Why Justice Needs Reconciliation

Will justice ever be done if the ultimate goal is not reconciliation? - Volf

During a social justice retreat I attended a couple of summers ago, the facilitators helped us devise social justice action plans for use in our respective communities.  This involved identifying the oppressive people who wielded the power and naming the steps needed in order to “take back our power.”  For the most part, this sounded great to me. I am pro-justice, -equity, -equality, etc.; I believe it’s crucial for people to strategically challenge unjust people, communities and systems.  But within moments it became clear that justice (in this case, defined as an equitable redistribution of power) was the end goal. Our mission would be accomplished once we “took back our power."

In my mind, it was at this point that our conversation began to deteriorate. Because we lacked a larger context for our justice work, we zeroed in on power redistribution and all other issues were placed on the backburner.  We didn’t plan for what we would do with the power once we acquired it. And we didn’t discuss how we should perceive and interact with the oppressors.  In fact, throughout our discussion we engaged in infrahumanization, a psychological process in which we believe that our group is more human than their group.[i] STrooperSquadThe oppressors were characterized as nameless, faceless entities whose sole identities lay in their oppressive actions.  Unlike us, they    didn’t have stories. Unlike us, they didn’t have fears. Unlike us, they didn’t have pain. As far as we were concerned, oppressors oppress and that is all. They were like the Evil Empire Stormtroopers in Star Wars. Why would anybody want to reconcile with them?

Ahhh, reconcile. No one had said anything about reconciling! Curstiss DeYoung (with the help of John de Gruchy) defines reconciliation as “a process that causes us to overcome alienation through identification and in solidarity with ‘the other’ thus making peace and restoring relationships.”[ii] Miroslav Volf argues that justice and reconciliation must go hand in hand, writing “At the heart of the cross is Christ’s stance of not letting the other remain an enemy and of creating space in himself for the offender to come in.[iii] Even as Jesus was working for justice on the cross, he was looking ahead to and making space for the reconciliation of the resurrection. Jesus’ justice work was framed by the goal of reconciliation!

For those who are shaped by the Gospel, justice and reconciliation must go hand in hand.  Here are 5 reasons why:

1. Reconciliation bears witness to the resurrection. A world in which justice fails to lead to reconciliation is a world in which the cross never led to the resurrection. Those who believe that Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated a new reality in which God is making all things new must prophetically embody that hope by reaching for reconciliation in their justice workA world in which justice fails to lead to reconciliation is a world in which the cross never led to the resurrection

2. When reconciliation is the goal, we seek to build rather than burn bridges.  Research on communication in close relationships suggests that when we are in (or hope for) a committed relationship with someone, we “self-edit” our words.  Said differently, we speak the hard truth in ways that build bridges rather than burn bridges. In many ways, this research can be applied to reconciliatory relationships. When we approach justice issues with the goal of restored relationship with our oppressor we still boldly speak truth, but we change our approach. We change our tone, we avoid vitriolic language, we work to perceive our oppressors as human beings, and we pray for justice that coincides with reconciliation.

Research on minority influence suggests that the “build rather than burn bridges” approach is an effective way to persuade oppressors to correct an injustice.[iv] But whether the approach is immediately effective or not, it is the only way I know of to maintain a soft heart in the midst of challenging justice work.

3. When reconciliation is the goal, oppressors are people too.  One of my former psychology colleagues at Westmont is a great guy named Tom.  He cares a lot about the rats he uses for his research so he often reminds his students to treat the rats with respect because “rats are people too.”rats are people too Similarly, justice workers need reminders that oppressors are people too – and the goal of reconciliation can serve as that reminder.  When we hope for reconciliation, we must imagine restored and equitable relationship with oppressors. Oppressors are not simply anonymous, otherworldly Stormtroopers that stand in our way of justice. They are people – nay, brothers and sisters in Christ, who are being made whole in Christ (just like us) and are our equals in Christ.  Thinking in terms of our brotherhood and sisterhood (whether it is realized in the physical realm or not), changes the way we view our oppressors as we fight for justice. This is crucial because the moment we lose sight of our oppressors' humanity, we oppress ourselves.

4. When reconciliation is the goal, we are better equipped to fend off cynicism. Many justice workers are cynical and tired – and for good reason. Justice work is painful and disappointing a lot of the time.  But justice work that is framed by the goal of reconciliation is powered by HOPE – which is basically the most effective countercynicism measure around.

The writer of Hebrews lets us in on a powerful secret: Jesus was able to endure the excruciating justice work of the cross because he was looking to and hoping for the restored relationships that would come with his forthcoming resurrection. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2, italics mine). Following Jesus’ example, we can endure enormous pain when we focus on the joy set before us – that is, restored relationships.  And we have immense hope when we know that the pain we encounter in our justice work is a signpost that reconciliation is on the horizon.

But let’s be honest, while some justice work leads to beautiful reconciliation that we can see with our own eyes, a lot of justice work shows little to no tangible results. As the apostle Paul acknowledges in Romans 12:18, on this side of heaven, restorative relationships are not always possible. This is when the hope of reconciliation really comes in handy. We can continue to fight for justice in the here and now because we know that one day, all really will be made new. Our hearts instinctively know this because God has set eternity in them (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We just have to release our hearts to hope.

5. When reconciliation is the goal, we are more likely to keep God in the equation. History tells us that justice can be achieved through the relentless, strategic and persuasive work of a group of justice workers. But reconciliation is more elusive because it requires that both parties be ready to repent, forgive, and stand in solidarity with "the other" until the term "other" is no longer relevant.  And let me tell you, no amount of persuasion, strong-arming or strategy can produce this kind of heart change.  Only God can. When reconciliation is our goal, we are more acutely aware of the limitations of our own justice efforts. And we are more likely to rely on the work of a God who holds the king's heart in his hand and directs it wherever he chooses (Proverbs 21:1).

[i] Leyens, J., Paladino, M., Rodriguez, R., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez, A., & Gaunt, R. (2000).

[ii] DeYoung & Boesak (2012), p. 12.

[iii] Volf (1996), p. 126.

[iv] Maass et al., 1982