Friday, July 31, 2009

Exclusion and Embrace

A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation
by Miroslav Volf

This is one of the most challenging books I have ever read. Years ago I read Martin Buber's I and Thou and walked away feeling like an idiot. I don't think I understood one word of what I read (of course that was nearly 30 years ago, I'd like to think I've progressed some since then!).

While Volf did not leave me feeling uneducated as did Buber, I still found myself having to go back and re-read passages to make certain I was grasping his arguments. Even so, I know I will have to return to this book time and again.

Do not let my difficulty dissuade you from reading Exclusion and Embrace! This is certainly well worth the read.

Dr. Volf is a Croat national who experienced the horrors of the Serbian/Croatian conflict in the 90s. In fact, this was the impetus for his book. He begins with a tale of three cities from the 90s which illustrate the challenge we face: Los Angeles (Rodney King riots/Reginal Denny), Berlin (neo-nazi skinheads marching through the streets chanting "Auslander raus!"--"Foreigners out!"), and Sarajevo (the image of the Serbian/Croatian conflict).

Volf focuses upon the theme of divine self-giving. "As God does not abandon the godless to their evil but gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through atonement, so also should we--whoever our enemies and whoever we may be."

In his wide ranging study, Volf critiques not only modernity but also post-modernity and find both mindsets incapable of solving the problem of violence and forgiveness. Post-modernity, for all of its deconstruction of the modern power structures comes out in the end sounding very much like the problem it attacks. Rather than offering a solution, post-modernity only offers the other side of the same coin.

Part of what makes this volume so difficult is Volf's desire to spell out not only his position, but the challenges and difficulties which beset his position. He is not afraid to spell out exactly the strengths and weaknesses of modern and post-modern arguments against his thesis of divine self-giving.

Toward the end, Volf gives this piece of wisdom:

Violence is not human destiny because the God of peace is the beginning and end of human history. The biblical vision of peace invites, however to a task more difficult thatn Sisyphus's. Granted, pushing the stone of peace up the steep hill of violence--doing those small neighborly acts of help even though one knows that the killer might return the next day, the next week, or year--is hard. It is easier, however, than carrying one's own cross in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah. This is what Jesus Christ asks Christians to do. Assured of God's justice and undergirded by God's presence, they are to break the cycle of violence by refusing to be caught in the automatism of revenge. It cannot be denied that the prospects are good that by trying to love their enemies they may end up hanging on a cross. Yet often enough, the costly acts of nonretaliation become a seed from which the fragile fruit of Pentecostal peace grows--a peace between people from different cultural spaces gathered in one place who understand each other's languages and share in each others' goods. It may be that consistent nonretaliation and nonviolence will be impossible in the world of violence. Tyrants may need to be taken down from their thrones and the madmen stopped from sowing desolation...But if one decides to put on soldier's gear instead of carrying one's cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the cruicified Messiah. For there, the blessing is given not to the violent but to the meek.

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