In one fell swoop I realized that the crucifixion-caused tearing of Jerusalem’s temple veil signaled that the wall of separation between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, had been destroyed.
I soon recognized that the reconciling work of Christ went beyond providing us access to God via the gift of grace. It also launched us — all believers — into the ministry of reconciliation.
I wasn’t Presbyterian at the time, but folks in this tradition were a few steps ahead of me. They had already adopted the Confession of 1967 as a declaration to God, to themselves, and to the nations that they were committed to furthering the reconciling work of Christ in the world.
Just one problem. Veils of separation seem to have an irrepressible ability to recreate themselves in all kinds of places.
From the iconic partition found in Orthodox church altars to the confessional’s dark curtain separating Catholic priests from their parishioners — from the walled ghettoes protecting Arians from Jews to the Iron Curtain protecting communists from capitalists — from the Great Wall of China to the smaller wall of Hadrian, each protecting its respective builders from their pesky northern neighbors — we humans keep feeling compelled to weave barriers between “us” and “them.”
Barriers of some kinds do make sense. They keep prized cattle and pet puppies from wandering away. And they allow nations to screen the criminal records of would-be troublemakers.
In fact, the first barrier was constructed by the Creator in response to the treasonous rebellion of the first two humans. Banishment was their reward, and angels were dispatched to serve as the world’s first border guards.
But even then, God’s barrier-destroying mission was set in motion — its turning point ensuing when an innocent victim chose to forgive those murdering him — absorbing in his own body and soul the evils perpetrated against him.
God knows that good fences do NOT make good neighbors. Opened fence gates, cracks in walls and torn veils make good neighbors. But God also knows that such reconciling acts exact a high price.
Jesus paid the ultimate price. For us, the ministry of reconciliation exacts the lesser but still significant price of humility, of recrimination, of vilification.
One example: Those Presbyterians who, on assignment from past General Assemblies, have invested time and effort into assessing the conflicts between Israel and Palestine, and into exegeting the theological commonalities and disparities between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They’ve prepared reports to be considered by the 219th General Assembly of the PC(USA) in July (see pp. 10-13). Before even seeing the light of day, those reports have come under fire.
Because they haven’t given up on the ministry of reconciliation. They dare to challenge popular prejudices to envision border checkpoints that welcome the tired and poor … huddled masses yearning to be free.
They even dare imagine a day when Israelis and Palestinians can together tear down the Semitic Curtain and live together in peace.
To envision such a day is to incur recriminations from those who see themselves and their allies — whether Israeli or Palestinian, whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim — as totally innocent victims of the other people’s aggression; as ones who deserve to be vindicated and the enemy to be destroyed, or at least condemned and humiliated.
In that light, they find our optimism to be a betrayal of their despair. They decry our hope, they scorn our dream, they mock our imagination.
Yet, we followers of Christ have been shown a different way to respond to one’s enemies, no matter how violent their assaults.
And so, in spite of just war theories, in spite of terrorist plots, in spite of nationalistic loyalties, in spite of partisan posturing, in spite of the instinctive tendency to justify “us” and to demonize “them,” some of us still hope for a better day. We work for reconciliation. We look for cracks in the walls — even for the veil again to be rent in twain.