“Put Your Finger Here …”: The Prophetic Nature of Reconciliation
Through that impenetrable airplane window, I waved anxiously at my father and grandfather, not knowing if or when I would see them again. The scene would remain forever seared in my memory.
By the grace of God, our family was eventually reunited in Miami. And now, more than four decades later, I myself was returning to be reunited with a land and a people that had given me birth. I had no idea how I, who had fled with my family and found success in the United States, would be received by the Cubans on the island. Like an orphan returning to meet his parents after forty-five years, I was deeply anxious. After all, during those four decades the people of Cuba and the Cuban exile community in the United States had seemingly become estranged. Even as many Cuban-Americans had achieved economic and political success in the United States, a large number also harbored tremendous animosity toward Cubans on the island, identifying them with the dictatorial regime under which they lived. How would the impoverished, beaten-down Cuban people who struggled to survive in such desperate circumstances receive me, who had fled with his family? Would they resent me? Would they feel that I, along with the other hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles, had abandoned them to their plight?
It did not take long for my fears to be assuaged. Wherever I went on the island, the Cuban people’s response to my visit was the same: “Thank you for not forgetting us; thank you for remembering us.” Whatever “survivor’s guilt” I may have experienced in steeling myself for the trip dissipated in the face of the stunning hospitality of the people. I, who in some very real sense had abandoned them, was now being welcomed back with open arms, no questions asked—not with a “how dare you” but with a “thank you.” Everywhere I went, the message I received was the same: “You are one of us; welcome back.”
My experience of being welcomed by those who themselves were victims was, of course, hardly unique. Only two months earlier, the Boston Globe published the story of young Kai Leigh Harriott, a five-year-old African American girl who had been paralyzed when a stray bullet severed her spine as she sat playing on the porch of her house in inner-city Boston. The Globe described the scene at the trial of Anthony Warren, the man who had shot Kai Leigh:
The little girl said the word porch and then began sobbing loudly. After her mother comforted her, 5-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott looked up from her blue wheelchair in the hushed courtroom yesterday and faced the man who fired the stray gunshot that paralyzed her nearly three years ago. “What you done to me was wrong,” the dimpled girl with purple and yellow plastic ties in her braids said softly. “But I still forgive him.” … Yesterday, in emotionally wrenching victim impact statements that left many spectators in tears, Kai and four members of her family told a Suffolk Superior Court judge that the shooting had changed their lives forever, but had also shown them the value of forgiveness. “We’re not victims here; we’re victors,” said Kai’s mother, Tonya David, addressing the court. Moments later, Warren, 29, a convicted felon who pleaded guilty yesterday to avoid a trial, approached Kai and her family and, in barely audible tones, apologized. David recalled his words later. “I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you and your family,” she said Warren told her. “I was known in the street for all the wrong reasons, and now I want to be known for the right reasons.” David shook his handcuffed right hand and embraced him.1
The following day’s newspaper article then reported the following exchange: “Asked by a reporter why she [Kai] forgave the man who shot her, she shyly but clearly said: ‘I wanted him to tell the world the truth.’ Warren had for three years denied the shooting, but changed his plea Thursday.”2
Among the victims of our society and world, that is, among the very persons in whom one would expect to find a profound anger and resentment, what one often discovers is an astonishing hospitality, gratitude, and forgiveness. Like all prophets, they thus confront us with a Love that challenges and frightens precisely because it refuses to be limited by our meager expectations. Ironically, it is more often the powerful who harbor anger and resentment against the powerless, rather than the reverse. It is the successful Cuban-American who resents the Cuban who “stayed behind.” It is the successful suburbanite who is enraged at the “demands” of the urban poor. It is the successful third-generation immigrant who attacks the recent immigrant. It is the “upstanding citizen” who refuses to forgive the African American man who shot Kai Leigh.
The Prophetic Character of Reconciliation
As Christians, we believe, of course, that we are reconciled to God and to each other through the person of Jesus Christ, particularly through Christ’s death and resurrection. In the various narratives of Christ’s passion, death, and post-resurrection appearances, therefore, the Gospel itself already sets forth a paradigm for reconciliation. Of all those per- sons who shared responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion, surely none contributed more to Jesus’ agony than the apostles themselves, those fair-weather friends who abandoned Jesus to his fate at precisely the moment when he most needed them. And surely what was most devastating about Jesus’ passion and death was not only the physical agony itself but, especially, the emotional and spiritual agony of experiencing himself abandoned by his closest friends and even by God.
