Iconoclasm: An Integral Part of the Church’s Mission of Reconciliation?

I will not rehash old historical debates among evangelicals as to whether or not the Church should be engaged in justice and reconciliation ministries. Rather, I will start with what has already been done by evangelical leaders on justice and reconciliation.1 From there, my main intent below is to explore a dimension of justice and reconciliation ministry that has not been widely discussed by evangelicals, namely, the notion that an individual and his or her community’s view of the nature of God, who God is, and what God is like informs both his or her theology and practice of justice and reconciliation ministry.2

In one of its many tracks, evangelical leaders came together as part of the 2004 Lausanne Forum on World Evangelization in Pattaya, Thailand, and discussed the importance of reconciliation as being central to the mission of the whole Church, which is to bring “the whole gospel to the whole world.” Consequently, they have published a paper entitled “Reconciliation as the Mission of God: Faithful Christian Witness in a World of Destructive Conflicts and Divisions.” Based on their study of the scriptures and their ministry experience in reconciliation, participants decided that reconciliation was central to the gospel and should be an integral, if not central, aspect of world evangelization. I will take this premise, which they’ve so eloquently and ably established, as given.

The authors also defined their understandings of the concepts of justice and reconciliation, noting that reconciliation is “God’s initiative….grounded in God’s restoring the world to God’s intentions, the process of restoring the brokenness between people and God, within people, between people, and with God’s created earth.” Their conception of justice is based on the notion of restorative justice, adopted from Desmond Tutu, which consists of “the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships, a seeking to rehabilitate both the victims and the perpetrators, who should be given the opportunity to be reintegrated into the community he has injured by his offence.”3

Whose God?
One thing these leaders do not explore in depth, as I mentioned in the introduction, is that the behaviour of an individual, a community, or even a nation engaged in conflict is influenced by their view of the nature of God, and by who they think God is and what God is like.

The behaviour of a community engaged in
conflict is influenced by its view of the
nature of God.

Whether we admit it or not, because God is so much greater than our human minds can comprehend, the God we worship can only be known and understood through a mirror dimly (1 Corinthians 13:11-13). This mirror, through which we view God, is influenced and shaped by cultural norms and traditions. How much of the God we worship is actually consistent with what scriptures teach us about who God is—and how much of the image of God we worship is actually an idol fashioned from our own cultural worldview—is difficult to determine. That is why scripture admonishes us to be continually transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we become more conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 12:2).

For example, books have been written about the dangers of American civil religion where the American Church and nation have been conflated. True Christian discipleship in this instance means moving beyond the idolatry of supreme loyalty to the United States above God’s commandments and exploring what it means to be loyal to God and his commandments first and foremost. It is to recognize that God’s law and American laws sometimes conflict (Acts 5:29). Therefore, the ministry of justice and reconciliation must first and foremost be an iconoclastic one. Elizabeth Johnson, a Catholic theologian, explains it like this:

Since the symbol of God is the focal point of the whole religious system, an entire world order and worldview are wrapped up with its character. Specific ideas of God support specific kinds of relationships and not others….For example, God spoken of as a wrathful tyrant can be called upon to justify holy wars and inquisitional torture chambers. Language about God as a universal creator, lover, and savior of all, on the other hand, moves believers toward forgiveness, care, and openness to inclusive community. The symbol of God functions and its content is of the highest importance for personal and common weal or woe.4

Therefore, the critical questions for those involved in reconciliation and justice ministry, are: “Who is God?” and “Whose view of God is being used to reinforce systemic oppression?” In other words, “Whose God is being worshipped by those who are viewed as the oppressors?” and “Whose God is being worshipped by those who are considered the oppressed?”

In a postmodern world in which secularism is really just the flip-side of the coin of theism, the question is no longer the question of modernity—Does God exist? I would contend that in the secular, modern worldview found in most Western cultures, even atheists have a view of God. If God did exist, they believe, he would be a certain way. They often base their rejection of God on a certain preconceived notion of God, even while denying he exists.5

As a controversial African American black liberation theologian, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright of the United Church of Christ Trinity in Chicago, Illinois, USA, recently observed in a television interview that the God worshipped by the slave trader on the deck of a slave ship was different from the God worshipped by those in the hold that were going to be sold into slavery.6

What constitutes justice and flourishing was different for the slave owner than for the slave. The slave trader saw nothing wrong with slavery, and the selling of slaves provided for their economic well-being. The God the slave trader prayed to was a God who reflected their cultural values of the time, who sanctioned the slavery of blacks because they were inferior. Very broadly, and not in all cases of course, Christian slave traders often justified the trade in African human beings from a particular interpretation of the biblical story of Noah. In their interpretation of scripture, these Africans were considered to be descendants of Noah’s son Ham who were destined to serve the descendants of the other sons of Noah, or in their worldview, the white races. Their particular beliefs about God served to sanction slavery as being scriptural.

On the other hand, the people, or cargo, in the ship’s hold identified with the captivity of the Israelites who had been sold into slavery. They identified with the God of the exodus who brought the Israelite slaves out of Egypt; they sang the Psalms of Ascent, those Psalms sung by the Israelites in their captivity. They identified with Joseph in prison, sold into captivity by his brothers in Egypt; and they identified with the Jews in captivity in Babylon, praying to the God of the oppressed. They looked to God as a deliverer. Neither picture of God constituted the entire picture of God. Rather, both were influenced by the daily experiences and culture of those who held those particular metaphors of God.

