Claudia May: Reconciliation requires us to observe, practice and take seriously how Jesus lived on earth

Day to day, people's hearts are being transformed. -Claudia May

Reconciliation doesn’t begin with us but with God and God’s longing to reconcile all of us to himself. And Jesus is the model for how reconciliation happens, a scholar says in this interview. 

Reconciliation begins not with us but with God, and for Christians at least, the model of how reconciliation happens is Jesus, says Claudia May, an associate professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University.

“From a biblical standpoint, we’re reconciled to God through Christ,” she said. “And Jesus embodies how reconciliation should be lived. So for me, when I’m looking how to receive, abide in and live out reconciliation, Jesus is my go-to. It is through Christ that we are reconciled to God and one another.”

Which doesn’t mean, of course, that reconciliation happens easily. It can be difficult, bringing with it certain tensions and costs.

“A lot of peace and joy comes with faith, but reconciliation reminds us that it’s going to be uncomfortable for ourselves and for many people,” May said. “Jesus was challenged by most everyone. His disciples challenged him, close followers challenged him, Pharisees and Sadducees -- it was pretty constant.”

May is an associate professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with expertise in African-American, black British, and Caribbean literature and popular culture; biblical studies; and Christian hip hop. She has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of “Jesus Is Enough: Love, Hope and Comfort in the Storms of Life.”

She spoke with Faith & Leadership recently while at Duke Divinity School to teach a seminar on the theology of reconciliation for the Summer Institute for Reconciliation. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: To start, what does reconciliation mean theologically?

First, reconciliation isn’t our idea; it’s God’s initiative, God’s longing to reconcile all of us to himself.

From a biblical standpoint, we’re reconciled to God through Christ. And Jesus embodies how reconciliation should be lived.

So for me, when I’m learning how to receive, abide in and live out reconciliation, Jesus is my go-to. It is through Christ that we are reconciled to God and one another. 

Q: So, as the description for your summer institute seminar says, “Jesus is the way to reconciliation.”

Like I said, God gave us the gift of his only Son so that we could learn through him what it means to be loved, healed, forgiven -- what it means to be a new creation.

Jesus himself teaches us a couple of things around reconciliation.

One is that he didn’t situate himself in one particular location. He moved in different regions, encountered different peoples, was comfortable being around those who were despised, the hurting. His ability to be present to other people reflects a God who is willing to meet people where they are and confront the injustices he encountered.

Jesus has such a wide, embodied vocabulary of how he relates to individuals, which nurtures a sense of humility for those who follow him and take him seriously.

Because you can’t assume that you will know what to do in any given moment, you become more and more sensitive to your need for God. Jesus himself said he could do nothing without God.

And that tempers an ego-driven way of leadership, or a sense of self-reliance. Jesus was very communal; he was very much about the “we.” And the “we” was very inclusive rather than exclusive.

So the way to reconciliation requires us to observe, practice and take seriously how Jesus lived on earth and related to those whom he encountered, especially the hurting, the marginalized, and the despised.  It was Jesus’ custom to go to a lonely place. It’s easy to lose sight of this essential practice of Jesus, because it is often sandwiched between activities of healing, teaching and table fellowship and conversations.

As word spreads about Jesus, he doesn’t covet the approval and the affirmation of others; it’s enough for him to go away to a lonely place, a place that’s deserted and unpopulated. There aren’t distractions; it’s just him and God.

A lot of what I do in reconciliation is to help people observe how Jesus lived out reconciliation, not just in terms of mindset, but also in terms of following how Jesus lived out reconciliation.

Q: What is the relationship between spiritual disciplines or practices and reconciliation?

Allowing God to tech us how to deepen our engagement with spiritual disciplines is absolutely essential. There was only one spiritual discipline that the disciples asked Jesus how to do, and that was how to pray.

The disciples are a motley crew; a lot of times they don’t get it. But you have to give them credit for noticing how prayer was so enriching to Jesus’ life and how he related to others.

It’s also important that we make the distinction between spiritual disciplines and being disciplined by spiritual practices. It is key that the disciples have to ask Jesus about prayer rather than having him force it on them.

Reconciliation is going to affect every aspect of your life, not just how you relate to other people, people of different races and ethnicities and cultures classes, gender, and sexual identities, but also how you relate to God.

-- Claudia May

As a leader, he didn’t insist that they pray. He encouraged them to pray, but he didn’t force them to do so.

So we have to see spiritual disciplines as a form of freedom that allows us to be very transparent, very present to the God that’s present to us. There are many forms of communication with God that Jesus himself lives out.

