My hometown of Higginsville was where a Confederate veterans home stood for many years, and there is still a memorial to those men at the park north of town. When I was growing up, I was amazed to learn that the biggest supporters for Confederate homes such as these were groups of Union veterans. It was remarkable that men who once shot at them would support them in the poverty of their old age.
As I reflect on that conflict, I am amazed that it ended so well. The roots of the Civil War ran back to the 1820’s, to the admission of the state of Missouri. Divisions in society between North and South grew over forty years, until there came a time when a generation came to power that refused any attempt at compromise. It began just across the state line in the territory of Kansas, and featured men who previously were noted politicians devoted to law and order leading vigilante bands back and forth across the line. The war itself was long and bloody and the South fought until it was completely worn.
And yet, North and South were able to reconcile relatively quickly. Former Confederates were not punished greatly, and most were not punished at all. There was some legal discrimination, however, it ended by the 1880’s for the most part. True, there are some wounds that still exist from that time, particularly in inequities between races, but the split that tore us apart could have festered much, much longer and may have never healed as cleanly as it did.
As we look as today’s readings they speak of reconciliation. They do not paint a picture of passive acceptance: the first reading is very direct in its teaching. If your brother is doing something wrong and you don’t point it out to him, you are responsible for what happens to him. That’s pretty tough. Paul teaches that love is fulfillment of the Law. Many of us would be tempted to say that opposite, fulfillment of the law is love. The gospel reading is one that I think runs against human nature as I’ve seen it: when someone has done us wrong we don’t want to confront them, unless Jerry Springer is paying us to. We talk with everyone else in the world except the one who has hurt us. Jesus lays out a method of resolving problems that is fair and direct: you start with the individual, then you bring in two others, then you bring in the whole community, and then you cast them out.
Or do you cast them out? How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? He spoke with them. He ate with them. He reached out to heal them. He recognized their humanity when other teachers would have nothing to do with them. Just when we think we have an out after a long process, we don’t.
As we try to live as Christ taught us, living with one another is one of the greatest challenges there is. In the Screwtape Letters. C.S. .Lewis’s demon advises his charge to convert his human from Christianity by bringing him up close with other Christians and reminding him exactly who he is associating himself with and how he is called to treat them. When we are hurting, it is normal to want to take out our frustration on those who have harmed us rather than building bridges back. But what do we gain by doing it as Christ teaches us?
I think that what we gain is our self: our personal integrity and peace in our soul. Carrying offense takes a lot of energy, a lot of thought. Savoring pain wears on our soul, blots out whatever is good in our lives and keeps us from moving away from our past. It sours our relationships with others, because either we have to hide part of ourselves in order to protect people who are uninvolved or we have to lobby with them to recruit them to our side of the argument. We have to navigate carefully to give the offender a broad berth.
Christ calls us to honest, Christ calls us to honor, Christ calls us to healing. The reason for reconciliation is the same as existed in those years just after the Civil War: to be able to put pain behind us and to live together in a finite space again in peace.