Reconciliation Is More Than a Hugathon

Reconciliation apart from justice is not reconciliation. So, too, biblical justice entails reconciliation. To adapt Immanuel Kant’s famous claim from his critical epistemology and apply it to a critical and constructive model of race reconciliation, it would read: reconciliation without justice is empty; justice without reconciliation is blind. What does each side of this claim look like? We’ll take up each one of these items in successive posts. First, reconciliation without justice is empty. We find an instance of this in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 19, the account of Zacchaeus reads:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus was not simply a tax collector, but a chief tax collector. His wealth was made, at least in part, from cheating people. Jesus’ determination to dine with Zacchaeus at his home did not sit well with the people since Zacchaeus was a sinner: in this case, someone who assisted and benefited from the unwelcome Roman regime by taxing and cheating Rome’s Jewish “subjects.”

We will return to the Zacchaeus story in a successive post to discuss how justice without reconciliation is blind. For now, however, we are focusing simply on how reconciliation apart from justice is empty.

Here we find that Zacchaeus is overwhelmed by Jesus’ presence and mercy. As a result, Zacchaeus responds to God’s reconciling love and repents of his sin. When Jesus hears Zacchaeus’ confession that he will give half of his possessions to the poor, and if he has cheated anyone he will pay back four times the amount, the Lord proclaims that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house; he, too, has the faith of Abraham. Abraham’s saving faith was active. He believed God and followed where God led. So, too, with Zacchaeus. In his case, reconciliation with God leads him to go and be reconciled to his fellows whom he has swindled economically; he is moved to pay them back—and with interest. It’s not that Zacchaeus’ actions saved him, but saving faith always entails repentance, as our hearts are transformed by God’s mercy and grace to make things right with those we have wronged.

What would this discussion on Zacchaeus entail for such matters as race reconciliation? To the extent one has cheated someone else—anybody else, but specifically for the purposes of this post, someone of another ethnicity, to that extent one should pay back—and with interest. To the extent one has benefited from an economic system in the United States that has oppressed Native Americans, African Americans, and other people groups over the generations, to that extent repentance economically is also required. Reconciliation that begins and ends with a hugathon is not a marathon race for justice; it is not biblical reconciliation. So, we need to peel off our spiritual bumper stickers that reduce race reconciliation to “Have you hugged a black or native person lately?” My late friend, Lakota Sioux Christian leader Richard Twiss, once said at a conference I attended that white Christians have washed his feet as an act of love and reconciliation; but in the end, all he comes away with as a First Nations Christian is clean feet. Nothing has really changed.

This point also came home to me through the story often attributed to Dr. John M. Perkins who speaks of redistribution as key to Christian community development. The story goes that two teams have been playing baseball for seven innings, one white and the other black. Around the seventh inning, the black team realizes the white team has been cheating the entire game. As a result, the score is 20-0 in the white team’s favor. The white team is confronted and “repents” by saying that they will play fair the rest of the game. The only problem with their repentance is that the score is still 20-0.

In view of the Zacchaeus story, it would be accurate to argue that there is no transformative repentance if nothing is done to rectify the situation: at the very least, the white team needs to award 20 points to the black team, or go back to 0-0.

While it is true that people of various ethnic backgrounds oppress one another and even their own, and while the white majority has also been oppressed in different ways at times, the dominant white culture(s) has been guilty of a far greater share of oppression, including economic oppression.

Here are some questions to address: what does racial repentance entail economically for individuals who have oppressed people of diverse ethnicities? How far can one take the Zacchaeus story to talk about corporate repentance involving economic reparations? How does the Zacchaeus story apply to people who might not directly “tax” and cheat individuals like Zacchaeus did, but who benefit economically in one way or another from such economic oppression? Future posts will address these questions.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • Lance Sherer

    There is a difference between an individual offering to pay recompense and demanding a a group of people generationally distanced pay recompense on behalf of someone else’s abuses. The biblical story is about personal responsibility and demonstrating repentance. Also, the systematic white oppression of people was done in collaboration with all the other races- should they pay as well? All other races have also done the same to others and themselves…how far does one go back and demand correction? In my estimation, Jesus teaches forgiveness as the primary means for reconciliation and not justice. Zacchaeus OFFERED his recompense as a demonstration of his repentance of HIS abuse to the INDIVIDUALS that he abused…which individuals do you see paying this justice and to whom will it go?