Howard Thurman talks about the humility of God, which at first I found strange. It challenged some of my beliefs of God.

I wondered, does that diminish God in a very human way, this sense of humility?

But as I pondered that and I thought of Jesus, I thought, you know what? I can get my head around that, because God is willing to wait for us to call upon him.

Q: So how does all this contribute to reconciliation? And reconciliation with whom, between whom, among whom?

Reconciliation acknowledges that there are divisions. Reconciliation isn’t divorced from the pain of the world and the fractures of our world. Even our relationship with God is full of tensions, divisions.

Many times, an unwillingness to receive God’s love is part of the experience of sin. So that’s part of the initiative of God, to create reconciliation as a way to bring us to himself again.

Q: So before there’s reconciliation between and among people, there is prior work to do -- reconciliation with God?

Yes. You have to remember that this was God’s idea. It wasn’t our idea.

Our relationship with God through Christ informs how we relate to others. This process is not linear and it is not without its disruptions. It is a messy process and a humbling one. We will make mistakes — many of them. We must not adopt the mindset that we have to establish a good relationship with God before we live out reconciliation. The ministry of reconciliation requires us to learn and live out how to reconcile with others even as we learn how to reconcile with God. This happens simultaneously.

And yet what we also see is that even though this was Jesus’ mission, he couldn’t force people to accept this call of reconciliation. He couldn’t even force his own brother James to buy into him, you know?

But that’s the beautiful, humane aspect of reconciliation. How can we learn from Jesus to be present and true to the call but be comfortable with the fact that not everybody is going to buy into this?

Reconciliation is going to affect every aspect of your life, not just how you relate to other people, people of different races and ethnicities and cultures, classes, gender, and identities but also how you relate to God.

When Jesus encounters individuals, he does a couple of things. He never discredits or disbelieves a person's story; he never interrupts people when they speak. He never says that what somebody has said is trivial and unimportant. He never does that.

Martha can come to Jesus and complain that her sister isn’t helping her. At no time does Jesus say, “Why are you coming to me with this concern?”

You’ll have people who are deeply hurting know that they can come to Jesus and that they can be healed, but they come as they are. There is no time in Scripture where Jesus says, “No, I will not go to your home.”

The English Standard Version has a wonderful terminology, that Jesus “reclined,” when he’s sitting at the table with tax collectors and sinners, the despised. And we never get a sense that the people when they leave cease being those things -- tax collectors, sinners.

But Jesus is willing to recline with them and not have a criterion of who or what they need to be or how they need to present themselves in order to be in his presence. That says a lot about the freedom that comes with this reconciled relationship.

Certainly, the divisions of our world are ruled by our own understanding, the histories that shape us. And Jesus shows us how God meets people in those divisions. He walks alongside the marginalized, the poor, and the despised. How does God love people in the midst of their own brokenness? How does God teach us how to forgive through Jesus?

When I think about reconciliation, first I always think about relationship. The God of the universe wants to be in a relationship with his people, all people. Whether all people will choose that is another thing.

Q: What are the tensions that come with trying to practice Jesus’ way of reconciliation?

Well, you may not always be claimed by the people you want to be claimed by or that you’ve rooted a lot of your identity in.

Jesus wasn’t welcome in his own hometown. After he spoke particular truths, they wanted to throw him over a cliff.

There is an awful amount of resistance to this message. It’s easy to talk doctrine and denominational allegiance, but when you really get the nitty-gritty of Jesus, he makes all of us uncomfortable.

Many of us can have certain views that we will express sort of undercover, because doing so publically risks condemnation. When you align yourself with particular groups that are despised and are not seen as worthy to be loved, you will receive a lot of anger and hate.

Jesus says, “How they treated you -- just remember, they did the same to me.”

And that’s a part of it.

A lot of peace and joy comes with faith, but reconciliation reminds us that it’s going to be uncomfortable for ourselves and for many people. Jesus was challenged by most everyone. His disciples challenged him, close followers challenged him, Pharisees and Sadducees -- it was pretty constant.

How did Jesus live out the ministry of reconciliation while confronting such adversity?

It always comes back to this central relationship that Jesus prioritized with his Father. He needed his Father, to do what he did. And that kind of reliance and dependence is what we need.

We must learn to follow Jesus' example in the midst of community. This is a collective endeavor. And as we walk alongside, and learn from, and serve the hurting, and as we confront injustice, and pursue loving others in a divided world, God through Jesus also invites us to engage with the Holy Spirit as our teacher. 

