewal, and for a while it seemed that God himself was acting to cast out “this inertia of godlessness, this disease of religion”.
But within a short time the charismatic renewal was disintegrating, and its energy dissipated, and by the 1980s it was back to business as usual — trying to do what God has already done through programmes, and, what was worse, “initiatives”. There was even a “National Initiative for Reconciliation”, and when I learnt of it, I thought again of John Davies’s paper Religion versus God, where he said
Let us make a tentative definition of `religion’. Religion is an attempt by man to escape from his circumscription by making and maintaining an association with a presupposed superhuman or transcendent reality. I avoid the word `God’ in the last phrase so that the definition will include not only theistic religions and animisms but also the yearnings of the Buddhist and the ethical humanist, and the group loyalty implied in African ancestor worship, and the pseudo-Christian nationalism that is so strong in the peoples of Western Europe and their offshoots (e.g. Land of hope and glory). The great thing about this religion is that it starts with man. It is due to man’s initiative, man’s searching, man’s desire to find something greater than himself that he can stick to like a barnacle.
Now with all due respect to the good non-Christians, and to those great men like Toynbee who are offended by our `scandal of particularity’, we say that Christianity is unique, it has a different start. The Bible all through speaks of God’s initiative, not man’s: not man’s ideas, but God’s action; not man’s attempts, but God’s success.
So I thought the National Initiative for Reconciliation had got off to a bad start. I knew some of the people involved in it, and I know they were honourable people with good intentions, but the very name they gave to their enterprise indicated that they were trying to do what God has already done.
At that time, the mid-1980s, there was a lot of talk about reconciliation. And some of the talk was cheap talk, about cheap reconciliation, reconciliation without repentance. It is good for people who have previously been at enmity to be reconciled, and for their hostility to cease. But some of the talk of reconciliation implied that good and evil can be reconciled, and overlooked the fact that there can be no reconciliation without repentance.
So when we talk about “reconciliation”, we need to be clear about who is to be reconciled to whom, and what is to be reconciled with what. Confusion about that sometimes means that efforts at reconciliation are jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. It was precisely this kind of bogus reconciliation that led to the Wars of the Yugoslave succession in the 1990s:
Slovene nationalism was also active in the 1980s. At the time of the memorandum of the Serbian Academy, which stimulated Serbian nationalism, the Slovenes pulled out of the youth relay held to mark Tito’s birthday. Both were insignificant on their face, but symbolically enormous. Both showed that the centralising force in Yugoslavia was weakening, and that the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, the guardian of unity, was no longer in a position to act decisively. They then proposed reconciliation between the winners and losers in the Second World War – the communists on one hand, and the collaborators with the Nazis and Fascists on the other. In Tito’s day it would have been unthinkable for a Slovene communist to say he felt closer to their wartime enemies, even though they were Slovenes, than to Serbian or Croatian communists. This was less spectacular than the Serbian mass rallies, but just as effective in its own way.
If that can be said of a secular ideology like communism, how much more should it apply to Christians?
I attended a couple of gatherings arranged by the National Initiative for Reconciliation, and some of their activities. And they were, as Campbell and Holloway said, pleasant, and occasionally controversial, but having little or nothing to do with the mission of Christians to witness to the reconciliation already brought about by Jesus Christ. They were trying to create reconciliation instead of witnessing to it.
And so my mind goes back to the little group that met in a corner of the empty and echoing church hall in Pietermaritzburg. They hadn’t come with an idea of reconciling people or groups of people to each other. They had come to try to hear what God said to South African Christians through the Bible, and in doing so discovered that they were already reconciled, and the task was to discover how to witness to that reconciliation in a world where the people in power denied it, and were determined to break it down. And that meant, among other things, looking at the structures in society that promoted hostility.
This post is, at least in part, a response to two others:
- a piece of my mind….: Reconciliation on a knife’s edge. by Reggie Nel
- A resurrection response to the situation in SA – Soulgardeners by Tom Smith
and thus part of, I hope, a continuing conversation.
Notes & References
 John Davies, Religion versus God, paper read at the annual conference of the Anglican Students Federation, Modderpoort 1961.
 W. Pelz. Irreligious reflections on the Christian church, p. 10.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life together, p. 84.
 Mihailo Crnobrnja, The Yugoslav drama, p. 110.