Witnessing to the restorative justice of God (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
At the heart of one of Paul’s best-known theological formulations describing Christian conversion is a summons to a “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). This passage represents perhaps the earliest New Testament articulation of the vocation of restorative justice and peacemaking.
It is important to understand Paul’s theology of reconciliation in the context of his commitment to ethnic peace and economic equity in the teeth of a hostile first-century Roman imperial society. As a member of a racial-ethnic Jewish minority that was systematically segregated within the dominant Roman society, Paul was fiercely critical of the decadence and injustice of the Roman Empire (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 2:6,8). Yet he refused to exclude Gentiles from the circle of YHWH’s grace. This theology of radical inclusion was disconcerting to both Jewish ethnocentrism and Hellenistic ideologies of superiority.
In Greco-Roman antiquity the cultural, economic and political enmity between Jew and Gentile was profound. These two communities were institutionally and historically alienated—not unlike the modern legacy of racial apartheid or the protracted struggle between Israelis and Palestinians or Protestant Loyalists and Catholic Republicans in Northern Ireland. But Paul refused to abide by the social divisions around him, instead trying to build bridges called churches.
The Corinthian epistles provide the best insights into Paul’s efforts to resist Roman norms of class stratification and ethnic segregation, especially his second letter, written sometime in the mid-50s C.E. Paul’s own commitment to “downward mobility” tried to subvert the social fabric of the status quo, while he expected both Jewish and Gentile converts to defect from their own entitlements and loyalties. He believed his small Christian house gatherings, sprinkled around the eastern empire, should model an alternative society, liberated from top-down patronage, economic disparity and racial hostility. Two millennia later, Martin Luther King Jr. called this the vision of “a beloved community.” It is this “new creation” that Paul believed Christ had called into being (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Our passage begins with two categorical declarations, the first in a string of rhetorical doublets:
“Therefore, from now on we regard no one from a human point of view …
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).
The apostle urges disciples to view things no longer “according to the flesh.” The Greek “sarx” does not refer only to our bodies or our sexual passions, as Christian pietism has read it. Rather, it is Paul’s favorite metaphor for the deeply-rooted, socially-conditioned worldview we inherit from our upbringing, the sum total of personal and political constructs and conventions that define a given culture—the way most folk think and act.
For example, a dominant assumption in North America is that the “moral” response to violation is punishment. To challenge this cultural conviction quickly leads to passionate and often irrational resistance that is both broad (i.e. majority opinion) and deep (welling up from the core of individual psyches). This is the power of the “flesh” in Paul’s sense (see e.g. Romans 8, where the word appears 14 times). It dictates what and how we “know,” constrains our imagination and locks us into habitual enslavements of all kinds.
Paul believed that this social formation is fundamentally deforming to the biblical understanding of what it means to be human. But those who are in communion with Christ have adopted a radically new perspective (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul’s vocabulary of the “new creation,” which eclipses the “old things that have passed away,” places the whole passage in an apocalyptic (that is, world-transformative) framework. Conversion is not only an inner change of heart or a private change of mind but a revaluation of everything, at once personal and political. But Paul does not want this apocalyptic language misunderstood as implying a divinely ordained destruction of the world, as many modern fundamentalists have done. This revolution is for restoring the world through the great work of “reconciliation,” a verb Paul now deploys emphatically and repeatedly.
Verses 18-19 read:
A. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Godself through Christ,
B. “and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;
A’. “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Godself (not counting their trespasses against them)
B’. “and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
Each theological assertion (A) is linked immediately to a practical one (B), reiterated in a parallel doublet. Let’s look at each in turn, because here we are at the core of Paul’s theological vision.
The theological assertion articulates the extraordinary idea of God’s conciliatory initiative. God is not portrayed as the recipient of Jesus’ “sacrifice” but as the One acting through Jesus’ execution. Reconciliation is not something accomplished by Christ for God or inflicted on Christ by God but forged by God in Christ. This wreaks havoc on the medieval (but still widespread) doctrine that Christ’s death functions to placate an angry or offended deity. Rather, the Cross represents a restorative initiative by the divine victim toward the human offender (see Romans 5:10f). God absorbs the violent injustice of the offender and offers the gift of forgiveness. This powerful notion of the “moral authority of victim-initiative” is central to restorative justice, as we have tried to show in our book Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol. II (Orbis, 2009).
