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How Ordinary Christians Practice Forgiveness and Reconciliation

You might wonder how a reconciliation focus would change council meetings or congregational conflicts. This article looks at responses to Miroslav Volf's books.

Reading and discussing Miroslav Volf’s books, especially Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, sparks soul searching and debate.

You might wonder how a reconciliation focus would change council meetings or congregational conflicts. How would Volf’s ideas about perpetrators and victims affect corporate worship prayers of confession or for forgiveness?

And what about Volf’s contention that criminal justice systems should pass judgment by naming the crime…yet incarcerate only to protect the innocent population or reform the criminal, not to punish and exact retribution? After all, Volf explains, Christ died for every human and paid the penalty of sin for each one.

Read on to see how Christians around the world are trying to follow the path of peace.

The fruit of forgiveness

Psychologists say that forgiving releases you from the wrongdoer’s power over you. But forgiveness goes beyond yourself, says Tom E. Ward Jr., a teaching pastor at Eastpoint Community Church in Newark, Delaware.

He describes Free of Charge as “the catalyst the Spirit of God used to shatter intense interpersonal hostility and soul sickening resentment.” After more than six months of unforgiveness, he “experienced a deep and painful awareness that God was not with me in the same way he had been with me before.

“The hardness of my heart repelled God’s gracious advances. My soul dried up. My spirit soured. God fell silent. I was lost. And I knew why,” Ward says.

He read Free of Charge during Lent, attracted by this back cover caption: “We are at our human best when we give and forgive.”

Ward knew that not being at his human best was a problem affecting others. “I have been created to call people to become their human best in Jesus Christ. The unforgiveness that dominated my interior life was compromising my vocation as a minister of the gospel. It was as if nothing I was saying or doing was true because of the darkness that enveloped me.

“Volf’s biblically-saturated prose pierced the hard shell that had formed around my cold heart. I cried out to God for help. To forgive the person who had trampled me became essential in a way that I had never before known or experienced,” he says.

Ward has since given away copies of the book, recommended it in sermons, and shared his experience with people in similar situations.

Being willing

In Exclusion and Embrace, Volf gives many examples of how being willing to embrace the enemy is often the only thing that starts victim and perpetrator on the road to justice and reconciliation.

Through The Chosun Journal, Edward Kim raises awareness and funds to advocate for human rights in North Korea. He’s immersed in justice struggles, yet, as a U.S. citizen, hasn’t experienced the abuses that North Koreans have.

“Only victims can forgive. I haven’t experienced the abuse that North Koreans have. Christ’s example and command to preach on forgiveness and reconciliation forces me to choose whether I will try and be faithful in this task.

“It’s difficult preaching forgiveness to victims who have been terribly and unjustly hurt, without sounding unsympathetic or unjust myself. It’s difficult believing that being faithful to Christ’s word is necessary and enough,” he says.

Kim has a law degree and is completing an MDiv. He plans to get a PhD in systematic theology and then “train and raise up ministers of the Word in mission countries.”

Tom LoVan gets to know victims and perpetrators as he ministers among many Southeast Asian groups. “To Southeast Asians who grew up with animism or Theravada Buddhism, forgiveness is a new idea. With a lot of Southeast Asians, if you do wrong to others, they never forgive you. But when people become Christians and learn how to forgive others, it feels good. They find peace in themselves,” says LoVan, associate pastor of Morningside Lutheran Church in Sioux City, Iowa.

He says that the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed many people. Some have no remorse. Low-level soldiers who followed orders are more likely to express guilt. “Many Khmer Rouge have become Christians. They say, ‘Other people do not forgive us. Christians will forgive us,’ ” LoVan says.

Of course, it takes time for victims of Pol Pot’s regime to decide whether and how to forgive and whether to trust Khmer Rouge conversions.

Yet Miroslav Volf, writing in Christian Century, says that Cambodian victims’ willingness to forgive is an amazing and underreported story of grace.

Whose domain?

Volf never says that offenses should be ignored or disregarded. He says that we should blame, by which he means naming and explaining the offense. But we should not retaliate with violence.

The reason for nonretaliation is not “because God doesn’t judge.” Only someone living in a “quiet suburban home” could give such toothless advice to victims. Instead Volf proposes this thesis in Exclusion and Embrace: “The practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance.”

In a recent World Magazine interview, he explained, “Love without wrath on account of harm inflicted on the beloved is mere sentimentality. That’s why God is wrathful in the face of human sin.”

And in his Free of Charge postlude, basically a conversation with a skeptic friend, Volf states, “I believe that you can protest against the evil in the world only if you believe in a good God. Otherwise the protest doesn’t make sense. I protest with God against God.”

In the spirit of Volf’s plea for more dialogue among people who differ, John T. Henry agrees with Volf that “nonviolent Christian response, ‘the costly acts of nonretaliation,’ is the ‘seed from which the fragile fruit of Pentecostal peace grows.’ ”

However, Henry asks whether Volf has “extended the domain of the Church and Christian witness to that of the domain of civil societies.” His question rises from visiting dozens of countries with Youth with a Mission and studying global leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Henry notes that the Church of the East grew rapidly before the seventh century, pioneering the first university prototype (in Iraq) and first school of medicine and theology (in what is now southern Turkey). Its influence extended to central Asia. But, Henry says, practicing “the nonviolence that Volf prescribes for us today…resulted in the virtual elimination of Christian witness in the East as the violent practices of Islam spread across Asia and North Africa.”

By contrast, eighth-century Christians in France held firm against the violent expansion of Islam, “meeting them on the battlefield, sword against sword.”

When “the other” won't reconcile

Mike Blyth, a missionary doctor at Evangel Hospital in Jos, Nigeria, recalls reading Exclusion and Embrace and thinking, “This is fantastic, a strong case for forgiveness and reconciliation by someone who has lived with the problem firsthand.”

Christian-Muslim tensions have increased since Blyth came to Nigeria 15 years ago. He’s keenly aware of a September 2001 event that most Americans missed. “On September 9, 2001, major violence broke out in Jos between Christians and Muslims. The rioting and killing continued for six days until the military restored order. Nearly everyone in Jos was directly affected and knew someone who had been injured or killed,” he says.

The September riots shocked and saddened missionaries. Blyth knew of several instances where Muslims had protected Christians or vice versa. Yet he reports that the churches, in general, “took a militant posture and did nothing to condemn violence. On a group level, distrust is high. There is little desire on either side for reconciliation or even (in the case of Christians) evangelism of Muslims; they are indeed ‘the other.’ ”

Blyth dreams of editing Exclusion and Embrace into a nonacademic version more accessible to those training to be pastors. Meanwhile, September 2001 forced Nigerians and U.S. citizens to reconsider balancing defense and reconciliation.

“The question is acute where ‘the other’ continues to kill and destroy or where civil order has deteriorated and there is no longer a credible authority to enforce law,” Blyth says. As far as he knows, only the local Mennonite Central Committee is nudging pastors to talk about peace with Muslims