Consequently, there is high drama in the risen Jesus’ appearances to his old friends, the apostles. How would he confront them? Would he excoriate them? Would he demand justice? How, in turn, would they react to the utterly unexpected appearance of the man whom they had betrayed? After all, they likely remained convinced that it was he who had in fact betrayed them by asking them to trade a throne for a cross. In Luke’s Gospel, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, in the room where they had gathered in fear of the Roman authorities. Here we read that:
[Jesus] stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them. (Lk 24:36-43)
If we read this account not simply as an appearance of Jesus to the disciples, but as an encounter between Jesus and the disciples, we gain some in- sight into the significance of Jesus’ wounds in this narrative. The wounds are not merely the evidence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. That they are indeed, but the wounds are also the evidence of the apostles’ betrayal and abandonment of Jesus on the way to Calvary. Confronted by the still-visible wounds on Jesus’ glorified body, the apostles are forced to make the connection, not only between this risen Jesus now standing before them and the man who had been crucified, but they are also forced to draw the connection between their own behavior, their abandonment of Jesus, and Jesus’ crucifixion. By fleeing, the apostles had abandoned Jesus to the Roman soldiers and to his eventual death. No wonder, then, that, when the Jesus whom they had betrayed approaches them openly displaying the wounds in his hands and side, the apostles are “terrified.” Had Jesus returned to exact justice or condemn them? Jesus’ response to their understandable fear is as utterly unexpected as was his resurrection: his first words are “Peace be with you,” and then he asks, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.” In other words, Jesus offers them peace before they’ve even acknowledged him (much less repented), then he invites himself over for dinner. That is his revenge for their betrayal; he asks them to share a meal with him.
The Gospel of John also recounts that the risen Jesus appears to the disciples and “showed then his hands and his side” (Jn 20:20). John’s account then depicts the famous “Doubting Thomas” scene:
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:24-28)
Once again, it is helpful to read this account not only as a post-resurrection appearance but also as a post-resurrection encounter—here, between Jesus and Thomas. Again, the wounds can then be seen not only as evidence of the bodily resurrection but as the instruments of reconciliation; Jesus’ invitation to “put your finger here …” is what makes possible Thomas’ response, “My Lord and my God!” Indeed, there is no indication that Thomas ever did touch the wound. Jesus’ invitation itself provokes conversion. Jesus’ invitation to touch and see his wounds is put forth not as a sign of condemnation for Thomas’ betrayal and unbelief but as an overture of forgiveness and reconciliation: “Peace be with you.”
When the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are thus interpreted not only as events in the life of the individual Jesus Christ, but as events in the life of Jesus Christ as the head of the community he founded, we see that what the resurrection embodies is not simply the victory of individual life over death but the victory of communal life over estrangement, the possibility of reconciliation in the face of abandonment and betrayal. And that reconciliation is made possible by: (1) the fact that the physical wounds of betrayal remain visible on the body of the risen Christ, (2) the risen victim’s invitation to touch and see his wounds, (3) the character of that invitation as an offer of pardon and reconciliation rather than a demand for the justice due the victim, (4) the apostles’ acceptance of Jesus’ offer (“They gave him a piece of baked fish” … “My Lord and my God”), and finally (5) the radical transformation of the apostles from a group of cowering cowards to a courageous band of disciples willing to literally lay down their lives for their crucified and risen friend and for each other.3
We can now begin to see the intrinsic relation- ship between the demands of social solidarity and justice, on the one hand, and the imperative of reconciliation on the other. Indeed, Gustavo Gutiérrez argues that the two principal themes of the Scriptures are: the gratuity of God’s love, and God’s preferential love for the poor. Jesus Christ reveals the privileged position of the innocent victim as the mediator of God’s extravagant, unexpected mercy. The ability to receive that mercy is thus dependent on our solidarity with the victims. If God’s mercy is truly unanticipated it will be encountered, above all, in those places and among those persons whom our society has deemed ungodly, unlovable. In wholly unexpected ways, they become the bearers of God’s mercy; this is the radical, prophetic, indeed scandalous message at the heart of the Gospel. In the words of the Salvadoran martyr Ellacuría, these are the “crucified people” through whom we encounter the crucified and risen Christ today—not because of who they are, since they are not inherently any more saintly or any less sinners than anyone else, but because of where they are located, on the cross alongside Jesus.
Despite my argument thus far, I am well aware that justice is also at the core of the Christian call to discipleship and reflects the character of God as this is revealed in Scripture, from the Prophets to the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. I am also aware that the logic of forgiveness is susceptible to all sorts of dangerous distortions which, in the past as today, have promoted passivity in the face of oppression and, indeed, undermined the process of reconciliation. One need not go very far to find examples of victims being exhorted to “forgive and forget,” whether Jews who are encouraged to “get over” the Holocaust, African Americans urged to let the bygones of slavery be bygones, or victims of abuse encouraged to “get on with their lives.”
The call to reconciliation in no way obviates the struggle for social justice in defense of the intrinsic dignity of the person and the rights that would safeguard that dignity. Rather, as Gustavo Gutiérrez avers, we must “situate justice within the framework of God’s gratuitous love.”4 A praxis of solidarity with the poor in their struggle for justice is the means by which we receive God’s mercy and the gift of forgiveness. In their shared gratitude for the gift of reconciliation, both oppressor and victim are liberated. “The forgiveness of acceptance bestowed by Jesus in the gospel accounts,” observes Jon Sobrino, “is something not merely beneficial, but liberating.”5 Both are liberated from themselves, argues Sobrino. “It is the gratitude of knowing oneself to be accepted,” he suggests, “that moves a person to a de-centering from self.”6 (Conversely, where a person remains unmoved by the victim’s offer of mercy, neither reconciliation nor mutual liberation is possible.)