An example of why and how “Whose God” matters in conflict resolution activities can be seen in the work of Ayala Emmett, an American social anthropologist who studied women’s peace movements in the Israel/Palestine conflict.7 Emmett produced an anthropological study of the women’s peace movement in Israel prior to the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1994. Her basic thesis is that the activities of women’s peace movements prior to Oslo created necessary preconditions for the Oslo agreement by creating a political climate favourable to peace.

The religious women for peace were Jewish religious fundamentalists from the same socio-economic background of Gush Emunim, the radical religious settler movement. However, they took a different approach to interpreting the Jewish scriptures and traditions than other members of the movement did. They had a different answer to the questions: “What is the nature of God?” and “What is the foundation for an ethical way of life for Jews in Israel?” Emunim, by-and-large saw it as a mitzvah, or a good deed, to settle the West Bank. Their understanding of Judaism was a messianic one in which the will of God revolved around settling the ancient Promised Land, an understanding which promoted militancy and violence toward the Palestinians. In contrast, the religious women for peace chose to focus on the God represented in Exodus 23:9-19, which talks about giving first priority to hospitality and to treating the stranger well.

As a result, they gave priority to making peace with the Palestinians and to not oppressing them. These women called what the settlers were doing a desecration of the divine name, or Chillul HaShem, whereas the settlers insist it was a mitzvah.

The struggle over who defines the nature of God, and whose interpretation wins, was of paramount importance. The questions about the nature of God and whose God counts—the settler’s nationalistic God of War or the religious women’s God of Hospitality—was critical. Emmett wrote, “Defining the nature of God profoundly determines the actions of human beings.”8 Therefore, determining whose God matters most in this instance was a political question and had political implications for conflict resolution and peace-building.

Bringing Shalom
The final question in a ministry of reconciliation that needs to be asked is: “How can these different views of God be reconciled in a way that promotes the flourishing, the shalom, or the well-being of all human beings and not just that of the privileged few?”9 In other words, how can we test which views of God promote reconciliation and which promote oppression? Which scriptures and which interpretations of scripture about the nature of God should be privileged in a ministry of justice and reconciliation? What are the metaphors of God that should take precedence in a ministry of reconciliation? And how can the oppressed avoid becoming the new oppressors by maintaining rigid notions of a God who privileges them and their experience over those who have oppressed them?

There will be scriptures and interpretations of these scriptures that, when privileged, will promote a view of God that will facilitate justice and reconciliation, the restoration of broken relationships. I will not endeavour to give a comprehensive list here; instead, I will simply suggest a few places to begin. One example is Matthew 22:38-40 where Jesus states that the two greatest commandments, in which all the law has been summarized, are to love God wholeheartedly and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. What views of God promote love in action toward another, and what views of God permit the persecution of another?

Another example would be Genesis 1:26-27, which notes that all people are created in God’s image. So how do we view the other? Do we accord them with dignity as humans or do we demonize them? For instance, do we view Islamic fundamentalists as terrorists first or do we see them as like us, children of God for whom, according to John 3:16, Jesus also died? How might we see the image of God in them?

Other passages pertaining specifically to Christian believers include 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 3:27-29, which insist that all Christians are bearers of the image of Christ and therefore are equally worthy of respect and dignity regardless of race, gender, or economic class. We must consider how bearers of Christ’s image in our own society are oppressed on the basis of race, gender, or class.

There are no easy answers; there are only questions. However, one of the keys to conducting a successful, ethical, and godly ministry of justice and reconciliation is to begin by asking the right questions about ours and others views of God. Then, as a result of reflecting on the possible answers to these questions, we must be willing to have our own idolatrous images of God shattered.


1. Rice, Chris. 2004. “Reconciliation as the Mission of God: Faithful Christian Witness in a World of Destructive Conflicts and Divisions, Lausanne Occasional Paper No. 51.” 

2. Ibid. 56. The bibliography of the Lausanne Paper on Reconciliation relies almost exclusively on evangelical theological books on this topic. These books include the writings of Desmond Tutu, John Paul Lederach, Miroslav Volf, Christopher M. Marshall, and Gregory L. Jones.

3. Tutu, Desmond. 1999. No Future without Forgiveness. New York: Doubleday. 55.

4. Johnson, Elizabeth. 1992. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company. 36.

5. Jantzen, Grace. 1998. Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion. Manchester, U.K.: University of Manchester Press.

6. Bill Moyers interview with Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, PBS, 27 April 2008.

7. 2003. Our Sisters' Promised Land: Women, Politics, and Israeli-Palestinian Co-Existence. Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA: University of Michigan Press.

8. Ibid. 115.

9. Shalom is another concept defined in the Lausanne paper on reconciliation. The authors of the paper define shalom as “a state of wholeness, well being, peacefulness, and flourishing of all that God has created in all of its dimensions and all of its relationships.” It includes “right relationships of human beings with God, within themselves, with one another and with the created world” and it is “always rooted in justice and holiness.”

Nanci Hogan has been involved in Christian ministry for more than twenty years. During that time, she pioneered the Strategy Coordinator program for Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Later, she co-founded YWAM England's Centre for International Justice and Reconciliation, where she was involved in international advocacy on gender issues at the United Nations. Hogan is a part-time doctoral student in international politics at the University of Manchester.