Is Reconciliation Synonymous With Diversity?

Understanding Our Differences at the Table of the Lord

Return to Response

David Nienhuis

By David Nienhuis, SPU Associate Professor of New Testament Studies


Contemporary discussions of reconciliation are often rooted in commitments to the centrality of individual human rights in the ordering of pluralist societies. As such they are oriented toward the exposure of unjust privilege in social relationships and the orchestration of a more equitable negotiation of power within them. This is often accomplished by the maintenance of a kind of “neutral table” wherein all voices (but especially those considered marginalized) are invited to tell their stories so that inequities may be exposed and addressed.

Without denying the value of any of this, a distinctively Christian view of reconciliation will approach these concerns from a different starting point. Christian reconciliation is rooted, not in the logic of individual rights, but in the proclamation of the salvation God has accomplished in Jesus, who did not grasp after rights or power “but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). This salvation is enacted by the power of the Holy Spirit for the renewal of all things. In the realm of human relationships, that renewal insists that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

The Unifying Communion Table

Thus, the chief goal of Christian reconciliation is not the creation of a neutral table where individual rights might be pressed, but the revelation of the unifying communion table of the Lord, where Christ’s body and blood are served to remind us of the once-for-all reconciling act of God in Christ. It is here that we find the central difference between a theologically informed reconciliation effort and those that lack this basic orientation: at the table of the Lord the differences among us lose their determinative significance — not because they are made invisible, but because it is only in the unifying light of the Lord that the precise nature of our difference is rightly illumined.

The tension inherent in this claim must be carefully negotiated. On the one hand, at the table of the Lord the differences among us lose their determinative significance. At this table the divisive idolatry of every human essentialism — racial/ethnic, national, gender or sexual — is exposed, and all our tribal stories are enveloped in the far grander story of the Creator God. From that story we learn that humans are not reducible to the things that make us different from one another, for it is in God alone that all humanity lives and moves and has its being (Acts 17:28). The story narrates God’s activities for us and for our salvation in the people of Israel and ultimately in the person of Jesus, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark10:45), who proved God’s love for us by dying for us while we were still God’s enemies (Romans 5:6-10), and who in turn calls us to a Spirit-empowered imitation of this reconciling exchange in our relationships with others (2 Corinthians 5:11–21; Philippians 2:1–15). Thus, our position at God’s table requires us to consider the diversity of humanity through the lens of God’s unifying reconciliation of all things in Christ.

A Radical Openness

On the other hand, the differences among us lose their determinative significance at the table of the Lord not because they are made invisible, but because it is only in the light of the Lord that the precise nature of our difference is rightly illumined. Privileged Christians often highlight the former at the expense of the latter, emphasizing unity in Christ in order to cover over the systems and structures that perpetuate injustice in human societies. The Lord’s table, however, is characterized not by its neutralization of difference, but by its radical openness to it: a place at the table is prepared for everyone without qualification. God’s lavish embrace is reflected in the faces of the communicants, “a great multitude … from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9). Thus, a faithful communal instantiation of this table must be characterized by the full range of human diversity precisely because it is presided over by the One who created humanity diverse, and whose very Triune nature is perfect unity in real diversity.

For this very reason, all divisive identity claims are neutralized at this table. Diversity cannot be defined apart from the Creator of a diverse creation; reconciliation cannot be established apart from the identity and mission of the Reconciler. The table is therefore open to all, but the meal is not potluck; the menu has already been set by God in Christ, and not everyone will want to eat what is being served. At this table, the conquerors of the world must repent of their violence as they sit face-to-face with the Lamb of God who conquered death by allowing himself to be slaughtered (Revelation 5:9), the rich of the world must repent of their acquisitiveness as they face the one who became poor for their sakes (2 Corinthians 8:9), and the victims of the world must repent of their groaning for revenge as they face the one who did not threaten his enemies, but entrusted himself to the One who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23). At this table, all who establish identity on the grounds of self-securing homogeneity must repent of their idolatry in order to discover their true identity as children of God.

Our presence at this table, then, is not a right, but a gift, and the appropriate manners expressed before God and one another are repentance, mutual forgiveness, and generous hospitality. In this way, the One who invites the whole world to the table provides a more coherent and peaceable understanding of diversity than those originating out of the socio-political realities of pluralist societies, which are generally only able to achieve a superficial “tolerant” unity amidst the multitudes demanding a hearing. In Christian reconciliation, the chaotic legion of voices, the wounded and the arrogant ones alike, are stilled by the Word of God, who provides peace the world cannot give (John 14:27).