Seeking reconciliation—or atonement?

Dear colleagues,

Easter is a season when it’s particularly appropriate to meditate on the theme of reconciliation. The events of Holy Week and Easter morning are when God through Christ reconciles all creation to God’s self and makes creation new.

Across many Anglican churches, there is what we might call a “discourse of reconciliation.” In the Anglican Church of Canada, we have a reconciliation animator (who offered a compelling address at a recent college convocation). In the United States, the Presiding Bishop has made racial reconciliation a key theme of his tenure. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said reconciliation is one of his central guiding priorities.

As I consider this discourse of reconciliation in the church, however, I sometimes find myself wondering: Is reconciliation the most appropriate word to use for what we want to talk about? What other words could we use instead? One way to answer this latter question is to ask what other words reconciliation is related to. Here are some of those other words I would name: repentance, healing, truth, time, atonement, liberation.

These questions lead to a deeper point: one objection to the discourse of reconciliation is that it can cover up other ways of talking about painful issues that would be more accurate but also more threatening to those who have power in society. In other words, “reconciliation” can stand in the way of, well, reconciliation. There are some concrete examples of this. In the 1980s, when liberation theology was popular among many Roman Catholic theologians in Latin America, some conservative opponents of the movement said that what the church really needed was a theology of reconciliation, not liberation. For them, reconciliation seemed a less threatening and more palatable concept.

I’ve begun to experiment with this in my own thinking by replacing the word reconciliation with a similar word. For instance, in the Anglican Church of Canada we often talk about the need for reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous members of our churches. What if instead we swapped out reconciliation for another, similar word? Like this: Non-indigenous Anglicans in Canada need to atone for and make reparations for relationship with indigenous people of Canada. Indigenous Anglicans need to seek liberation from a non-indigenous church. We could rename our reconciliation animator the atonement and liberation animator. When I start replacing words like this—even if the words seem similar or synonymous—I find the implications of these statements are different, sometimes vastly so, than similar statements that use the word reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a concept deeply rooted in Scripture and the Christian tradition. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Nor should it. Even as I write that, however, I acknowledge that I am writing from a position of privilege and power in the church and world. For me especially, then, it’s helpful to step back from the discourse of reconciliation and think about how our language shapes our understanding of a situation and our responses to it.

Faithfully yours,

This message was written by Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.

Principal Zink is teaching a special, non-credit online course exploring a variety of perspectives on reconciliation this Easter season. It’s the latest in Dio’s popular series of non-credit adult-education courses.