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Prophetic Dialogue: An Invitation to the Dance – Redemptive Love in Action

May 17, 2013
inagrace

Inagrace Dietterich

During 2013, The Center Blog is exploring the theological, biblical, and practical implications of joining in the dance of prophetic dialogue – the theme of the Center’s Convocation in Chicago, IL on July 25-27, 2013.

Both Newtown, CT, and Nickel Mines, PA, offer a powerful window into God’s redemptive love in action.  With eyes wide open the church can engage such harsh and terrible realities because it lives also in a place of hopeful expectation.


Realistic yet Hopeful  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Cor. 5:18-19).  Read More…


A Biblical Vision of Reconciliation.  The Apostle Paul is the principal resource in the Bible for the concept of reconciliation. Paul’s vision contains a number of profound assumptions about the human situation…  Read More…


Love and Hope in Newtown. On December 14, 2012 a town was shattered and a country brought to tears as twenty children—all aged 6 and 7—were gunned down in the safest place they had ever known, a home away from home. Read More…


God’s Healing Grace. In the aftermath of the unthinkable day in Sandy Hook, many of the communities’ churches have reached out to bring the healing love of God. Read More…


Amish Grace. Six years before Sandy Hook, on October 2, 2006, a gunman stormed into a peaceful Amish school near Nickel Mines, PA. His rage and guns left five little girls dead and five wounded. Read More…


The Habit of Forgiveness. The Amish live within close-knit communities held together by ties of family, faith, and culture. While there are many different ways of being Amish in North America, at the core of their way of life is a strong commitment to community.   Read More…


The Roots of Forgiveness. As part of the Anabaptist tradition, discipleship understood as “following Jesus” has been viewed as an essential mark of the Christian life. Pledging their allegiance to God’s kingdom, revealed most fully in Jesus’ way of love, compassion, and forgiveness, Amish communities seek to embody an alternative to the ways of the world.  Read More…


Cultivating Communities of Reconciliation. Redemptive love in action, even if not explicitly named as such, is grounded in God’s reconciling action in the world.   Read More…



Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What does it mean for the church to be both realistic and hopeful? Can you give examples from your experience?
  2. What catches your attention in the description of Paul’s concept of reconciliation?

More Questions…



Realistic yet Hopeful


So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Cor. 5:18-19).

The world isn’t working. Things are unraveling, and most of us know it….Our most basic virtues of civility, responsibility, justice, and integrity seem to be collapsing….Both domestically and globally, we are divided along the lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, culture, and tribe, and environmental degradation and resource scarcity threaten to explore our divisions into a world of perpetual conflict.1

world_splitBoth of the above statements are true. On the one hand, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the world has been reconciled to God. All of creation has been freed from the forces of sin, death, and destruction. New life and restored relationships are possible here and now as the Holy Spirit actualizes the reconciliation accomplished by Jesus Christ. On the other hand, as a glance at the daily news will confirm, the divisions within American society and the conflicts around the world appear to be increasing. Social tensions abound—the gap between rich and poor, the number of children going hungry and without health care, the growing prison population, increasing military actions, the number of deaths from gun violence—to name only a few. While the Western world still enjoys the benefits of freedom and self-determination, more and more people ignore the responsibilities of citizenship as they withdraw into homogeneous communities (economic, racial, political) and focus upon personal well-being.

As “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20), the church is called to be both realistic and hopeful. With eyes wide open, the church is to engage the suffering and injustice of the world. The church can confront such harsh realities because it lives from hopeful expectation, trusting in God’s promise of a time when God will dwell with God’s people and “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more” (Rev. 21:3).

One of the elements of prophetic dialogue is the ministry of reconciliation. Reconciliation as redemptive love in action is more a spirituality than a strategy, since it is first and foremost a work of God’s reconciling love and grace. “Thus the church’s task is not to develop strategies for this to take place, but to witness in its life and proclaim in fearless hope that God’s grace does heal and that, through the reconciling work of Jesus Christ, the barriers of hostility can be broken down and those who are divided can be made one.”2 Through contemplative attention and listening, the church is called to facilitate the recognition of God’s gracious working in the midst of pain and suffering.


A Biblical Vision of Reconciliation.


be_reconciledThe Apostle Paul is the principal resource in the Bible for the concept of reconciliation. Paul’s vision contains a number of profound assumptions about the human situation: (1) Human beings (and indeed the whole of the natural world) were created for communion with God and with each other. (2) History (personal and communal) shows how God’s creatures have turned away from the Creator and sought to find the source and motivation for life in the things of creation. (3) The descriptive terms for this life of self-sufficiency and independence are: competitiveness, brokenness, loneliness, incompleteness, and divisiveness. (4) Through his obedience and self-giving love, even unto death, Jesus Christ makes possible a new relationship with God which leads to new lives of faith, hope, and love. (5) Those who have died to self and are reborn as members of Christ’s body, are empowered by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the good news of reconciliation to all those who are still in bondage to sin, fear, and death.

