Editor’s note: “Look Back” is a series designed to highlight articles from the Good Faith Media archives that remain relevant or historically interesting. If you have an article from our archives that you’d like us to consider including in this series, please email your suggestion to email@example.com. A version of this article first appeared at EthicsDaily.com on Sept. 1, 2006. At the time of publication, De La Torre was director of the Justice and Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians provides an excellent illustration of tearing down walls that separate according to power and privilege.
Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem was constructed to create segregation based on ethnicity, gender and privilege. The outermost areas allowed Gentiles, but they were forbidden from entering the inner parts of the Temple on the penalty of death, primarily because of their ethnicity.
Paul was nearly killed by a mob on the unfounded accusation that he brought “Greeks into the Temple” (Acts 21:27-29).
Beyond the space created for Gentiles to worship the living God was the Women’s Court, which as the name implies, was the area Jewish women could enter but go no further.
The next court, known as the Court of Israel, was a space constructed only for Jewish men. Beyond that was the Priests’ Court reserved for the priests.
The final court of exclusion is what was called the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest could enter the presence of God.
Hence, those with greater privilege and power were able to pass through to the more segregated spaces of the Temple.
Ephesians tells us that in Christ, this hierarchy is dismantled. Speaking to the Gentiles, those who were historically segregated, Paul reminds his audience of the time when they were excluded from membership with the people of God.
“For Christ is the peace between us,” says Paul. “He has made the two of us into one, breaking down the middle walls of partitions which used to keep us apart, actually annulling in his own flesh the hostility caused by commandments and degrees of the Law” (Ephesians 2:14-15).
For Paul, Christ provides shalom. That is, Christ provides solidarity, well-being and wholeness by tearing down the walls of the Temple so that now everyone, regardless of ethnicity, race or gender, can walk with confidence into the Holy of Holies, the very presence of God.
The focus of forgiveness must be on ushering in social and economic justice, and such a focus can very well mean a redistribution of wealth and power. In effect, the power and privilege of the dominant culture must be nailed to the cross and crucified with Jesus prior to any discussion of forgiveness can take place.
If there is no liberation for marginalized groups from the oppressive structures that benefit the dominant culture, there cannot be reconciliation. Put simply: no justice – no peace; no justice – no hope for reconciliation.
But can past atrocities ever truly be restored? Can all the sin and abuses heaped upon U.S. marginalized communities ever be atoned? The spirits of generations of ancestors who have suffered under race and ethnic discrimination may not fully be pacified until the Day of Judgment.
The book of Revelation provides us with the image of all those unjustly killed on account of God’s word who reside under the altar of heaven, crying out, “Holy and true Master, how much longer will you wait before you judge and take vengeance for our blood on those dwelling on the earth?” (Revelation 6: 9-11).
Centuries of stolen labor, broken bodies and lost opportunities all because God created many as nonwhite Europeans can never be fully compensated. Or as Nigel Walker, a criminology professor at Cambridge University, so eloquently put it, “Victims can be compensated, but not unraped or unmugged.”
And even if some consensus existed that those who continue to economically rape and mug should somehow be held accountable, our political structures would never allow this nation’s elite to stand trial for all they “legally” appropriate from marginalized communities.
It is impossible to deal with a forgiveness that can unite a disjointed community until the dominant culture deals with the injustices that continue to cause the primary division between the privileged and the powerless. Substituting forgiveness for justice makes a mockery out of both.
There can be no forgiveness without a profound realignment of how power operates within society. For this reason, the dominant culture continues to crave forgiveness while maintaining the present power structures. Because those of the dominant culture seldom want to relinquish the hold on power that privileges them, arriving at forgiveness becomes an arduous task.
In spite of the fact that there exists wrongs that can never be corrected, forgiveness provides the opportunity for the privileged and the marginalized to come together to work for justice by trying to repair the damage caused by generations of injustices through the realignment of power relationships.
As such, it becomes grace given by the marginalized, not something earned or demanded by the dominant culture. The process that can lead to forgiveness requires dealing with their public amnesia by listening as a community to the stories that arise from the margins.
More than likely, because of the dominant culture’s resistance to hearing these stories, they need to be told over and over and over again until new possibilities become evident. By verbalizing the historical and present truth can the dominant culture begin to understand their complicity with oppressive structures.
More important, as the marginalized tell their stories, they cease being passive objects of the dominant culture. In the telling of their stories, they gain subjectivity – in effect their humanity.
Reclaiming their humanity also requires recognition from a dominant culture accustomed to dismissing and discarding their margins.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.