On December 1, 1996, Miroslav Volf released his poignant and powerful Exclusion and Embrace. At the time, I was three years old (much too young to offer a review of such heavy reading!). So now, two decades later, it is time for me to review this important book that has shaped my head and my heart.
I offer three scenes to set this book in the context of my life:
Scene 1: A college classroom without any windows. My professor kept referencing this theologian named Miroslav Volf in his lectures. These quotes struck me, became part of me. I needed to learn more
Scene 2: The balcony of a hotel room in Victoria, British Columbia. As I read Exclusion and Embrace for the first time, I remember being startled by its relevance to what I was processing in my own life and world: a church in crisis, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, racial tension.
Scene 3: My cubicle in the library at seminary. Something about Volf’s work needed to become a thesis. But what? And how?
Volf also offers three scenes to begin his book (14):
Scene 1: Sarajevo. Shells falling on crowds waiting for bread. Snipers doing what they do.
Scene 2: Los Angeles. Rodney King. Reginald Denny. White and black crash in the streets.
Scene 3: Berlin. Neo-nazis yelling “Foreigners out!” Hilter-style salutes.
In offering these three scenes, Volf diagnoses a worldwide problem: the compelling pull to exclude the other. The other is one who is different from us, who will never be like us, who is inferior to us. The other must be dealt with accordingly: by elimination (think Rwandan genocide), assimilation (think Residential schools), domination (think India’s caste system) or abandonment (think of the inner city) (74-75).
Volf understands this exclusion, as he grew up in former Yugoslavia, where ethnic and religious tensions ran high. In fact, Exclusion and Embrace partially grew from his experiences in the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990’s, where he watched Serbia aggression against his native Croatia result in atrocities. He knows what he writes.
Watching the desolation of his homeland, Volf could have cried for retributive justice, for retaliation against the perpetrators, for doing unto them as they have done. Instead, he asks for embrace.
The antithesis of exclusion is embrace, Volf’s metaphor for forgiveness and reconciliation. We embrace as we make space in ourselves to receive the other, even if the other is an enemy.
While he shares much with liberation theology, Volf does not think that the categories of oppression and liberation can carry the weight they need to. Something greater is needed. Volf also sees danger with the stark categorization of victims and perpetrators. If one is labeled solely a perpetrator, they become inhumane demons to us, unworthy of embrace. If one is labeled solely a victim, the memory of the past hurts can propel them to become tomorrow’s perpetrators (81). Again, something more is needed.
Note well: Volf does not blame victims for their victimization or let the perpetrators go free without taking responsibility for their actions. Such would be a cheap embrace. And, though the sins of the victim and the perpetrator are often entwined so intricately that we cannot unravel the threads, their sins are not equal.
Something is needed beyond victimization and perpetration, beyond oppression and liberation. It is the will to embrace. In this way, embrace is Volf’s theological axiom.
Called to Do the Same
Where does this will to embrace come from? From the crucified Messiah, hanging on the cross, with arms outstretched in an offer of embrace to the enemy. As disciples of Christ, we imitate, in our own human way, this embrace. For us, “the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take up one’s cross, follow the Crucified–and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge” (26).
Hanging on the cross, God in Christ forgives the enemy by naming and condemning the wrongdoing. He gives the gift of not allowing the wrongdoing to count against the enemy (Volf, Free of Charge 129-130). This is forgiveness.
But forgiveness is not the final word; rather, it leads to embrace. Christ extends his arms so that God and humanity may “fall into each other’s arms and restore broken communion” (125).
And as disciples of Christ, we are called to do the same. We open our arms to embrace the other, to reconcile with them, to embark on a journey of healing what has been broken or lost.
Volf does not promise that this embrace will be easy. There is much to overcome between enemies: the past, the present, the future. But this is the path Jesus’ disciples are called to walk, come what may.
Anabaptist Connections (Nonviolence & Discipleship)
Though Volf is not Anabaptist himself, Anabaptists who read Exclusion and Embrace will find much resonance with his themes of discipleship, christocentricity, and nonviolence. It is to this final resonance that we now turn.
Volf’s final chapter explores violence and peace. How can we embrace in a world shot through with violence? Volf juxtaposes the crucified Messiah hanging on the cross with the Rider on the White Horse in Revelation 19 (295). These two images of Christ seem so far from each other: how can they possibly fit together?
For Volf, the crucified Messiah and the Rider on the White Horse are both needed in order to foster human nonviolence. We are to be nonviolent in the footsteps of Jesus, recognizing that we are to leave vengeance up to God and instead embrace the other. In fact, when we know that God will judge evil in the end, this leaves room for our nonviolence today. We do not take judgment into our own hands (301-302).
In the West, we are uncomfortable with these thoughts. We do not like to think about judgment, sin, and evil. Can’t we just forget about it? Why can’t God just sweep it all under the divine carpet, so to speak? Volf warns us not to see with such sub-urban eyes:
“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” (304).
Volf calls the West out for our ignorance, for our misplaced idealism. We must learn to conceive of God’s judgment as good, for “a nonindignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence” (296).
Yet, questions remain for Volf: though I do not dispute the necessity and goodness of God’s judgment, must this judgment be necessarily violent? Or could it be more a of purging, a separation of good and evil, an exclusion?
And furthermore: is not the whole of Exclusion and Embrace undercut with Volf’s political realism in the final pages, where he writes that sometimes violence will have to be used in order to stop evil from spreading (305-306)? Is not the call to nonviolence in Jesus’ name indefinite, come what may?
Exclusion and Embrace was released in the midst of the Yugoslavian wars and in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. It was clearly relevant for that time. And Volf prophetically warned: “rapid population growth, diminishing resources, unemployment, migration to shanty towns, and lack of education are steadily increasing pressure along the many social fault lines of our globe creating ripe conditions for more Rwandas and Bosnias in the future” (277).
Unfortunately, he was right. Other-ness has remained a key player in our world, sowing seeds of strife and sorrow to this day, most recently in Syria and South Sudan.
It seems that, as Volf’s book reaches into its third decade of influence, it becomes more and more true. We want the “other” out of our land. We want to be comfortable in our insulated worlds. We don’t want to embrace the enemy; in fact, we don’t even want to be reminded that the enemy exists. We want a world without the other, at least practically if not definitively.
But disciples of Christ are called to a better way: a way of embracing the enemy, of forgiveness, of reconciliation. This is not an easy path. But it is a path where we find ourselves in the company of the crucified Messiah (26). We walk this path in the knowledge that we are not alone in our embracing of the enemy, but reach out with his arms, as they reached out for us while he hung on the cross.
Author: Stephanie Christianson
Stephanie Christianson lives in Saskatchewan, Canada with her husband Austin, where they serve with Ranger Lake Bible Camp. She holds a MA in Theological Studies (Briercrest Seminary). Her research interests including Anabaptist-Mennonite Studies, nonviolence, divine violence, and the work of Miroslav Volf.