    • pmetzger

      Thank you for your comments. The biblical story addresses both personal responsibility and social solidarity. One cannot address one and leave out concern for the other, if we are to engage the entirety of Scripture’s teaching. While we certainly differ on some points, I plan on addressing further the issues, as I stated at the close of the piece. Some of my future posts will address the questions that I raised in the conclusion.

      • Mike Murdock

        Dr. Metzger, while I can acknowledge your point here has a great deal of validity, nonetheless, it is remarkably difficult to implement. My first thought as I read the excerpt on Facebook was that if this were applied to Germany and Judaism, how could one EVER achieve justice commensurate with such atrocities? The answer is, one cannot.

        For that reason, I have modeled this problem in terms of an Hegelian triad of justice, righteousness (which I use in this context in a similar way to how you use reconciliation), and steadfast love. As I read Amos 5 and Micah 6, it seemed to me that in the Hebrew scriptures, justice and righteousness always seem to be in tension with one another, thesis and antithesis, just as they are in race relations.

        How to resolve that tension? The story of Jacob and Laban and the pillar of Mizpah in Genesis 31 also came to mind–two antagonists who make a covenant in the sight of God as the ultimate arbitrator who holds the parties accountable to the terms of the covenant.

        Thus, drawing from Micah 6, the synthesis, the only realistic way to resolve the dialectic, is steadfast love, mercy, however one chooses to translate chesed. Only as the two parties engage one another in the presence of God can the demands of justice and righteousness/reconciliation find true resolution. Absent this, your model places the enormity of the burden on real individuals (not abstractions) to satisfy justice and atone for sins not strictly their own.

        In a nutshell, there’s no cross in what you describe, and until there is, there will be no way to make right that which is incomprehensibly not right.

        • pmetzger

          Thank you for your Hegelian reflection. I must confess, though, that I don’t see a need for synthesizing justice and righteousness: I believe the Hebrew Scriptures present them as one and the same. If anything, they may be divided in terms of how people frame them, but not God. I would argue that part of the problem in the American Christian context is that we have separated them, which leads us to discount the various needs that must be addressed in holistic race reconciliation. As to your point on the cross, it was the Lord himself who spoke of Zacchaeus’ righteous response of repentance in view of his holy and loving presence; the incarnation itself is central to Christ’s atoning work. Regarding the cross, please refer back to the very recent post titled “Jesus’ Hands Halt Oppression and Offer Forgiveness.” Various posts address different aspects of this multi-faceted reality of Christ’s atoning work. Thank you for your serious engagement of the subject. I really appreciate it and will continue to reflect upon your words for future posts.

          • Mike Murdock

            Thank you. I think you are absolutely correct that 1) justice and righteousness are inseparable in the scripture, but 2) nonetheless, we have found a way to separate them. I think it is that separation that creates the dialectic, which is why it requires divine intervention and mediation to resolve it.

            Regarding the cross, it really wasn’t fair of me to expect a single blog post to be comprehensive when your broader writing does address that concern. Thank you for your reply.

          • pmetzger

            Thank you for your response. I resonate with your words about the need for divine intervention and mediation. Amen. As you stated in your first comment, the point at issue is very difficult to implement. Perhaps we will have opportunity to interact further on this matter in future posts. God’s blessings.

  • ME

    Having been to reconciliation along with the rest of my family tonight, as we celebrated my son’s First Reconciliation, it doesn’t matter how many times we tell someone we’re sorry for something, and how many times we tell ourselves or others that we will repent, there is no way to truly feel the love of God in your repentance as thru the sacrament of Reconciliation and to be told by the priest that by the power of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, you have been forgiven of your sins. As the other commenter has stated, you can’t repent for the sins of your forefathers that you haven’t committed. Yes, you can work to avoid that sin, or teach others to avoid it, but as a human race, we cannot mete out justice fairly and that’s why God is the judge of each one of us. We can do our best to apply a system of “justice”, within the framework of the laws we establish, but since our laws are so imperfect, as is our sense of justice. Thank God for the burdens lifted from my soul today through his healing powers of forgiveness. :) Its a great day!

    • pmetzger

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your good words on the healing powers of forgiveness. Amen! You also said: “As the other commenter has stated, you can’t repent for the sins of your forefathers that you haven’t committed. Yes, you can work to avoid that sin, or teach others to avoid it, but as a human race, we cannot mete out justice fairly and that’s why God is the judge of each one of us.” In response, the situation is more complex than what is articulated here. It is not simply working to avoid “that sin”; we often participate in “that sin” structurally by benefiting presently from the wrongs committed against others in the past and present. Please stay tuned for more posts on the subject where I will develop these points. Thanks!