“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself …”
—2 Corinthians 5:19
More than 90 years ago, on November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed that brought the brutal destruction of the First World War to an end. After four years of merciless violence that cost more than six million lives—including 60,000 Canadians—an exhausted world gasped for peace. Europe’s landscape was marred by craters and graveyards, bombed-out cities and ravaged countrysides. Also left in shambles was the Enlightenment idea of progress—the notion that technology, science and social organization would inevitably improve the human condition.
A couple of years ago, I read The Guns of August, a book about the outbreak of the First World War. Author Barbara Tuchman traces the inexorable march of events in the months leading up to August 1914 when the Great War broke out. Europe was divided. Petty grievances between heads of state and long-entrenched territorial jealousies set nation against nation. By the summer of 1914, there was a general consensus that war in Europe was inevitable. No one anticipated the four years of destruction that would follow; everyone believed that the war would be over within months. But once violence had taken root, it was nearly impossible to stop.
Legacy of Violence
The two World Wars, the Korean War, the present-day war in Afghanistan—not to mention countless other conflicts—all point to a basic reality of life: we live with a legacy of deep alienation, of grievances held and of scores to be settled. This is played out not only in international conflicts, but in individual lives, families and communities. It pits family member against family member, political party against political party, the wealthy against the poor, province against province. This legacy of alienation is a fact with which we all must live.
Scripture often reflects upon alienation and its consequences. The first story in the Bible that illustrates the way alienation leads to violence comes just four chapters into the Book of Genesis. Cain’s jealousy of his brother Abel’s acceptance by God led to murder and Cain’s exile from the land.
This legacy of violence and enmity was passed down to successive generations. Sarah and Hagar were two women caught in a patriarchal society that demanded a woman produce a son for her husband. As they struggled to secure a blessing for their respective sons, they abused one another psychologically and emotionally (see Genesis 16-21).
The rivalry between Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, was so intense that they tussled with each other in their mother’s womb. Eventually, Jacob secured Esau’s birthright by tricking his father. Esau’s hatred of Jacob was so great that his only comfort was plotting Jacob’s death (see Genesis 27).
The next generation was no better. Joseph was despised by his brothers because he was his father’s favourite son. Rather than killing their young sibling, the brothers sold him into servitude in Egypt (see Genesis 37).
The Bible confirms that life is filled with conflict. Alienation runs deeper than just the inevitable misunderstandings that are part of our life together. Often, if we search our lives deeply, we find that we are alienated from ourselves. We are disappointed and disaffected; we sense that something is not quite right. Not only that, but Christianity confirms that we are profoundly and unavoidably separated from God. This estrangement from God is the source of our self-alienation and our alienation from each other.
This is rooted in the narrative of the Garden of Eden, when the first man and woman exerted their independence from God and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (see Genesis 3). Soon after, alienation overtook the intimacy of the world God had created. Adam and Eve withdrew from God, and hid in the bushes. They were alienated from each other, concealing their nakedness behind fig leaves. And they were also alienated from the earth; as punishment for their sin, the soil would only yield its food reluctantly and with hard human labour.
This overwhelming alienation might lead us to despair, but the gospel of Jesus Christ asserts that alienation is not the end. If we read the Bible fully, we find another stream of thought. In the story of Jacob and Esau, after a long period of separation, the two brothers are able to embrace (see Genesis 33). Though Joseph’s brothers feared that he would take his revenge after rising to a position of power in Egypt, Joseph chose instead to reconcile with them (see Genesis 50).
The Heart of God
The peace that is so desperately needed in our world finds its root first in the heart of God. He extends to us the offer of reconciliation. While we were God’s “enemies,” profoundly rebellious and separated from God, Christ died for us. This redeeming, divine love paves the way for our reconciliation. As the Apostle Paul expresseed it in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “… in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself.” Though history demonstrates that this reconciliation is not yet complete, as Christians we proclaim that it has begun. Paul suggested we are to be ambassadors of reconciliation.
Of course, reconciliation is costly. Just ask those who have negotiated peace in Northern Ireland, South Africa or the Middle East. Consider the difficult legacy of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples and the residential schools. Just as our reconciliation with God cost the life of his Son, our reconciliation with one another may cost us dearly. We may have to set aside old grievances, tired prejudices and wrongs inflicted upon us.
The prophets Isaiah and Micah had a vision of a world in which swords are beaten into ploughshares and people no longer go to war (see Isaiah 2 and Micah 4). It may be a distant hope, but it drives us forward as Christians. Alienation and strife do not determine the future. In Christ, God has introduced a new reality into our world. His divine love brings reconciliation. In his strength, we can be ambassadors of reconciliation in a strife-torn world.
Dr. Donald Burke is president and professor of biblical studies at The Salvation Army’s Booth University College in Winnipeg. His grandfather, Ernest Ray, spent much of the First World War fighting in the trenches in France. It was in France that Ernest Ray first encountered The Salvation Army and, upon his return to Canada, he became a Salvation Army soldier.