Reconciliation is crucial to our being able to live and work together, and for our well-being as a people, but it is not easy. We see its difficulty throughout the bible. One of the most famous examples is the story of Jacob and Esau . Although there are loftier interpretations of these verses, I read them as a story of reconciliation. Jacob and Esau were the twin sons of Isaac and Rebecca. Esau was Isaac’s favorite, while Jacob was Rebecca’s. Favoring children never turns out well. Throughout their lives, their parents set them against each other. When it was time for Isaac to give the blessing that Abraham had given to him to his oldest son, Rebecca put sheepskins on Jacob, because Esau was hairy, and Isaac’s eyesight was failing, and had him pretend to be Esau. Isaac gave Jacob the blessing meant for Esau, making him lord over his brother. When Esau went to get the blessing, Isaac said he couldn’t undo what he had done, even though Esau begged him to. Esau was so angry, he wanted to kill Jacob, but Rebecca sent Jacob away to keep him safe. Years passed and Jacob returned home. When he got close, he sent messengers to Esau telling him he had gifts for him and to please find favor with him. The messengers returned and told Jacob that Esau had an army of men on the way to meet with him. So Jacob sent more messengers with more gifts, and told them to say to Esau, “Jacob is your servant.” When they got closer, Esau ran out to meet Jacob and embraced him. When Jacob saw that his brother had forgiven him, he was overcome with joy and gratitude. With their relationship restored, they lived peacefully with one another.
Jesus, as we know, encouraged everyone to forgive one another and to reconcile, for the sake of the other person, and for our own hearts and minds. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there and go. First be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
I think the best model of reconciliation in our time is the South African truth and reconciliation commission set up by Nelson Mandela in an attempt to heal the nation after the fall of apartheid. It was the opposite of what usually happens when an oppressive regime is toppled, but Mandela believed with all his heart in resolving conflict not through revenge, but through compassion.
A more recent example is John McCain’s funeral, which he planned and I believe orchestrated as a model of reconciliation for our country, to send a clear message that we can be better. We can do better by treating those with whom we disagree on matters of policy with dignity and respect. Joe Lieberman called it “The last great gift John gave America.” It might have had the most diverse audience of any funeral ever. Just look at the front row: The Obamas, the Bushes, the Clintons, the Cheneys, and Gore. Did you see George Bush passing candy to Michelle Obama during the service, and her suppressing a giggle? And in asking former rivals to speak, he reminded America and the world that it is ok to disagree, but it is not ok to hate each other.
President Obama said that McCain believed in honest argument, but that principles transcend politics, values transcend party, and he considered it his duty to uphold these principles and values. He noted how John had defended his character when someone at one of his rallies said that Obama was not a real American. And, he said that neither he nor John ever doubted the other’s sincerity or patriotism or that they were on the same team. George Bush said that John lived by a code that made him stand up for the little guy and speak up for forgotten people in forgotten places. And he ended with, “If we’re ever tempted to forget who we are, grow weary of our cause, John’s voice will always come as a whisper over our shoulder, saying, ‘We are better than this. America is better than this.’”
Joe Biden’s eulogy was the most moving. He began with, “My name is Joe Biden. I’m a democrat. And I loved John McCain.” He spent much of the speech consoling the family. but he said near the end, “I’ve been thinking about why John’s death hit the country so hard. I think it’s because they knew that John believed so deeply and compassionately in the soul of America. His faith in the core values of this nation made them somehow feel it more genuinely themselves.”
There is a book called The Phoenix Affirmations, which is sort of a vision of Progressive Christianity, and the 5th Affirmation expresses the same theme as the funeral that John McCain planned so purposefully. It says, “We affirm that the Path of Jesus is found where his followers uplift and celebrate the worth and integrity of all people. We further affirm that this Path includes treating people authentically rather than as mere categories or classes, challenging and inspiring them to live according to their highest identity. Eric Elnes, the author, adds, “It’s time to recognize that the guest list for God’s party is a lot larger than previously imagined.”
We are all on this planet together, and the only way we are going to be our best selves and do our best work is to respect one another, embrace one another, and lift one another up. To be able to disagree about topics without questioning each other’s motives and worth. To be willing to ask for forgiveness when we fail to do that, and to offer forgiveness when it is asked of us. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not easy. But following in the path of Jesus, who taught and lived these ideals his whole life, is a good place to start. Amen.