by Heidi Regier Kreider, WDC Conference Minister

This is the second of three articles on WDC’s mission statement: “WDC empowers Anabaptist/Mennonite congregations to Witness and invite others to faith in Jesus Christ, Dwell in just and loving relationships, and Connect to God’s mission in the world.

As I prepare this article on the theme “Dwell in just and loving relationships,” I am taking an online short-course with Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary on “Transforming Congregational Conflict, Nurturing Healthy Communication.”   The course assumes that conflict is a natural part of congregational life.  Rather than deny conflict under the guise of “community” or “peacemaking,” it is better to understand and practice constructive approaches to conflict that will strengthen congregations and our witness as followers of Christ.

One of our reading assignments in the course is from the book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation by Miroslav Volf.  As a Croatian theologian, he was deeply influenced by the brutal hostilities and ethnic cleansing that took place in the former Yugoslavia.   At the center of his theology is the crucifixion of Jesus, which offers both solidarity with the suffering, and forgiveness for the oppressor.  Volf wrestles with the challenge of both honoring God’s call to seek justice for the oppressed, and accepting God’s gift of love for those who perpetrate oppression.    In our search for justice, we are tempted to exclude the “other” (whoever is perceived as a threat).  However, Jesus models an embrace of the “other” rather than excluding the enemy from God’s love.  While we need to practice healthy differentiation and boundaries to maintain our identity as human beings, ultimately our wholeness is connected to the “other” who is also within God’s realm of love.  We must hold love and justice together.  Without justice, love is permissive and lacks accountability. And without love, justice is vindictive and turns into revenge.

WDC’s mission statement holds together justice and love as both being essential for healthy relationships within and beyond our congregations.   The combination of justice and love is especially crucial in our current political and social environment, in which exclusion of the “other” is the dominant framework, describing people with labels such as Republican and Democrat, citizen and immigrant, victim and perpetrator, straight and LGBTQ, Israeli and Palestinian, Christian and Muslim, police and criminal, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, male and female, young and old, rural and urban, Anglo and Latino, black and white, and so on.  Many of these labels describe factions within the church as well as in wider society.

Relationships between some groups are characterized by abuses of power that must be confronted so that justice can be established.   For example, in the case of sexual abuse or other violence, the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable persons is the first priority, then to bring perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions and to change their behavior.

At the same time, distinctions between different groups of people are often distorted by imagined threats and unfounded fears, in which we justify ourselves and demonize the “other.”  And in most cases, sharp polarizations between groups reveal a false dichotomy between “us” and “them.”  In reality, individuals often embody both sides of a polarity – for example, a person who grew up in a rural community and now lives in a large city, or someone whose childhood was shaped by parents from two different religious traditions, or a perpetrator of abuse who is also a victim of childhood abuse.

Likewise, in our families, congregations and communities we maintain (or struggle between) loyalties to multiple identities at the same time: For example, when a child identifies with a different sexual orientation than her parents, or when members of the same congregation vote for different political candidates, or when persons of different religious traditions work together in a civic organization.

As disciples of the crucified and risen Christ, we are called to follow Jesus beyond a framework of excluding the “other,” and instead to reach across factions by building relationships of authentic love and true justice.  This requires us to move beyond “us vs. them” thinking and to question neatly divided categories.  The line dividing good from evil and innocent from sinful runs not between individuals or between groups of people but through each of one of us.

Each one of us is created in the image of God and beloved by God; each one of us is wounded by the hardships of life and the actions of other people; each one of us also commits sin and is called to repentance and forgiveness through Christ; and each one of us is offered new life and transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We are on this journey together, called to dwell in just and loving relationships as a way that we can experience wholeness and offer God’s healing and hope to a broken world.