Q: As you talk about Jesus being the way to reconciliation, how does that play out in multifaith settings?

We have to look at the kinds of peoples Jesus related to; many of these individuals did not believe in him. I love the story of the good Samaritan, because you have this incredibly jarring figure that reminds us that history shadows us. We don’t even have to know his name. He is a Samaritan and, as such, a Jew would consider him an enemy.

He represents for many Jews all that is wrong in their relationship. A history of pain gets triggered by the Samaritan.

It’s a beautifully convicting story for all of us. For me, I come away with how Jesus often uses the unlikeliest of people to teach his disciples and followers about the ways of God that really aren’t our ways.

Reconciliation teaches us that it is never loving to skip over someone’s pain and go to the other side where apathy resides. I embrace the artist and activist, Jesse Williams’ assertion that “the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander.” Similarly, Jesus teaches us through the Good Samaritan story that we must not expect the man who was robbed to comfort the Levite or the Priest, nor can we assume that the Good Samaritan is a Christian. We must be willing to learn from those whom we despise or dismiss as irrelevant. We must follow the example of the Good Samaritan and be vessels of God’s loving kindness to the brutalized.

Jesus’ message is not that before you encounter a person they must change, and then you follow suit. Oftentimes, it’s you must change, and you do so unconditionally, without expecting that somebody will change in step with you at that same time.

Q: How did your own story, growing up in the U.K., shape your interest in reconciliation?

I lived in the East End of London from the age of 7 until my early 20s. The world lived on my street. We had Irish, English, Scottish, Indian, Pakistani, people from different Caribbean islands, Africans, all on one street.

That was an incredibly rich environment to be in. It shaped me powerfully. In our humanity, there’s a diversity in the oneness that I was reminded of -- just God’s amazing creativity in the range of peoples that he created. That was a gift.

But at the same time, I don’t want to romanticize the community I grew up in. There were also racial tensions.

But what it did from a reconciliation point of view was a couple of things. One was that I received the gift of diversity. As I learned more about Jesus, it illuminated to me how he related to different kinds of people, how he was able to move in different regions.

But I was also aware of the tensions and the ways in which we can seclude ourselves in our particular cultural regions and identities.

Q: What’s the state of reconciliation today, given events and divisions here and in the U.K. and around the world? Are you encouraged? Discouraged?

Certainly -- just as Jesus encountered -- systems are in place that really do serve a few as opposed to all. And when I look at that, I think, well, Jesus was aware of the power decisions that were made by the Roman Empire. 

Still, he did not allow the religious and political power brokers to prevent him from doing the work of reconciliation on the ground.

So obviously, yes, there are incredible divisions that are fanned by ego, by money, by those who build oppressive systems and by those who treat people and things as idols.

But there are many things that I don’t see that God sees -- the day-to-day ways in which people are also learning to love their neighbor. Day to day, people’s hearts are being transformed. They learn to address issues of injustice and not separate themselves from it.

This is how Jesus lived.

I can only see in the perimeters of where I’m moving, and it is often heartbreaking to me, in all honesty. 

For me, a deal breaker was the massacre of the beloved Charleston Nine.

They were massacred on a Wednesday night, a time that many Christians in this country understand equals Bible study. But numerous churches did not acknowledge the massacre, the passing of some of their family members. I have students, predominantly white students, who said that their pastors did not mention this tragedy during their Sunday morning service.

When I heard that, I knew something was very wrong. Many Christians still believe that race and ideologies of any kind ought to separate us. We should never allow our ideological and political preferences to undermine our potential to be ambassadors of God's love, peace, and justice.

If we have that level of unconcern for members of the body of Christ, we have a very big problem. Do we actually have the right to speak to how other people are living if we can’t mourn with one another, love one another, and see each other's humanity as members of God's family.

That deepened my passion and my desire for reconciliation. I needed to talk to the family.

As family, we must live out the ministry of reconciliation by being hearers and doers of Jesus' teachings and practices. We must seek God's counsel through prayer and ask him how we ought to respond to the inequities we encounter. We must be honest with God about our resistances to Jesus' teachings, and share with him the biases, fears, and concerns we harbor in our hearts.

We cannot love God or others without God. We need each other and we need community to learn how to love. We need Jesus to teach us how to love.  And so we must learn from the one who created love -- God. Through God's guidance, wisdom, and strength, Jesus teaches us that we can confront and break down the walls of division that separate us from one another and God.