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5 min read

How reconciliation underpins acts of reparation

The case for reparations is criticised for looking too much to the past. Anthony Reddie argues that the ancient roots of reconciliation are vital for today’s debate.

Anthony Reddie is Professor of Black Theology at the University of Oxford, and Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture.

A diagram plan of a slave ship showing hundreds of body outlines.
Diagram of the ship ‘Brookes’ from Regulated slave trade: reprinted from the evidence of Robert Stokes. (London, 1849)
Lambeth Palace Library.

Reconciliation is the key theological motif that runs through the scriptures and across Christian Tradition - Reconciliation between God and humankind, reconciliation between human beings across the cultural, social, political, ethnic and economic divide, reconciliation between our warring selves within us. 

Paul’s writings form the earliest documented texts in the New Testament canon. His writings are full of references to God’s reconciling work in Christ on the cross. This theme, however, needs to be read in terms of Jewish thought. This will correct the over-spiritualising of this in Christian practice. 

To make sense of the notion of reconciliation one also must understand the Jewish antecedents that inform Paul’s writing, given Paul himself was a Jewish man. In the Hebrew scriptures and in Jewish thought, atonement and salvation are collective and corporate concepts. This is very different to much of what constitutes post-Reformation Evangelical Protestantism where the emphasis is on individual salvation in Christ, by grace, through faith. 

The Hebrew Bible traditions of the Sabbath and Jubilee were moments for system re-set and dismantling inequalities which had accrued. 

Essentially, being in right-standing with God necessitated that one should be in right relationships with others. In fact, one could argue that it appears to be the case that one cannot be in a right relationship with God unless you were doing right by the other. The above can be seen in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. The early verses of its sixth chapter clearly state the notion of restorative justice for that which was wrongly taken and used, which is described as a “sin against God”. 

One can also see this concept or formula evident within the book of Deuteronomy 15:12–18. The key is verse 12 which states:  

“If any of you buy Israelites as slaves, you must set free after six years. And don’t just tell them they are free to leave – give them sheep and goats and a supply of grain and wine.”  

As Peter Cruchley’s work on the Zacchaeus Tax campaign has shown, the Hebrew Bible traditions of the Sabbath and Jubilee were moments for system re-set and dismantling inequalities which had accrued. They were moments of breaking the cycling, ongoing basis of debt and economic enslavement. It’s worth reminding ourselves that not one penny has been given to any of the descendants of enslaved Africans for the wrong done to them and yet Christian communities in the West still want to talk about redemption that is affirmed by their Judeo-Christian roots! 

Understanding the scriptures in their historical context enables Christians to discern a theological pattern for using money and other resources for enacting restorative justice. Modern interpretive theories on how we read biblical texts take full account of the fact that the New Testament was written within the context of the Roman Empire, where the Emperor claimed divine honours which faithful Jews could not affirm. Today’s reader must recognise that the context in which ALL of the New Testament canon was composed was one that echoed to the restrictive strains of colonialism and cries for justice against oppression. Judea, in which Jesus’ ministry was largely located, was an occupied colony of the Roman Empire. 

Contemporary scholars have shown that in the Jewish tradition, issues of reconciliation, redemption and salvation have a corporate ad a collective dimension to them as well as an individualistic one. 

Scholars such William R. Hertzog II have shown the extent to which wealth in the Roman Province of Palestine was always connected with economic exploitation. So, when Jesus challenges the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ to follow him, he says this in knowledge that the young man’s accumulation of wealth was not amassed in a neutral context. The reason why this encounter is so compact is because both the Rich Young Ruler and those first hearers knew the expectation of how he should behave. 

The Three Cs (commerce, civilisation and Christianity) were the underlying rationale on which the British Empire was based. The Three Cs were coined by David Livingstone (a London Missionary Society ‘Old Boy’) in Oxford in 1857. The exporting of Christianity via the European missionary agencies in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries was largely undertaken under the aegis of empire and colonialism. Christian mission, therefore, has had a difficult relationship with non-White bodies or the ‘subaltern’ for centuries as they are the ‘other’ and have been exploited for economic gain. There was no ethic of equality between missionaries and the ‘natives’. 

One can see that Jesus’ teachings around wealth and its relationship to discipleship and living the “Jesus way” has political and economic implications. Scholars such as Musa W. Dube, Catherine Keller, Michael Nausner and Mayra Rivera, have all shown the similarities between first-century Palestine, the slave epoch of the sixteenth to eighteenthcenturies, the eras of colonialism and our present globalized, postcolonial context. Each context is based upon imperialistic/colonial expansion, capital accumulation, forced labour and exploitation of the poor by the rich. 

Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood-Red Waters is the title of a 2017 book by the famed anti-apartheid activist and scholar Allan Boesak, who reflects on the contemporary ‘Black Lives Matter Movement’ largely in the US and post-Apartheid South Africa. In this context he speaks of the corporate reality of ‘Cheap Grace’ as outlined by the famous German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The West has attempted transformation WITHOUT sacrifice or restorative justice. Bonhoeffer chided Western Christians for wanting to have discipleship without radical commitment to God’s word, and forgiveness and redemption without struggle and sacrifice. Boesak reminds us that there is no redemption without the cross. Reconciliation must cost us something! 

Due to the influence of post-Reformation Evangelicalism, we have largely interpreted Jesus’ words in a purely individualistic way. Contemporary scholars have shown that in the Jewish tradition, issues of reconciliation, redemption and salvation have a corporate and a collective dimension to them as well as an individualistic one. 

I believe that institutions like the Church of England can set a prophetic lead to other Christian institutions, and beyond it, to other civic bodies and indeed governments.  ‘Cheap Grace’ NEVER leads to redemption and reconciliation. Without restorative justice there is no reconciliation, and the mission of Christ is diminished.

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Belief
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Life & Death
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4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.