For the last eight years I have immersed myself into the life of my host country, Oman. Even now, as I sit here writing, I have started my frankincense burner and the sweet smell tickles my nose while the smoke clouds my vision. As a result of living here, I prefer coffee laced with cardamom, I am picky about what kind of dates I eat, and I am a hummus snob. I continue to attempt (and mostly fail) to learn their language. I have moments of linguistic brilliance, followed by long periods of stagnant struggle. I have listened long to explanations of their beliefs about Allah, the God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac. I have learned their religious practices and have celebrated religious holidays with them. I have shared joys and sorrows and have eaten way too much while gathered on the floor, sharing a goat laid out on a bed of rice. Their insights into life and faith have inspired me to look again at who I am, what I believe, and have led me to discover more fully what it means to be a follower of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God.
I have not, nor will I ever become, fully Omani. I have not become a Muslim, though I have come to appreciate many aspects of Islam. As I have immersed myself with my friends and neighbors in Oman, and the surrounding region, I have also been led to think deeply about reconciliation. It there a way to practice reconciliation where we do not have to become alike in every way? Are we able to find a way to live together that both honors our past and leads us into a hopeful future?
As I listen to stories of pain and conflict, stories of historic injustice and despair about the future, one of the biggest obstacles is the idea that reconciliation is a return to something that once was, a going back to a time before conflict, before injury. I often encounter a perception that reconciliation requires us to forget what was done and what was said. Specifically, this perception is linked to conflicts that were either perpetrated, or were perceived to be perpetrated, in the name of religion, conflicts that were associated with and propagandized with religious identity. Yet there is very little desire, especially from the people who have been most deeply injured/abused/oppressed/enslaved, to go back, to re-concile or to re-create what was. Do we need to go back?
When we, as followers of Christ, are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation, there is no evidence that God is calling us to “go back” to the way things were. Quite the opposite! We are called to be part of something new. Paul affirms this when he implores the church in II Corinthians 5:
16From 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. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (NRSV)
Reconciliation is to be, to become, something new. Reconciliation creates something not seen or experienced before.
This theme of moving into a new future is not just a hallmark of the Apostle Paul’s theology. Throughout the Bible, when God calls people into a new relationship with other humans, with creation, and with God’s self, there is no going back. For example, when God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden, God placed an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance so that they could not return to Eden (Genesis 3:24). Lot and his family could not even look back at Sodom when they left Sodom (Genesis 19). When the Israelites wanted to return to Egypt, God said it would be better for them to perish in the wilderness than go back (Numbers 14). When Elisha was called to be a prophet, he burned his plow and sacrificed his oxen so he could not return to farming (1 Kings 19). When a man approached Jesus wanting to delay following him until after burying his father, Jesus said, “Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:18-22). When the disciples returned to fishing after the resurrection, Jesus appeared once again to remind them that they could not go back to fishing but must feed Jesus’ flock (John 21).
The reconciliation Paul describes in the letter to the Corinthians is one of going forward, not back. Reconciliation is not a return to the naiveté of Eden, but movement into the fullness of the New Creation on the other side of sin. The reconciliation we are called to is not a forgetting of the past, but finding new ways of knowing God and discovering the hope that is in Christ, who reconciles all things to God through himself and his work on the cross (Colossians 1:15-20).
Robert Schreiter, a Catholic theologian and peacebuilder, describes in his book “Reconciliation: Mission and Ministry in a Changing Social Order” many models and images of reconciliation. One of the avenues he proposes is a retelling or reshaping of our narratives. He points to two stories in the New Testament as examples. The first is that of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The father, he argues, corrects the older son’s narrative that the younger son “devoured your property with prostitutes,” and changes it to “he was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and has been found.” The older son wants to go back, but the father moves forward. The past is not forgotten, but is renamed. They cannot go back to the time before the younger son left, but they can live into a new future where the younger son is restored to the family and the older son can enjoy all the father has with the restored brother. A story of sin, bitterness, and jealousy is reshaped into a story where the father embraces both sons.
The second story Schreiter highlights is that of the disciples on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13-35). As they walked along, two distraught disciples were joined by Jesus, who listened as they told of the events that had recently transpired in Jerusalem. Jesus responded with his narrative of both the events and the long history within scripture that pointed to them. Jesus reinterpreted both their story and the story of Scripture. When the disciples recognized who Jesus was in the breaking of the bread, they rushed back to Jerusalem, but not to the Jerusalem they had known. They went back with a vision for a New Jerusalem. The promise of this New Jerusalem became the backbone of a new narrative and the final image of the fully reconciled creation (Revelation 21:9-27) that they and the other disciples carried into the world.
