So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. — Ephesians 2:19.
In this letter to the Ephesians, Paul talks of God reconciling two groups of people through Christ: The two groups are Jews (like himself) and everybody else. To reconcile usually means to make amends, to make up after an argument. But, having overheard our church treasurer working with our bookkeeper, I have learned that there is another understanding of the term reconciliation. To reconcile accounts is to make sure that they balance. The bank statement and the check register do not need to shake hands and say “All is forgiven!” At the end of the day they just need to be equal.
Reconciliation is a justice ministry. Consistent with the words of the prophets and the story of God’s intervention for the benefit of the poor, enslaved, and down-trodden, the ministry of reconciliation means that the church is called to declare God’s will for a just balance. The church is called to bear witness to the equality of all people under God.
There is a power on the earth that hates equality, that fears reconciliation, and prefers division. A history lesson: In 1663, in the colony of Virginia, Irish and English indentured servants and African slaves together plotted rebellion against their masters. The plot was put down summarily and violently. But the unanticipated alliance between white indentured servants and black slaves shook the confidence of the land owning class. In order to decrease the likelihood of another alliance between black and white servants, Virginia’s House of Burgesses passed new laws which granted new rights to white indentured servants and further restricted the rights of African slaves. White privilege was born. It was very effective. The lives of poor white indentured servants were, at first, only marginally better than that of black slaves. But the margin became wider when the term of indentured servitude was limited by law, and the term of slavery extended infinitely, from one generation to the next. Black and white servants never again joined forces against their masters in Virginia.
It is a very old strategy: in order to consolidate and maintain power, rulers create division among people, lest they unite in rebellion. In the Roman Empire, the Apostle Paul’s world, the privilege of citizenship was the reward for cooperative captives. Conquered peoples could buy citizenship for themselves and their families, and enjoy the protection of the empire. Uncooperative or rebellious peoples would be punished. The worst punishment, reserved for insurrectionists, was crucifixion.
Like most of us, the Ephesians to whom Paul wrote were probably somewhere in the middle strata. Some may have been Roman citizens, some may have been slaves, but most were probably neither elite, nor slaves. They were people who were subject to the peace of Rome. They each had their place in the imperial world order.
To these people Paul wrote, “you are no longer strangers or aliens, but you are citizens ... members of the household of God.” Equal status is the reward and equal regard is the expectation of life under the peace of Christ. Now that’s different — different from the peace of Rome and different from the domestic tranquility of these United States.
Observe how the powerful seek to create divisions among the rest of us. What if we rejected those divisions? What if we reached down and up and out to claim each other as “equally citizens?” Imagine.
The cost of discipleship may seem higher for the people who seem to have more to lose, who have been granted some privilege. But the cost of remaining blind to our privilege is higher still, because we might miss out on the experience of reconciliation and the peace of Christ that comes from being part of something new: God’s reign, emerging here on earth as it is in heaven.
As long as we accept the place that power has given us, we can live in peace. But we cannot be free. We are free only when we are reconciled to one another, when we are equality citizens of the reign of God.