Exclusion & Embrace

Every once in awhile you pick up a book, try to read it, and then put it down.

Exclusion & Embrace by Yale professor, Miroslav Volf, is one of those books. I tried to read it several years ago and found it to be too wordy, too philosophical, and way above my head.

But recently I have come back to it. And though it is still hard to understand, I have found some real gems in it and it has stretched my thinking.

Volf is a Croatian theologian and he writes from that background. He watched his native land get torn apart by hatred, division, and war thus he longs to understand how divergent people and cultures can truly live together in peace.

Many of us wonder the same thing.

Our world is coming apart at the seams. A "new tribalism" is occuring across the globe. We are finding more and more reasons to separate from one another–race, ethnicity, politics, religion, culture, economics, gender, and now even sexual orientation and gender identity.

As increasing populations and a shrinking world push us more and more together, we are finding more and more ways to push apart.

Universalists say we need a "one world government" to hold us together. Multiculturists say we need to encourage the multiplication of these tribes and even promote cultural differences. And postmodernists say we should simply encourage individual autonomy, allowing people to do what they want and to form their own identities–wayward and erratic vagabonds, ambivalent and fragmented, always on the move and never doing much more than making moves (20).

Volf says that the solution will not be found in the right kind of governmental system, philosophical approach, or social arrangement. All of these kind of solutions assume that the issue is external to us. Instead, Volf proposes that the issue is internal, a matter of our hearts, and thus the only path to peace will be found in being the right kind of person.

There is much to digest in Volf's book but here is the main premise as I see it:

To a world desperate for relational peace but increasingly fragmented, the solution is found in the character of God and the cross of Christ.

Perhaps this sounds too simplistic but Volf makes a compelling case, exploring the intricacies of academic philosophy and complexities of real-world problems, to show that there really is no other solution.

Only in the character of God, as demonstrated on the cross of Christ, do we see the perfect balance of justice and grace, only there do we understand that the pathway to relational peace always involves self-giving, sacrifice, and suffering.

Here is reality: We are different. We form identities of who we are. We associate with those most like us. We tend to exclude and separate from those different than us. We justify our own opinions and actions. We vilify those who disagree with us. We oppress and feel justified. We even play the victim and "oppress the oppressor" and feel justified.

In a world so manifestly drenched with evil everybody is innocent in their own eyes (79).

The cycle of hatred and violence is hard to break. Only someone willing to bear the injustice and extend an embrace to the violator can create the space for reconcilation.

This is the cross of Christ.

To break the world cleanly into victims and violators ignores the depths of each person's participation in cultural sin. There simply are no innocents. (80)

When God sets out to embrace the enemy, the result is the cross. On the cross the dancing circle of self-giving and mutually indwelling divine persons opens up for the enemy; in the agony of the Passion the movement stops for a brief moment and a fissure appears so that sinful humanity can join in. We, the others–we, the enemies–are embraced by the divine persons who love us with the same love with which they love each other and therefore make space for us within their own eternal embrace. (129)

But what about victims of injustice? Should they just forgive?

First, the victims must realize that, in their hearts, they are capable of the same injustice.

It is a fact that cannot be denied: the wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts (87).

The language of victimization undermines the operation of human agency and disempowers victims and imprisons them within the narratives of their own victimization. …The longer the conflict continues the more both parties find themselves sucked into the vortex of mutually reinforcing victimization, in which the one party appears more virtuous only because, being weaker, it has less opportunity to be cruel. (103)

If victims do not repent today they will become perpetrators tomorrow who, in self-deceit, will seek to exculpate their misdeeds on account of their own victimization (117).

Second, the victims must realize that forgiveness does not eliminate justice but rather enthrones it.

Every act of forgiveness enthrones justice; it draws attention to its violation precisely by offering to forego its claims. Moreover, forgiveness provides the framework in which the quest for properly understood justice can be fruitfully pursued. …Only those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice (123).

In other words, we do not give up on the pursuit of justice, we just pursue it in the context of relationship and with the goal of redemption and reconciliation not revenge and retribution.

Finally, the victims must realize that even if justice is not achieved on this earth or reconciliation does not occur, God will ultimately judge. 

When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person's humanity and imitate God's love for him. And when one knows that God's love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of God's justice and so rediscover one's own sinfulness. (124)

This is not an academic affair. Facing extreme injustice and choosing to forgive is only possible through the power of God. Instead of taking out one's anger on others, we learn to pour out our anger before God and trust Him as the perfect arbitrator of justice and grace. This is where the imprecatory Psalms of the OT begin to make sense.

For the followers of the crucified Messiah, the main message of the imprecatory Psalms is this: rage belongs before God. …By placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice. Hidden in the dark chambers of our hearts and nourished by the system of darkness, hate grows and seeks to infest everything with its hellish will to exclusion. In the light of the justice and love of God, however, hate recedes and the seed is planted for the miracle of forgiveness (124).

But isn't God all love? Does He really condemn and judge sinners?

This is where Volf is the most helpful in my mind. I almost find it hard to believe that he teaches at Yale! But Volf has experienced real atrocity and bitter hatred in his lifetime and he does not sugarcoat the reality of sin or the need for God's justice.

A "nice" God is a figment of liberal imagination, a projection onto the sky of the inability to give up cherished illusions about goodness, freedom, and the rationality of social actors (298).

God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God's terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah (298).

Should not a loving God be patient and keep luring the perpetrator into goodness? This is exactly what God does: God suffers the evildoers through history as God has suffered them on the cross. But how patient should God be? The day of reckoning must come, not because God is too eager to pull the trigger, but because every day of patience in a world of violence means more violence and every postponement of vindication means letting insult accompany injury (299).

And the quote that in my mind makes the book worth the reading.

One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword. Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love? A counter-question could go something like this: Is it not a bit arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God's love are so muich healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity? …One could further argue that in a world of violence it would not be worthy of God not to wield the sword; if God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make the final end to violence God would not be worthy of our worship.

…My thesis is that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone. …Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. …Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God's refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. (303-304)

In the end, Volf calls Christians to a life of embrace. Opening our arms to others. Being willing to listen and to forgive. Being agents of reconciliation in a world of hatred and division. Speaking the truth to a deceived world…but doing so with the love of the crucified Messiah.

In a world of enmity self-giving is the risky and hard work of love. (189)

I open my arms, make a movement of the self toward the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated or whether my action will be appreciated, supported, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim–possibly both.

Embrace is grace, and grace is gamble, always (147).

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One Response to Exclusion & Embrace

  1. Pingback: Confession #5 – The Strange Gift of Dysfunction » Heelcatcher

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