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Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism — Allan Aubrey Boesak and Curtiss Paul DeYoung

We wrote this book out of the frustration that so much of what was being called reconciliation and social justice stopped short of completing the work required. Too often “reconciliation” is used merely to reach some political accommodation that does not address the critical questions of justice, equality, and dignity that are so prominent in the biblical understanding of reconciliation. Such political arrangements invariably favor the rich and powerful but deprive the powerless of justice and dignity. This we call “political pietism.” When Christians discover that what is happening is in fact not reconciliation, and yet seek to accommodate this situation and refuse to run the risk and challenge of prophetic truth-telling, we become complicit; we deny the demands of the gospel and refuse solidarity with the powerless and oppressed. This we call “Christian quietism.” A biblical vision of reconciliation and social justice activism guides the writing of our book.

We form a unique team—one a black citizen of South Africa and the other a white citizen of the United States. We have both been academicians and both been activists. We have lived on both sides of this dynamic and creative tension of reflection and action. Beginning in the late 1960s Allan Boesak served in pastoral roles at congregations facing the brunt of apartheid and its lingering legacy. Beginning in the early 1980s Curtiss DeYoung served in pastoral roles at congregations in urban African-American communities and multiracial settings. By the 1970s Allan was an active participant and leader in the anti-apartheid struggle. He emerged in the 1980s as a primary leader and the voice of the United Democratic Front, the largest and most significant grassroots movement during the final days of the South African struggle against apartheid. By the early 1990s Curtiss was emerging as an important voice in the reconciliation movement in the United States. In the 2000s we both have served in academic settings while retaining vital connections to and involvement in activist networks and grassroots realities.

Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism brings together our central passions biblically and socially, as well as our heartfelt concerns. The book has four sections with two chapters each. In the first section “Reconciliation Redefined,” we re-examine the meaning of reconciliation in the biblical context. Curtiss begins the opening chapter, “Reconciliation in the Empire: Real, Radical, Revolutionary,” by addressing definitions of reconciliation coming from New Testament texts and takes into account the colonial context of the writers. The discussion is enriched by engagement with the biblical and theological work on empire and insights from post colonial theorists and activists from the 1950s and 1960s like Steve Biko, Aimé Césaire, Franz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and Albert Memmi. Also the Pauline emphasis on social justice that emerged from his understanding of Jesus is restored to the definition of reconciliation. In chapter two, “Reconciliation, Risk, and Resistance,” Allan reaches deep into the Hebrew Scriptures and introduces us to the story of Rizpah from 2 Samuel. It is a riveting tale of the abuse of power, powerlessness, and exclusion. It tells how religious symbols are used for political ends and how reconciliation is used in a callous and shamelessly political maneuver to exclude, justify, and distort. Rizpah not only refuses to be a victim, she refuses to confuse the word of the king with the word of God. She knows genuine reconciliation is not found in the shadow of the throne, molded by power and intrigue, but by the side of the cross, called forth by love. Rizpah becomes the true face of reconciliation.

The second section is, “Jesus Christ Reclaimed.” In chapter three, Allan and Curtiss together consider the central theme of the book, “Jesus as Radical Reconciler: Two Takes, One Perspective.” Jesus lived among the poor and exploited in “Galilee of the Gentiles.” He challenged and confronted the elites with power and authority. Jesus of Nazareth was an occupied, oppressed, and colonized subject of the Roman Empire who created a paradigm for radical reconciliation through his words, relationships, and actions for social justice. His life was a consistent witness to reconciliation from his birth to death. Through his resurrection the radical reconciler of yesterday lives on today bringing liberation to people in contexts of exclusion and division in the twenty-first century based on religion, race, culture, economics, gender, and the like as he did in the midst of first century realities. In chapter four, “‘Just Another Jew in the Ditch’: Incarnated Reconciliation,” Allan continues the engagement with Jesus of Nazareth. Taking Howard Thurman’s fascinating observation as a point of departure, this chapter revisits Luke 4:16-18 to discover the radicalilty with which Jesus confronted his world and the powers that ruled it. But in order to do this the chapter reaches back into the original context of the Isaiah 61 text to which Jesus anchors his ministry. Understanding this context, the chapter then focuses on the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-9 and grapples with the meaning of this story and draws lessons for the realization of radical reconciliation in our own contexts today.

“Beloved Communities Restored,” the third section, begins the second half of the book and we move toward the reality of what it means to live out radical reconciliation in our lives. In chapter five, “Reconciliation in Diverse Congregations: Restoring Beloved Community,” Curtiss poses the question, Do racially diverse congregations automatically experience reconciliation or could they simply become demographically diverse but not racially reconciled? This question is answered by examining the process of reconciliation in first century biblical congregations. The first century biblical model of congregations was one where an oppressed minority community welcomed privileged dominant culture persons into the local church. In chapter six, “Between Reitz, a Rock, and a Hard Place: Reconciliation after the Reitz Event,” Allan tells the story of the racial crime perpetrated on a university campus by four white students against five workers. It is an event that caused tremendous upheaval in South African society and continues to raise fundamental questions about South African and its reconciliation project. It questions assumptions about nation building and the meaning of reconciliation, confronts anew issues such as forgiveness, remorse, power, and powerlessness. It grapples with the question of generational responsibility and the response of the “post-apartheid” generation and tests the validity and worth of political reconciliation.

In our final section, “Just Societies Realized,” we pay particular attention to the role of the prophetic voice as a way of ensuring that our attempts at reconciliation are indeed radical—to the roots of injustice. In chapter seven, “When Prophets are Silenced, Injustice Prevails,” Curtiss suggests that reconcilers must take on the mantle of social justice prophecy. Using the African-American prophetic tradition and the story of the Hebrew prophet Amos, the importance and power of truth-telling is explored. In order for justice and reconciliation to prevail the hard words of prophets must be heard and implemented. Allan continues the theme of prophetic truth-telling in chapter eight, “Subversive Piety: The Radicalization of Desmond Tutu.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu is perhaps the religious personality the world most easily identifies with reconciliation. That is undoubtedly because of South Africa’s dramatic negotiated settlement and the country’s choice for reconciliation rather than Nuremberg-style judicial and political revenge and the Archbishop’s role as Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). But Desmond Tutu comes to mind also because of the Archbishop’s personal faith and his embrace of it in his public life. During the TRC process, Desmond Tutu became forgiveness personified and cemented his reputation as a truly pious Christian. This chapter asks whether much of this veneration has not something to do with a process of domestication, shaping Tutu into a mold of political pietism he does not truly represent. His piety, this chapter argues, is genuine, but it is a subversive piety which has called the apartheid regime to account, seemed to have been submerged in a non-threatening spirituality but has now re-emerged in the last few years.

Our book calls attention to the need for a reconciliation that is more than conflict resolution and political accommodation; a reconciliation that resists the temptation to domesticate the radical Jesus, pandering to our need for comfortable reconciliation under the guise of a kind of political pietism and Christian quietism that deny the victims of affliction the comfort of justice. We hope our book will move us beyond political pietism and Christian quietism to radical reconciliation. We hope it opens fresh perspectives on the kind of reconciliation we need, which indeed the world cannot do without.


Allan Aubrey Boesak was a leading figure in the church struggle against apartheid in South Africa and has served as a professor at several South African universities. He is presently a visiting professor and theologian at Butler University in Indianapolis, IN. Curtiss Paul DeYoung is professor of Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN.

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