Reconciliation is quite the buzzword these days, because Congressional Democrats are aiming to pass a health care reform passage through the mechanism of budget reconciliation, allowing them to bypass Republican filibusters in the Senate.
As Katrina vanden Heuvel points out, the word “reconciliation” also has religious connotations. It is, however, not “at root a religious idea,” nor does it refer primarily to the Catholic sacrament popularly known as confession. It’s much bigger than that.
As it happens, reconciliation is originally a financial term, as in “reconciling the books.” Hence its use in budget negotiations. From there, it picks up the sense of adjusting the differences between any sets at variance with one another: you can reconcile the budget, but you can also reconcile people who disagree. That’s the sense that Paul uses when he talks about “God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5.18). Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is atoning, according to Paul. It makes Christians at one with God, and it is at least supposed to make us at one with one another, through the “ministry of reconciliation.”
Paul’s major concern was the healing of the divide between traditional Jews and the emerging Christian church. But it meant even more to him: Christ’s work for Paul was to reconcile creation itself to God, thereby creating God’s shalom on earth. Everything and everyone would be at peace with God and with one another. These days, reconciliation is understood often as not as bridging the gap between sinful humanity and Christ. That’s why the sacrament is known as “Reconciliation.”
However, reconciliation is still talked about as bringing together various groups of people. There’s racial reconciliation, and the reconciliation of various enemies, such as the Northern Irish factions or Palestinians and Israelis.
There is even, God help us, the trans-partisan ideal of Democrats and Republicans working out their differences and governing in the best interest of all Americans. This seems to be the Obama administration’s preferred political strategy. Step one: get people of good will to come to the table to work out their differences and agree on a path forward. Step two: profit!
It works much better in theory than in practice. Both parties are not invested in reconciliation, for one thing. By that, I mean some people in one party are interested in reconciliation, and some are not. On the other side of the aisle, they’re mostly bat-s**t crazy and more interested in saying “no” than accomplishing much of anything.
For another thing, reconciliation cannot be established by breezy dismissal of real conflict, or by avoiding the concerns of justice. God doesn’t create shalom on the backs of the poor, and people don’t get to be at peace with one another unless it’s in everybody’s interest to work at transcending their own factionalism and ideology. That’s a tall order, and according to some theologians (Reinhold Niebuhr in particular), it can never be accomplished solely through human initiative, but always requires the gracious intervention of God to come to completion.
The irony of reconciliation is that Congress is using it as a legislative process in the midst of a huge partisan knife fight. At the moment, there ain’t much reconciling about reconciliation, in other words.