The semantic field of the verb “to reconcile” (Greek “katallassō,” used only by Paul in the New Testament) is economic, not for atonement. In Aristotle it connotes an exchange of money to establish equivalence of value (we still speak of “reconciling” a bank statement). This discourse resonates with the Hebrew Bible’s tradition of Sabbath and Jubilee, the unilateral seventh- and 49th-year “release” from debt-bondage (Deuteronomy 15; Leviticus 25). The apostle believed that promoting economic “equality” was part of the church’s “bridging” project (see his description of the international ecclesial mutual aid project—which he calls a work of “grace”—in 2 Corinthians 8-9). God’s decision “not to count our trespasses against us” (2 Corinthians 5:19) represents a reassertion of the divine economy of grace: the old “debt system” is passing away.
The practical part of the doublet (B) makes it clear, however, that in order to participate in God’s Jubilee, disciples must embrace the “ministry of reconciliation” (5:18). This mandate is couched in the language of gift rather than obligation: this vocation is “given” (5:18b), the message “entrusted” to us (5:19b). Yet with the gift comes responsibility, which is taken up in 5:20-21.
God’s “appeal” (Greek “parakaleō”) is both an invitation and a challenge, made through the agency of Jesus-Movement “ambassadors.” In the Greek-speaking Roman Empire, “ambassador” (Greek “presbeuomen”) had thoroughly political connotations (see Luke’s use of the term in Luke 14:32, 19:14). A “legatus” (the Latin equivalent, whence our word “delegation”) was usually appointed by the emperor to represent imperial interests in foreign lands: facilitating intelligence gathering, negotiating trade deals, wielding threats or offering compromises. But this was not Paul’s meaning. While Caesar’s envoys throughout the Mediterranean world strove to defeat enemies and bend nations to the will of the Pax Romana, the emissaries of Christ were to appeal to those same peoples to be reconciled to God and one another (2 Corinthians 5:20b).
The indicative mood now gives way to imperative, a transition typical of Paul’s rhetorical style. Divine realities are waiting to be realized in our lives, so Paul as the emissary of Christ pleads: “Be reconciled to God.” This “balancing of the books” is predicated upon making peace with those from whom one is alienated, including one’s ethnic or political enemies—hence the need for “ambassadors.”
The purpose of God’s extraordinary initiative in Christ is so “that in him we might become the justice of God” (5:21). This key Pauline phrase, which appears some 10 times in his letters, is a polemical phrase, asserting that divine fairness is utterly opposed to Roman “iustitia” (justice). It cannot be equated with our notions of retributive justice. The engrained retributive logic of the “flesh” stipulates that debtors must be imprisoned and offenders punished. In stark contrast, God models in Christ the practice of victim-initiated reconciliation. As Christopher Marshall’s important study Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime and Punishment (Eerdmans, 2001) has shown, this restorative logic lies at the center of the New Testament theology of redemption.
Later New Testament traditions referred to Paul, with no hint of irony, as an “ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:20). This ambassador inhabited the empire’s jails because he represented God’s restorative justice, which challenged the retributive politics of Caesar’s world. Paul was “co-operating” with the God who suffers with all victims of personal and political violence yet who seeks to win back the offenders as well (2 Corinthians 6:1). But there is a real cost to this discipleship, which is why Paul follows his exhortation with a litany of his own nonviolent disciplines and their consequence in the harsh world of Empire (2 Corinthians 6:3-10).
Second Corinthians 5:16-21 asserts that reconciliation is the dream of God, who through Christ has modeled restorative justice as the only means of achieving it. Paul’s theological indicative presses upon believers an urgent imperative: to renounce whatever dominant culture privileges and prejudices we have internalized in order to become a “beloved community” across lines of class, gender, sexuality, race and nation. May the Mennonite Church USA Convention this July take up afresh Paul’s challenge and invitation to become “ambassadors of reconciliation.”
Ched Myers and Elaine Enns work with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries
(www.bcm-net.org) and are members of Pasadena (Calif.) Mennonite Church. This is an edited excerpt from their book Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol I: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (Orbis, 2009).