I recently heard an conversation on television with the musician for Stephen Colbert, Jean Baptiste, on his reaction as an African American to the movement of protest in recent weeks in our country. He replied that, to his mind, America was looking for atonement, in particular for its history of slavery. This was an insightful comment, to my mind. He did not intend it as a religious comment, though of course he used a freighted religious word.
It is always interesting when cultural commentary reaches out for such words, especially when it is at a loss otherwise to express our yearning and our need. It reaches out beyond itself for it knows that the answer must lie there. Indeed today we are at a moment when the perceptive realize that the things we need are beyond our own reach to create: reconciliation, forgiveness, atonement, penitence, conversion, justification. This is not to say that these are unattainable; on the contrary, as Christians we understand that these describe precisely God’s work in Christ. In other words, amidst all the necessary work of political and social reform, there is required renewal, which is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit, who truly awakens.
It is. Hard, in such a time as this, not to think about Abraham Lincoln. He did not claim the mantle of a prophet or a preacher. And yet his speeches are permeated by the Bible, and in particular the language of atonement. He knew it was required to explain what was going on. And he knew, finally, from Whom such an achievement comes.