A People of Repair

by Gregory Thompson

One of the central questions animating our life together at the Center for Formation, Justice and Peace is, “How can we become a people of repair?” Lurking behind this question are some of our most fundamental convictions: that the communities we serve are broken by wickedness and sorrow, that the Living God burns against this wickedness and weeps over this sorrow, and that the Church—fragile and entangled though we are—is a community called to step into these broken places and to work toward something like repair. 

Over the past several years, this question has pressed itself upon us again and again as we have witnessed this wickedness, this sorrow, and this brokenness parade brazenly before our eyes. The ideological captivity of our politics. The erasure of history and the enthronement of sanctimonious myth. The triumph of brutal greed. The degradation of creation. The villainization of difference. The scorning of the poor. The murder of our children. These things pass before our eyes in an endless, grotesque stream and leave us muttering through tears, “How long, O Lord?”

And yet even as we weep, we cannot help but notice both the ongoing presence and the new emergence of women, men, and children who long to take up the call of repair, and who daily put their whole selves into that work. Telling the truth. Renouncing lies. Foregoing wealth. Welcoming strangers. Honoring woundedness. Confronting fools. Singing joy. The continuing church; the community that both confesses and practices the life of repair.

As we live among these brothers and sisters of repair—praying together, singing together, eating together, working together—we notice the emergence of a new question. That question, simply put, is this: What should we do when we realize that the forms of Christianity we inherited are either insufficient for—or opposed to—the Christian mission to which we are called? Lurking behind this question are two tragic realizations. First, that much of the Church in America, a community called by God to be a people of repair, is, to the contrary, complicit in the destruction. Indeed, in many places in this country, the Church actively provides moral sanctuary for the very racial, sexual, economic, political, and rhetorical violence that is destroying our communities. And second, if we are to become the people of repair that we are called to be, then the inherited forms of our faith must change.

As grievous as this situation is, we find comfort in the reality that we are not the first community of Christians to be faced with this realization. Indeed, throughout history, many Christians have found themselves in this same bewildering wilderness. 

Consider, as one example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1930, Bonhoeffer left Germany and crossed the ocean for Union Seminary in New York. For most of his life, he had embraced—and been embraced by—a German church that was, at its heart, nationalistic, ethnocentric, elitist, militaristic, and animated by deep grievance. Indeed, he himself had affirmed each of these in his early teaching and writing.

But as the political context of his home country began to shift, a strange disquiet began to grow inside of him. He came to see that these core features of his native ecclesiology not only paved the way for a violent nationalist Messiah but also rendered the Church utterly incapable of meaningful resistance. On the contrary, they insured the Church’s complicity. And part of his nascent hope in coming to America was not only to more deeply understand these dynamics but to find in America a Christianity that offered something to subvert them.  His first encounter was with the liberal theology of Union Seminary and the establishment ecclesial order that it represented. It did not take Bonhoeffer long to realize that the anemia of theological liberalism would not—indeed could not—give him what he sought.  He needed something else. 

He found that something else, of all places, in the black church of Harlem. And what did he find? A church centered not on the nation but on the community. A church centered not on racial fantasy, but on universal brotherhood. A church centered not on elites, but on the suffering. A church centered not in the valorization of violence but on the practice of peace. A church centered not on an ethos of grievance, but on the music of triumphant joy. He found, in other words, a form of Christianity that gave him the very things his country most needed, but that his native church most abhorred. And it changed him. And this change led him to return to his country, leave the pseudo-Christian cult of German nationalism, join the Confessing Church, find a clandestine seminary, forge a new theological voice, align himself with the purged, and ultimately to die singing of resurrection. And he did all of this in an attempt to answer—in his very life—the question pressing in upon us today: How can we become a people of repair?

In the coming months, we will explore this question by proposing many shifts that the church in America will need to make if we are to truly become a people of repair. Please join us on this journey. 

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