The gratuitous mercy of God is what generates repentance, conversion, and solidarity in the struggle for justice; Thomas’ “My Lord and my God” is preceded by Jesus’ “Peace be with you.” Sobrino explains that, in the person of Jesus Christ, forgiveness is always the starting point for any consideration of sin:
It is the acceptance that is forgiveness that adequately and wholly discloses the fact that I am a sinner and gives me the strength to acknowledge myself as such and change radically. The conversion demanded so radically by Jesus is pre- ceded by the offer of God’s love. It is not conversion that requires God to accept the sinner; rather, just contrariwise, it is God’s acceptance that makes conversion possible.7
The apostles remained paralyzed by fear until the crucified and risen Christ confronted them with his wounds, demanding that they acknowledge the wounds, yet offering pardon and reconciliation. Only then could Thomas confess, “My Lord and my God.” The convicted criminal Anthony Warren remained paralyzed by his fear of the law until his victim, the five-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott, confronted him with her wounds: “What you done to me was wrong, but I still forgive you.” Only then could Warren admit, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you and your family,” and declare that “I was known in the street for all the wrong reasons, and now I want to be known for the right reasons.” Forgiveness compels confession and repentance, and repentance implies a commitment to justice: “now I want to be known for the right reasons.” The offer and reception of God’s gratuitous mercy thus implies judgment and confession, not as extrinsic but as integral to the act of forgiveness itself.8
Ultimately, full reparation for past suffering is impossible; we can never undo past injustices, and those injustices will always remain part of our present and future. What we can do is to reconstitute our relationships on a completely different foundation based on mercy, confession, penance, and solidarity. This will indeed involve restitution, “giving back” or redistributing resources, but the goal of such redistribution will not be the establishment of a status quo ante—which is impossible, in any case—but the reconciliation of oppressor and oppressed, the constitution of a reconciled community; the focus is not on the “what” of restitution but on the “who.” Justice is ultimately not a question of protecting rights but of nurturing communion.9
The Crucified People and the Ecclesia Crucis
The preferential option for the poor is nothing other than the assertion that the crucified people of history are the privileged mediators of God’s mercy in the Church and the world.10 It is a mercy that judges and convicts even as it makes reconciliation pos- sible. Yet, in so embodying that mercy, the crucified people embody the good news that “there is another way to live.”11
As mediators of the crucified and risen Christ not only in the world, but also in the Church, the crucified people also remind us that suffering is one of the marks of the Church. Indeed, it may be time to emphasize again the biblical notion of the ecclesia crucis (so central for St. Paul and Luther):
No other single ecclesiological theme receives the attention that the suffering of the church receives in our textual sources. For centuries theology has maintained that the true marks of the church are the four that are named in the Nicene Creed: “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”…Each of these notae ecclesia can find some biblical basis, but none of them can claim a fraction of the attention paid to the theme of the church’s suffering in these sacred writings… . The earliest and most prominent manner of discerning the true church and distinguishing it from false claims to Christian identity was to observe the nature and extent of the suffering experienced by a community of faith. Why? Because, of course, as Paul makes clear … if you claim to be a disciple of the crucified one you must expect to participate in his sufferings; … you will have to become a community of the cross.12 and not to us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:5-11).
The crucified people make their preemptive offer of forgiveness “so that the life of Jesus,” the crucified and risen Jesus, may be manifested in our oh-so- broken world. By taking the victims down from the cross we become capable of receiving their offer of forgiveness and Christ’s own offer of life.
Adapted from a lecture delivered at the Catholic Common Ground Initiative on June 24, 2006 at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
1 Boston Globe, April 14, 2006.
2 Ibid., April 15, 2006.
3 For a more extended treatment of this analysis of the Resurrection, see my “The Crucified and Risen Christ: From Calvary to Galilee,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Vol. 60, pp. 57-71, an abridged version of which was also published in the April 17, 2006, issue of America magazine.
4 Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1987), 87-88.
5 Jon Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1994), 92.
6 Ibid. 96.
7 Ibid. 89-90.
8 Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Liberation Theology After the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering (London: Routledge, 2001), 174.
9 Ibid. 182-183, 188.
10 Ibid. 168.
11 José Ellacuría quoted in ibid. p 171.
12 Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress,2003), 140.
13 James Alison, Knowing Jesus (Springfield, IL:Templegate, 1994), 81.
Roberto S. Goizueta is Professor of Theology at Boston College. his book, Caminemos con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment (Orbis Books, 1995), received a Catholic Press Association Book Award. He is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.