This model, the model of the road to Emmaus, is my favorite. I like to call it the “accompaniment model of reconciliation.” In this model, we walk alongside people who may be our friends, or who may be “other” than us. These are people whom we have hurt, intentionally or unintentionally, or they may be people who are new to us but have experienced conflict and pain, and we are invited to listen to their stories. We get to know them deeply. We live with them, eat with them, celebrate joys and sorrows with them, and along the way share our stories as well. As we accompany each other along the road of reconciliation, to this new place or reality that is the end of the journey, we find new meaning in our stories through understanding the stories of those we are accompanying on the road. They, hopefully, will find new meaning in their stories as they journey with us and together we will find that we can live into a new, more just, more peaceful world through the sharing of our stories and finding new meaning both with and within each other.
This has been my experience in Oman. As I walk with and listen to my Muslim brothers and sisters, I can tell we have reached a new place along with a new narrative when I hear, “You’re not what I expected an American and a Christian to be! You’re a Christian in Oman and you want peace! Masha’allah!” I can bear witness to this when, after living in community for a week at Al Amana Centre and after listening to each other’s stories, a Nigerian Christian hears a Nigerian Muslim say that he would stand with an oppressed Christian against an oppressor who is Muslim. The Christian was able to say, “I didn’t think that was possible!” and a new narrative began to take shape. This kind of accompaniment reconciliation invites others to walk the road of reconciliation together for a while to see where it leads.
These breakthroughs in reconciliation often happen because Muslims and Christians have taken the time (for some a week, for others a decade, and for some a lifetime) to walk together and accompany each other along the road of reconciliation to a new place. We have found that once people discover where this accompanied road to reconciliation leads, there is little desire to go back to the way things were before.
One more image Schreiter mentions comes from the appearance of Jesus to the apostle Thomas (John 20:19-29). Schrieter draws our attention to two parts of this story:
- Even though Jesus has been resurrected and he has been “transformed beyond death,” the wounds that Christ suffered remain. They are not covered up or forgotten.
- Jesus invites Thomas in to view them, even touch them. At that moment, when Jesus trusts Thomas to see his wounds, Thomas’s faith is restored, and he overcomes his fear and is drawn close to Jesus.
Even in resurrection, there is no going back. However, the signs of the past remain. The hope of the resurrection, and the hope of reconciliation, is that our past wounds are things that can help draw others into reconciling relationships, even as Christ’s wounds drew Thomas, and countless others after him, into a reconciling relationship with Christ. Our wounds, our pain, is not something that we need to hide, or be ashamed of. Instead our past becomes our strength that draws others onto the path of reconciliation. In many ways, only reconciled people can be reconcilers themselves. As Schreiter says: “For those who are reconciled, reconciliation becomes a calling.”
I recently had the honor of being asked to facilitate an intercultural experience between a class of American college students, primarily from a conservative evangelical Christian background, and a mostly Muslim (along with a couple of Christians) group from Palestine. Over two weeks of meeting together online we moved from sharing about our favorite foods, family and religious traditions, and favorite music, to asking questions about challenges facing our communities and hearing each other’s stories of uncertainty and pain. It was an emotional day when American students were trying come to terms with the recent Capitol riots, and the Palestinians tried to explain what life was like under what they call the Israeli occupation. By the end, we had travelled some distance down the road of reconciliation together. The Americans were able to hear the pain of their friends on the other side of the world. The Americans were able to know that others had been through worse and still had hope. The Palestinians experienced empathy from their new American friends as the Americans were able to express sorrow over the plight of the Palestinians gathered on the Zoom call. The Palestinians were also to have a more nuanced view of an American Christian understanding of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They found a modicum of healing and, when our time was up, most asked for more time together and for a continued journey as friends. I find it hard to believe that any of them could go back unchanged to the world they knew.
Now, my frankincense has burned out, but the sweet smell still lingers. The cloud of smoke no longer clouds my vision. It is time to hop back on the road with my Muslim friends and neighbors here and find out where this road is leading as we accompany each other forward into a new world–here in Oman and elsewhere.
 Schreiter, Robert J.. Reconciliation: Mission and Ministry in a Changing Social Order (Boston Theological Institute Series) (p. 73). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.