The message of the reconciliation brought about through the cross and resurrection of Jesus is “a powerful, loving, and creative word that needs to be uttered in the midst of the discordant noises of human strife and hatred around us.”3 Because of God’s creative and redemptive love the church proclaims the good news: “Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). To illustrate redemptive love in action, we will consider the responses of two communities to unspeakable tragedy: Newtown, CN and Nickel Mines, PA.


Love and Hope in Newtown.


On December 14, 2012 a town was shattered and a country brought to tears as twenty children—all aged 6 and 7—were gunned down in the safest place they had ever known, a home away from home. Six educators died, too, hailed as heroes. Never had an act of violence seemed so heinous, so horrifying in America — an attack on pure innocence at a school that symbolized peace and love. Since then, residents of Newtown have been dealing with the arc of life in unimaginable ways—of death and loss, of pain and suffering, of shock and horror, of beginning to heal.

Many people around the country responded with amazing acts of kindness, encouragement, love, and generosity. In fact the outpouring of support was so great that officials had to ask the public to stop sending gifts, which the small town was struggling to manage, including tens of thousands of teddy bears. One woman from Eldon, Iowa responded by sharing her expertise in pie making. Funded by donations, she made a 1,100 mile journey across the country to bake and deliver pies to those afflicted by the horror. Stopping along the way to pick up pies that volunteers who follow her blog had made, she arrived at the Newtown Youth Academy and started handing out slices of happiness. She explained: “This is something made by hand. tragedy_loveThe pioneers made pie; the pilgrims made pie. It’s about endurance. It’s about nurturing. It’s about simplicity. It’s about nostalgia. And ultimately, for me, it’s about sharing and it’s about giving.”

The families who lost loved ones have come together in a variety of ways for mutual comfort, sharing, and encouragement. They have also engaged in personal and collective action. One mother was invited to deliver the President’s weekly White House address and put forth a raw plea for the Senate to pass gun control legislation. “Please help us do something before our tragedy becomes your tragedy,” she said. On Mother’s Day, five months after losing their young children, four mothers published “A Mother’s Promise.” “In the wake of their deaths, we made a final promise to Dylan, Daniel, Ana and Ben: to celebrate their lives by turning the tragedy into a moment of transformation.” Whether or not their actions will result in significant gun control, these families and others who join with them, are trying to honor their children by sharing the joy and love of these short lives. “The more we as parents expand the boundaries of our love beyond our family and to all children, the more likely a tragedy like the one that broke our hearts will never happen again.” This is redemptive love in action.


God’s Healing Grace.


In the aftermath of the unthinkable day in Sandy Hook, many of the communities’ churches have reached out to bring the healing love of God. The story of one such congregation was shared in The Christian Science Monitor. Immediately, the impulse to connect drew Newtown United Methodist parishioners to church, where they shared tears and hugs within hours of the event. In coming weeks, congregational life would give them far more than the comfort they sought at first. In a community upended by chaos, the church would provide sanctuary and guideposts for parishioners and others to wrestle with some of the most profound questions of life—about their ties to each other, about their sense of community, about their personal values, about their relationship to God. The church became an ark to protect them from an invasive outside world and a place to confront their anger and confusion and grief. Some have even started to forge new identities in ways that trauma experts say only a crisis can engender.

Connecticut School ShootingFor the congregation, the tragedy and its aftermath have kindled a dialogue with the deepest chords of their faith tradition. They’ve returned to familiar hymns and Scriptures, only to find it all sounds different, as if rendered in a new language that they’re just now learning to speak. One member began to notice a telling pattern on Sunday mornings. People would pick up their name tags as usual, then accidentally wear them upside down. First one did it. Then another. Then a third. One day she realized she had done it too. “We’re all upside down” she observed, in a remark descriptive of the community’s overall state.

The congregation is also reaching out to the wider community to offer God’s redemptive love. In mid-January, the church invited all the neighbors over to tea, to share experiences and identify community needs. The event drew some who’d lived in town for decades and had never entered the church, but now saw it as a gathering spot for mutual support. One woman commented afterward: “I hope the church will get us together again.” Thus the church has become a different place in the life of the community. One member commented: “Hopefully we can be known for more than our spaghetti dinners and bluegrass concerts….We can be the face of healing and love for the community.”


