Paul, in our reading today, calls on the Christians in Corinth to be “ambassadors for Christ.” This metaphor got me thinking about ambassadors and embassies. I grew up outside of Washington, D.C.; the embassies of foreign countries loomed large in the city. And my first memory of a historical moment was the Iranian Hostage Crisis, when revolutionary students in Iran took over the American Embassy in Tehran and held Americans hostage for a year.
All of that lies in the background when I hear Paul call us to be ambassadors. But I also think of one particular American ambassador: Prudence Bushnell. With surprising regularity, Bushnell showed up as our representative in the midst of tumultuous times: India when Indira Gandhi was assassinated and when the Bhopal Chemical Plant exploded, Rwanda during the genocide, Liberia as it descended into civil war, Kenya during the embassy bombings, and Guatemala during the rocky transition to a democracy. Her bio makes me wonder if she’s the Jason Bourne of the diplomatic corp.
Of course her most personally harrowing moment was the bombing of her embassy in Kenya. But throughout her career Bushnell faced difficulty. During Liberia she meet with each of the warlords carving up the country. Talking with warlord El Hadji Kromah meant traveling through checkpoints guarded by child soldiers high on drugs. They met in his living room, decorated with spent shell casings. When Bushnell went to the bathroom, Kromah locked her inside. You can imagine the panic; later she learned it was the only way to keep the door closed.
Often we think of ambassadors living in comfort - a mansion on a hill, protected by Marines, and the promise of diplomatic immunity. But Bushnell lived a different reality - confronting warlords, facing personal danger, and using her privilege to advocate for justice. When Paul called us to be ambassadors for Christ, he didn’t mean we ought to live behind gates in huge mansions but that we ought to take risks like Bushnell.
Each ambassador goes abroad with a specific set of instructions, a focus to the diplomatic work. Bushnell’s missions focused on issues of human rights and political corruption. The State Department sent her abroad to work on those issues.
Paul was clear about our diplomatic mission too; a ministry of reconciliation. Paul wrote, “God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
Earlier this fall we heard Paul say the crucifixion of Jesus was the central message of the Gospel. Now we hear why. To quote Martin Luther King, “The cross stands as the eternal expression of the lengths to which God will go to restore broken community.” And, in the shadow of God’s fantastic commitment to reconciliation, comes our diplomatic mission.
We know what the word reconcile means; and yet it’s worth remembering the freighted definition: to reconcile means to restore or rebuild a broken relationship: best friends don’t reconcile. But best friends divided by hurt or animosity or jealousy can. To reconcile, and to be about the work of reconciliation, assumes a brokenness, a hurt, a anger, a rupture.
So the need for reconciliation is premised on a realization of brokenness. But it only comes about because one of the parties takes action. Therefore, there is a boldness to reconciliation; a risk, a danger, a vulnerability.
Of course that’s why Paul used the language of diplomacy. In the ancient world, ambassadors were the messengers who crossed the battlefield in an effort to end hostilities. Ambassadors took on considerable risk to cross lines of conflict in order to bring about peace.
Paul wrote to a church he knew to be divided into rival factions, gossiping clics which each thought itself superior to the other. Be reconciled he said. Paul wrote at a time when Jews and Christians were moving apart, understanding themselves to be two different spiritual traditions. Be reconciled he said. And he wrote at a time when the world was divided by wealth and poverty into classes of haves and have-nots. Be reconciled.
Of course the situation in Corinth does not sound very different than our own in Milwaukee. We divide - Republicans versus Democrats; we divide - wealthy versus poor; we divide by race and religion, and so many other ways as well. We don’t just divide in our society but we divide in our families too. I know I’m not the only one with an estranged brother.
And to all of us, in the midst of all our divisions, Paul gives the same advice as he did to the Corinthians: be reconciled.
I’m not going to pretend a ministry of reconciliation is easy. I said I am estranged from my brother. I honestly don’t know if we’ll ever be reconciled. It’s hard for me to imagine. I’m not going to pretend to you that I’m ready to take some decisive step towards reconciliation. I may never be. After twenty years my whole extended family has settled into an odd equilibrium of estrangement. Yet I do know that working on reconciliation is our life’s work as Christians. It doesn’t mean we can heal every broken relationship in our lifetime; but it does mean that work on healing brokenness within us and around us is our highest calling; to be ambassadors crossing the lines of conflict in our lives to bring about healing, restoration, and peace.
Sometimes the work of reconciliation involves not only healing relationships but dealing with our own brokenness. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell faced this in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide. She went into Rwanda in early 1994 to pressure the Tutsi and Hutu to compromise with each other. “Make peace,” she threatened, “or I will pull the peace keepers out of this conflict.” Bushnell didn’t realize this was exactly what the Hutu wanted to happen. Our government was still in shock from the bloody murder of our soldiers in Somalia - Black Hawk Down - and worried about escalating violence in Burundi. When the genocide started in earnest, our government shifted to securing the safety of Americans and evacuating the peacekeepers. And with international peacekeepers gone, the Hutu began a systematic and brutal killing of a million Tutsi in one hundred days. Bushnell confessed later, “The slaughter was taking place at an unprecedented rate. I mean hundreds of thousands of people a day. ...And in the meantime we were listing reasons why we couldn’t do anything.”
