A review of Called to Reconciliation

Although there are times when the culture needs to catch up with the church, it seems the reverse is now true. Like the encouraging cries of the crowd heard by a marathon runner in slow motion, Jay Augustine’s new book calls out to the church: Set the pace!

Augustine’s message to the American church is that we have been tricked into thinking the United States is a melting pot when we are in fact gumbo. “The good okra”, he explains, “incorporates the difference” without trying to hide it. It requires addressing our social issues “honestly, through diverse groups coming together to create something new.” The roux in Augustine’s gumbo recipe is the recognition that reconciliation is only possible if America owns its past and present truth.

Called to reconciliation stands in the long tradition of work done by black pastors outside the white gaze. Augustine draws on the pulpit theological and ethical work of pastors like Edward W. Blyden, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry McNeal Turner, and Benjamin Tucker Tanner, situating issues of faith in the social context of race relations. Like the work of Karl Barth, which emerged from the nationalist constructions of his time, Augustine’s articulation of present-day social and civil realities in the context of salvation is universally applicable. Although many Christians ignore the black pulpit tradition (or choose to ignore it as niche Christianity), Augustine clearly addresses the whole church.

When Barth died, he intended to further develop his doctrine of reconciliation by Dogmatics of the Church. In a sense, Augustine begins where Barth left off, moving from saving reconciliation to social reconciliation.

Writing from a Christocentric perspective, Augustine asserts that salvific reconciliation brings salvation to people through Jesus. This process arouses and plays a profound role in social reconciliation due to The saving work of Jesus. Saving reconciliation is universal, and social reconciliation is what saving reconciliation looks like on the ground. Salvific reconciliation is theo-doxy and social reconciliation is theo-praxis.

Augustine integrates his anatomy of reconciliation into the account of God’s work of reconciliation attested to in Matthew’s double narrative of the Church. Ekklesia means “assembly” or “gathering”, and Augustine cites the first of the two Matthean uses of the word (16:18, 18:17) to show that it specifically assumes ethnic diversity: “Jesus, an itinerant Jewish preacher, used to originated the term while conversing with Peter, his Jewish disciple, as they entered Caesarea Philippi, a predominantly pagan region. Drawing on the scholarship of Donald Senior and Aaron Kuecker, Augustine places diversity in the context of salvation history. The church began as a Jewish congregation but is destined by God – both through and because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – to be guided by a policy of grafting the stranger into the people of God when determining membership. This graft makes forgiveness essential.

Augustin understands that defining ecclesia as an ethnically diverse group of people is not enough to maintain social reconciliation as a priority for the Church’s action in the world. If Peter’s leadership in the Gospel of Matthew forms the pillar of diversity that supports reconciliation, Paul’s theology is the second pillar that extends diversity to equality and liberation.

For Augustine, Paul’s baptismal theology makes equality the norm of the church’s reconciling witness to the world. He cites Corneliu Constantineanu’s observation that “when Jewish Christians began to return to Rome. . . they found a completely new situation, with pagan Christians in leadership positions and a life marked by non-Jewish models of religious life. In this context of ethnic divide, Augustine explains, “the ethical treatment of the ‘Other’ and the leading of a new life in Christ through baptism are at the heart of Paul’s theology of equality”. Social reconciliation requires not only the “equal treatment of others” and forgiveness of their transgressions, but also the recognition that this forgiveness is at the heart of the ministry that Jesus left to the Church.

Augustine’s call to the Church includes a third form of reconciliation which is linked to the other two by forgiveness: civil reconciliation. He writes, “Civil reconciliation – a practical consequence of social reconciliation – is a ministry encompassing forgiveness as the church interfaces with the secular world.”

When I encountered this claim, I found myself dissatisfied. I kept asking myself: How does this actually work? It was as if I had tasted the okra and realized that an ingredient was missing. Then I recalled King’s assertion that all theology needs a methodology. I kept reading, now looking for a methodology.

Augustine delivers, but not in the way I expected. I expected it to be inspired by the nonviolent direct action enforcement of the civil rights movement. Augustine mentions King’s methods and the civil rights movement, but he makes a stronger connection between civil reconciliation and public policy. Civil reconciliation, he argues, calls the Church to action in the political sphere. He calls on the church to change the laws.

This book is far from being a sentimental appropriation of lighthearted age-old calls for reconciliation. It contains an in-depth social analysis of the rise of Donald Trump in response to the legal and cultural advances of the civil rights movement and its consequences. Augustine is clear that any movement toward civil reconciliation requires responses, not only from secular powers but also from the evangelical right. It is painful to read his analysis of how some American Christians have allowed themselves to be tossed about by all the winds of doctrine. Yet, like any good preacher, Augustine left me with both a call to action and a recipe for hope.

One of the ways he gives hope is to note that today’s evangelicals — much like the black church of the civil rights era — are not monolithic. Not all evangelicals are Christian nationalists. “Young evangelicals in particular disagree with Trump’s policies on immigration, his opposition to same-sex marriage, and his denial of science demonstrating climate change and global warming,” Augustine writes. Many of these Christians would already agree with his assertion that “we are called to reconciliation, with the Church leading the way as a model of justice, diversity and inclusion.”

However, hearing a call and answering it are not the same thing. Augustin concludes: “The work of reconciliation is not easy. There is still a destination on the horizon. However, by putting theory into practice, it is indeed possible to move the church forward towards reconciliation. If we are going to set the pace, it will help our bellies to be filled with God’s good okra.

Barry F. Howard