Amish Grace.


gods_helpSix years before Sandy Hook, on October 2, 2006, a gunman stormed into a peaceful Amish school near Nickel Mines, PA. His rage and guns left five little girls dead and five wounded. Yet the biggest surprise of that day was not the intrusion of evil but the Amish response—the spontaneous expression of forgiveness. As television crews rushed to the scene with their disaster faces, the stricken Amish gathered quietly and enfolded their grief within their normal circle of prayer and mutual support. Immediately after the shooting, some Amish people were already reaching out to the shooter’s widow and children. An exchange between a reporter and the grandfather of two slain sisters illustrates the nature of Amish grace: “Do you have anger toward the gunman’s family?” “No.” “Have you already forgiven them?” “In my heart, yes.” “How is that possible?” “Through God’s help.”

Nothing about the horror of losing children is any easier for the Amish than for anyone else. But the path they followed from anger and anguish to compassion and forgiveness was more direct than for most other people. Why were they able to respond this way in a world where vengeance, not forgiveness, is so often the order of the day? As the authors of Amish Grace explain: “When forgiveness arrived at the killer’s home within hours of his crime, it did not appear out of nowhere. Rather, forgiveness is woven into the very fabric of Amish life, its sturdy threads having been spun from faith in God, scriptural mandates, and a history of persecution.” 4


The Habit of Forgiveness.


amishThe Amish live within close-knit communities held together by ties of family, faith, and culture. While there are many different ways of being Amish in North America, at the core of their way of life is a strong commitment to community. Many of the things that seem strange to outsiders—the rejection of television, internet, car ownership, higher education, or modern dress—reflect the fear of anything that might unravel their communities. Within this “total” community, Amish children experience a deep sense of security. Their daily lives are shaped both socially and religiously through interaction with a particular circle of family, friends, and neighbors. Almost without exception, they have not seen violent movies, video games, or TV programs. More than through formal instruction, the habit of forgiveness is developed largely through osmosis. Children learn it by watching their parents and neighbors forgive as well as looking to the example of Jesus, how he acted with redemptive love in the face of injustice or cruelty.


The Roots of Forgiveness.


As part of the Anabaptist tradition, discipleship understood as “following Jesus” has been viewed as an essential mark of the Christian life. Pledging their allegiance to God’s kingdom, revealed most fully in Jesus’ way of love, compassion, and forgiveness, Amish communities seek to embody an alternative to the ways of the world. The Sermon on the Mount is considered among the most important texts in the Bible. Here is found a new way to deal with offenders—by forgiving them; a new way to deal with violence—by suffering; a new way to deal with money—by sharing it; and a new way to deal with problems of leadership—by drawing upon the gifts of every member, even the most humble.5


Cultivating Communities of Reconciliation.


reconcileRedemptive love in action, even if not explicitly named as such, is grounded in God’s reconciling action in the world. As expressed in the biblical vision of reconciliation, it is not God who needs to be reconciled, but the world which is reconciled to God. Reconciliation—forgiveness of sins, liberation from bondage, and new life—is not initiated or accomplished by human repentance, prayers, or other good works, but simply by God’s grace alone. Yet because of God’s redemptive love, human beings are empowered to engage in particular acts and patterns that embody God’s presence. Robert Schreiter, claiming that creating an environment of trust, kindness, and safety involves disciplines that can be studied, practiced, and learned, identifies three important aspects of reconciling communities: (1) Communities of reconciliation are communities of safety, zones in which victims can examine and explore their wounds. (2) Communities of reconciliation are communities of memories, where the stories of both joy and pain can be shared. (3) Communities of reconciliation are communities of hope which envision a future in which God’s redemptive love brings about the fullness of human life.6 The stories of Newtown and Nickel Mines are powerful reminders that even in the depths of despair, God’s redemptive love can bring about compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.



Questions for Reflection and Discussion


  1. What does it mean for the church to be both realistic and hopeful? Can you give examples from your experience?
  2. What catches your attention in the description of Paul’s concept of reconciliation?
  3. In what way did the tragedy of Sandy Hook impact you personally and your congregation?
  4. How does the story of Newtown illustrate redemptive love?
  5. What shaped the Amish response of forgiveness?E
  6. Even though it is not easily transferable, what can be learned from the Amish expression of redemptive love?
  7. Where do you see your congregation embodying redemptive love? In what ways could you become more fully become a community of reconciliation?



1 Jim Wallis, The Soul of Politics: A Practical and Prophetic Vision for Change (The New Press and Orbis Books, 1994), p. xv.

2 Stephen B. Bevans and Roger P. Schroeder, Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today (Orbis Books, 2011), p. 71.

3 Samuel George Hines & Curtiss Paul De Young, Beyond Rhetoric: Reconciliation as A Way of Life (Judson Press, 2000), p. 106.

4 Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, David Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (Jossey-Bass, 2007), p. 52.

5 John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Herald Press, 1977), p. 29.

6 Robert J. Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality and Strategies (Orbis Press, 1998).


Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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