Bushnell coordinated the American respondence, or lack thereof, from Foggy Bottom. The CIA, Defense Department, NSA, and State all knew what was happening but couldn’t decide if or how to intervene. Bushnell came to deeply regret her role. “In terms of moral imperative there is no doubt in my mind that we did not do the right thing. I could have a clear bureaucratic conscience from Washington’s standpoint and still have a soul filled with shame.”
Reconciliation - the path of restoration - meant Bushnell needed to face the horrible human cost of her actions. Paul did not just call us to make peace with others; it's also learning to be at peace with ourselves.
Ambassadors work out of embassies. An embassy functions as an odd bit of land - a tiny bit of country found overseas. Our embassy in Moscow is a bit of America in Russia; and their embassy in DC is a bit of Russia in the heart of America.
Thinking of ourselves as ambassadors and our church as an embassy suggests the church ought to be the soil of heaven in the midst of earth. I’m not sure any congregation ever measures up to that ideal; but still, it inspires me to think: how could our congregation be a bit of heaven in this city?
In thinking about the kind of space we need to do our work of reconciliation, I want to borrow from a conversation happening at universities. Universities create space for hard conversations about diversity and social justice. And in recent years people on campus have begun to talk about the difference between safe space and brave space in ways that can help us imagine the space we need to create in our lives for reconciliation.
We’ve long talked about “safe place.” Over the last several decades it became the staple phrase of diversity and social justice conversations. Facilitators worked with participants to create covenants to ensure the workshop or event remained “safe space.”
The idea behind safe spaces for conversation makes sense. Who can learn or grow when they feel verbally accosted or emotionally shamed? People need a sense of trust in order to participate fully.
But a number of scholars began to wonder if something was lost in the commitment to safety. To be safe means to be free from risk, danger, or difficulty. These goals - which could also be called “comfort” - contravened conversations about diversity and justice. Can we really talk about race in America without touching on risk, danger, and difficulty?
Often realistic discussion of diversity and justice make people uncomfortable because it brings issues of privilege and power into plain view. In other words, it can be hard for whites to hear about the effect of racism on blacks. In such situations the call for “safe space” can actually tamp down the difficult and vulnerable conversations that need to take place. The need to have safe conversations can actually just serve the desire of people in power not to be challenged.
I sometimes wonder if we make so little progress on issues of race in America because we’re more committed to safety than to reconciliation.
But the cross reminds us how hard the work of reconciliation can be; it's certainly not safe to be an ambassador. It was not safe for Prudence Bushnell to go into the camp of a warlord; and it's not comfortable, or risk-free, or uncomplicated for us to work on our own brokenness.
The critique of the concept of safe space led leaders on universities to articulate a new concept: brave space. Discussing oppression, power, injustice is all inherently an unsafe action. People who call attention to injustice are often dismissed as overly-sensitive or, if that doesn’t work, as overly-aggressive. To raise issues of diversity and justice demands bravery.
This insight led people on campuses to start using the term “brave space.” Just changing the term moved the focus from a promise of comfort to a commitment to courage. Conversations changed in several ways. Instead of “agreeing to disagree,” participants in brave space conversations try to understand the other person’s point of view.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had conversations about a difficult issue cut short, often when a person in a dominant position says, “We’ll just have to agree to disagree.” What if instead we took on conversations with a commitment to controversy with civility. Controversy with civility gives room for strong disagreement while providing a commitment to understand and work towards a shared solution.
What would it mean for our congregation to be an embassy of reconciliation, a brave space where we faced the brokenness within and around us as we work together for reconciliation?
Ambassador Prudence Bushnell last served in Guatemala. The president came to power with the support of the military and militias and her charge was to confront the government with its poor record on human rights and corruption. Bushnell cultivated a close relationship with the Guatemala president; as he lived nearby they often shared breakfast together at the embassy. One morning over breakfast Bushnell said, “Mr. President, we know for a fact that your personal secretary is accepting money from drug dealers.” The president responded, “So that must mean you think that the money ends up with me.” Bushnell said she shrugged and replied, “Mr. President, what can I say?” Despite confronting him about his corruption, they continued to breakfast together. Later, the Guatemalan president appeared in a documentary about the US mission and said of her, “Relations between our two countries have never been as good and this ambassador, she’s really good. You know, she pulls my ear now and then and tells me to shape up.” Bushnell used her embassy as a safe place for controversy with civility and in doing so effectively pressed for human rights and democratic reform.
We are ambassadors for Christ. Jesus came to reconcile humanity - to heal broken relationships within and between people. And that’s our diplomatic mission too. Go forth, as ministers of reconciliation. Alleluia and Amen.