I have known a guy named Butch for years. He is like a lot of guys I know on the street: sometimes he is homeless, often he is addicted, and usually he is pleasant. Some years ago he was lucid and made an effort to fight his demons. Butch is an unlikely poet with a beautiful voice for singing. But, recently his mental illness has taken over and he no longer writes or sings. He disappears often, but in time reemerges; he tries to sell me something, I usually decline, and we talk for a while. I hope he starts to write again. Butch was known for his work as a subcontractor for “Hell’s Angels” and did a significant amount of time for a series of robberies. During one of these robberies a police officer was killed. He can be a challenge to love and he is my friend.
Reconciliation is a transformative process that is often messy and is a core CCDA value. As I have heard John Perkins say before, “Reconciliation is much more than getting together singing one another’s songs and eating the other’s food!” But as most of us know reconciliation comes from one-on-one, hard, heart work. That takes time, trust, and a reciprocal relationship that is open and vulnerable. It is true friendship. Reconciliation is not something one takes on alone. It is certainly impossible to be reconciled to “your neighbor” on your own, improbable to be reconciled by yourself “to God,” and arguably even difficult to be reconciled “to yourself” by yourself. There is a wise African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Reconciliation is a long journey and a friend is a partner in this transformative process.
Thomas Merton, a modern contemplative, speaks of the “false self” and the “true self.” The “false self” is the identity of the individual the world has formed within them: addict, murder, loser, loner, etc. The “true self” is the created self that God intended; beautiful, humble, valued, a child of God. The Body of Christ, through a friendship, is a guide in overcoming the obstacle of the “false self” embedded within all of us and is an aide to rediscover the “true self.” It is a messy, ugly, long and truly liberating process to separate what one has done and even what one has become from who one truly is and who God created them to be. It is a painful process I had to undergo after a tour of duty in Iraq and a two year prison stint; to reveal the red-headed kid from the suburbs who has an impulsive sense of adventure not meant to be used for warfare and crime, but for service to God in unstable places to some challenging people (who were not so unlike myself). Thank God I wasn’t alone!
There is an odd verse in Ephesians 4 where Paul describes Jesus’ ascension and descension. He ascended that he might also descend and took “captivity itself a captive” and “gave gifts to his people.” I take this to mean that after the cross, even captivity itself is under the dominion of Christ, so that even the captors (the traditional enemies of God and the oppressed) now have the opportunity to be set free from that which captivates them. This is of course not just for their own redemption, but so that they may participate in liberating others held in bondage. These gifts are for us- the Body of Christ, the friends of “sinners”- to guide us in the process of reconciliation. It is here we are empowered with the audacity to love and hope for some truly challenging friends.
This isn’t merely a nicety aimed at fruitlessly offering hope that is simply trivial. I wouldn’t believe it myself, what reconciliation with the aide of a friendship can do, however I have seen it work. I have seen the sex offender reconcile, get a job, a house, a nice wife, and become a respected member of the church and his community. I have seen the violent offender reconcile and overcome that which once disturbed him. Then healed, I have seen him turn around and dedicate his service to justice. I don’t see it as often as I like, but by the grace of God I see it enough to have hope for the next guy. Sometimes Butch tells me about how sad it made him how he disappointed his mother as he was locked up again and again. It is not much, he has a long way to go, but Butch knows he will not be alone when he is ready for the long journey.
Eric Harmon is the community chaplain at South Street Ministries in Akron Ohio.
He is married with two beautiful little girls, a returning citizen, and an Iraq war veteran.