Faithful bridges to reconciliation

By David Coffey
8 Jul 2009

Novi Sad is the second largest city of Serbia and a major centre for Serbian culture, hence the nickname of the city: ‘Serbian Athens’. Every year, in the beginning of July, during the annual EXIT music festival, the city is full of young people from all around Europe. In 2005, 150,000 people visited this festival, which put Novi Sad on the map of summer music festivals in Europe.

Ten years ago it was a very different city. NATO was at war with Yugoslavia over the province of Kosovo and Novi Sad was one of the Serbian cities that bore the brunt of the bombing. The bombing left it without all of the three bridges which span the River Danube. Between 1-22 April 1999, the Varidan Bridge, Liberty Bridge and Zezelj Bridge were all totally destroyed and the population of the city was divided down the centre.

A few weeks after the bombing had ceased, I travelled to Novi Sad with Hungarian Baptist Aid for a pastoral and humanitarian visit to Yugoslavian Baptists. I heard some heartrending stories of suffering and bereavement. I saw the destruction of buildings and infrastructure, but much more serious were the traumatised lives of men, women and children.

One pastor said to me: "Their bodies are ruined and they have become disabled. Their souls are ruined and they have become disturbed. Because the 'Christian' West bombed this city, people now refuse to listen to the Good News. We are many times 'hauled over the coals' and called enemies, traitors and fifth columnists. It means that our missionary work is handicapped."

The broken bridges of the Danube created a divided city; the destruction of the bridges disrupted the normal life of Novi Sad; the debris of the bombed bridges ruined the economic life of the wider region; neighbouring countries like Hungary and Romania, which used the river Danube to transport goods down to the Black Sea, had been drawn in to the conflict. It took four years of work to remove the debris of the bombed bridges which was making the Danube dangerous for river traffic.

Reading my diary from the journey and looking again at the numerous photographs of this visit, I can’t help drawing a parallel with the broken bridges of church life:

* Where there is conflict between believers, it nearly always involves the destruction of bridges of fellowship.
* Where there have been natural friendship links, such communication is now broken.
* The aftermath of conflict leaves behind dangerous debris hidden beneath the waters.
* Others not part of the original conflict are inevitably drawn in and their lives suffer.
* It takes years for the destructive debris to be removed and for the bridges to be rebuilt.

The call to unity is a strong theme in the New Testament and we neglect the task of maintaining our unity with other believers at our peril. God’s work is always hindered by the destruction of the bridges of fellowship. When this happens, it has serious consequences. Turning a blind eye to the resulting destruction surely grieves the Holy Spirit. Those who are spiritually minded and open to the Lord’s direction are given the courage and vision to rebuild the broken bridges.

If you do some research on the history of civil engineering, you will discover some interesting features about bridge-building:

* Some people are given a vision to build bridges where none have previously existed.
* Some bridges are never built because of vested interests.
* Some bridges have to be dismantled and rebuilt when their working life is over.
* People can lose their lives in the cause of bridge-building.

A dominant experience which I encounter everywhere in the world is the capacity of Christians to exclude one another from full fellowship in the body of Christ. The pain of exclusion is present whenever ethnic origins, ancient animosities or doctrinal convictions become a more powerful force than the bloodline of life together in Christ in the believing community of the church.

In Latin America, it is sometimes enmity between traditional denominations and newer Pentecostal churches; in parts of Eastern Europe, it can be the superior relationship of the Orthodox church to every other Christian tradition; in the Balkan region, it is the ethnic tensions between Christian groupings; in North America, it is the ideological power of evangelical fundamentalism which excludes others; in Africa, it is tribal loyalties that can murderously divide; and in the United Kingdom, it can be the judgmentalism and lovelessness between evangelicals. What is common to all is the failure to cope with otherness – the simple fact of others being strangely different leads to damaging alienation.

A significant contribution to understanding the pain of exclusion has been made by the Croatian Pentecostal theologian, Miroslav Volf. He lectures at Yale University Divinity School and has written extensively on a theological exploration of identity, otherness and reconciliation, notably in his book Exclusion and Embrace. As a Croat, he draws on his personal and painful experience of living with the ethnic hatreds in former Yugoslavia and describes ethnic otherness as a filth that must be washed away from the ethnic body.

Those who encounter the pain of exclusion within the body of Christ need some firm theological foundations in order to survive, and Volf lays these foundations with a wonderful precision. Citing the biblical teaching that those who are in Christ are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17), he suggests the Holy Spirit unlatches the door of our hearts, saying ‘You are not only you; others belong to you too.’

He then provides a wonderful extended word picture which he terms the drama of embrace. Volf describes the four structural elements in the movement of embrace: the opening of the arms; the waiting for the other; the closing of the arms around the other and the releasing and opening of the arms.

* The open arms are a gesture of invitation, saying there is space for another.
* The waiting arms are a sign that, although embrace may have a one-sidedness in its origin, it can never reach its goal without reciprocity.
* Closing the arms reminds us it takes two pairs of arms for one embrace. Each is holding and being held.
* Opening the arms leaves only one outcome. A genuine embrace cannot leave either party completely unchanged.

This is why Volf calls this "the risk of embrace . . . I open my arms and make a movement toward the other and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated or whether my action will be appreciated, supported and reciprocated."

The more I reflect on this powerful symbol of a physical embrace, the greater potential I see for reconciled fellowship.

-----

This article is excerpted, with kind permission of the author, from part 5 and chapter 10 of David Coffey’s new book All One in Christ Jesus, which is available for purchase through Ekklesia here: http://tinyurl.com/mcr6tu It is particularly concerned with the vexed question of disunity among evangelical Christians. It makes a strong plea for acceptable diversity and unity in mission. See: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9811

-----------

© David Coffey is President of the Baptist World Alliance. He has worked widely in evangelical and ecumenical circles, and was formerly general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain (BUGB).

All One in Christ Jesus, by David Coffey (Authentic Media, 2009): http://tinyurl.com/mcr6tu

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.