There is a story in our family lore that during a contentious presidential campaign a few decades ago my father refused to drive his mother, my grandmother, to the polling station on election day. She was voting for the opposing candidate and he didn't want her to cancel out his vote. Though contentious at the time, it is a story that still evokes laughter in our family each time it is retold. And don't worry, grandma eventually got a friend to drive her to the polls.
In recent years, however, political differences have become less to laugh at and harder to shrug off. Studies show that political polarization has increased dramatically in America over the last twenty years -- even within families. Today 23% of liberals and 30% conservatives say they would be unhappy if an immediate family member married someone who held a different political belief. Politics have become increasingly tense in families, churches, neighborhoods, and across social media. Many have decided its better just not to talk about it at all, while some have become even more vehement in their rhetoric.
The 2016 presidential election cycle, along with the new vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the recent death of Justice Antonin Scalia, has only exacerbated these tensions. As candidates on right and left tap into the fears and anger of disaffected and disenfranchised voters, some candidates have engaged in othering, fear mongering, and race baiting -- the political legacy of "wedge politics," dividing people according race, class, religion, and ethnicity, and, as Michelle Alexander traces in The New Jim Crow the pitting of poor whites against African-Americans. In 2016, this wedge has not only fractured the electorate; some would argue it has fractured our political system itself.
In his two letters to the church in Corinth, Paul addresses a notoriously contentious community, which frequently divided its people by class, ethnicity, and the perceived value of their spiritual giftedness. They even infamously divided people out at the Eucharist (1 Cor 11). In response, Paul urges those believers to engage in a "ministry of reconciliation." Recounting how we have been reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, he implores the Corinthians to be reconciled to one another, "From now on," he writes, "we regard no one from a human point of view...if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation." Truth be told, we have a difficult time these days even seeing one another from a human point of view -- seeing each other's humanity and as fellow pilgrims on our earthly pilgrimage -- rather than a caricature of a political platform or a potential threat. More than ever, we need to rediscover our common humanity -- but Paul calls us further. He calls the Corinthians and us to regard one another as beloved children, faithful and flawed, of the same God -- a God whose chief work in Christ on the cross was reconciliation.
The story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is the quintessential story of reconciliation in the New Testament. It is the story of a father that has two sons. The younger son asks for his inheritance while his father is still alive, a grave insult. Yet, the father grants it and the prodigal son blows it all on wine, women, and song. He winds up bankrupt, hungry, and feeding slop to pigs. When that slop begins to look appetizing, he decides to return to his father. For, he reasons, it would be better to be a servant in his father's house than here.
As he walks up the path to his father's house, full of trepidation, the father runs out to greet him, embraces him, clothes his with a robe and ring, and throws him a party, restoring him to relationship to the father and household. It is an extraordinary image of a reconciling and forgiving God.
And yet all is not well in the father's household. The older, dutiful son resents his brother -- his audacity to claim the inheritance, his foolishness in wasting it all, and the father's response of welcome and forgiveness when he returned home.
He complains to his father, "Listen! I have been a model son for you. I've obeyed your commands, and you've never even thrown me a dinner party, let alone a celebration like you're throwing for this prodigal of yours."
Brother Curtis Almquist suggests that the elder son suffered from what Almquist calls "presumptuous sin."
He writes, "There is [a] kind of presumptuous sin [that] assume[s] a kind of perpetual 'stuckness' about another person. Let's say you know something about this person's past - something they did or said, or how they 'typically' acted a day ago or a week ago or a year ago or twenty years ago - and you assume that this person cannot change and will not change, in part because you could not countenance it. You wouldn't allow them to change if they wanted to. You freeze them. We have enormous power to condemn and imprison others by keeping them in the prison of their own past. Guarding that prison door. Keeping them locked up. Or forbidding someone to change is like locking them in a prison. The real tragedy is that both your prisoner and you, the prison guard, are in prison. Both of you are locked up."
Perhaps our polarization and the growing animosity it has fostered is the result of this kind of presumptuous sin. We have locked one another cages based on political labels. And yet, Paul tells that our fundamental humanity and identity as a child of God defies and transcends such categorization. We must end the mass incarceration, both real and spiritual, that we have inflicted upon each other. We must heed the prophet's call to "proclaim liberty to the captives, "and release to the prisoners" (Isa 61:1). Perhaps in this way we can realize Paul's call to be "ambassadors for Christ."
It is unclear at the end of the story of the prodigal son whether the elder son reconciles with him. In this book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen writes, "Unlike a fairy tale, the parable provides no happy ending. Instead it leaves us face to face with one of life's hardest spiritual choices: to trust or not to trust in God's all forgiving love."
Can we trust the power of that forgiveness for ourselves, our world, and even our perceived enemies? Can we move from mass incarceration to a ministry of reconciliation?
We must. For the sake of our families, our nation, and our world. And for the sake of Christ. For, as Paul writes, "the love of Christ urges us on" (2 Cor 5:14).
Bible Study Questions
1. What would it look like for you or your faith community to enact a "ministry of reconciliation," -- meeting others again for the first time -- in your home, church, and neighborhood.
2. Who do you most identify with in the story of the prodigal son -- the father, the prodigal, or the elder son? Why?
3. "We have enormous power to condemn and imprison others by keeping them in the prison of their own past. ... The real tragedy is that both your prisoner and you, the prison guard, are in prison. Both of you are locked up." Who, specifically, do you need to forgive and set free?
For Further Reading
Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness