"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Miroslav Volf on Embracing “The Other”

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I recall a brief discussion at seminary. Two of my classmates were discussing the importance of welcoming those of other sexual orientations. These sorts of discussions have always troubled me, not because I have any issue with those who chose lifestyles different than my own, but rather because I think it sets the bar for a Christian far too low. I tended to bluntness more at that time, and asked them the question, “So, if you believe that welcoming ‘the other’ is core to our Christian faith, will you be inviting Paul Bernardo over for dinner when he is released from prison?” One of them responded that she would never do that, with a look of dismay.

This is what I see as one of the real challenges facing the liberal western church. We have no difficulty arguing and advocating for those we can imagine spending time with…but I’ve not heard a solitary voice talking about our welcome to those we despise. Jesus, as far as I can tell, never told us to welcome those we like to spend time with. Rather, the call of Christ is to welcome “the other”, where “the other” is that we find most threatening, most unsettling, most fear-inducing. That we do not do so well (and I’m the first to admit that I too fail at this constantly).

[As an aside here, I was reminded of this danger when I recently visited the Communist museum in Prague, CZ.  Communism, in the abstract, seems like a pretty reasonable idea.  It’s in the implementation that the good idea becomes grotesque and destructive.]

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf takes this issue head-on in his book, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. I don’t have a lot of time for authors who propose theological frameworks that sound attractive in theory, but impossible to enact in a broken world. There’s a tension here, as we of the faith are called to live in the world, but not to be a part of the world. I think this drives us to a position of Christ-centric pragmatism, where we are infinitely hopeful of the glorious tomorrow but also acutely aware that we live in a gritty reality that demands action within that reality.

Volf writes from the perspective of a Croat who lived through the ethnic cleansing and violence of the Serbo-Croatian warfare of the early 1990’s. From that cauldron Volf, as a Christian, asks himself, “Can I forgive a cetnik?” From the first part of the introduction:

After I finished my lecture, Professor Moltmann stood up and asked on of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating: “But can you embrace a cetnik?” It was the winter of 1993. For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “cetnik” had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we out to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a cetnik–the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? What would it do to my identity as a human being and as a Croat? It took me a while to answer, though I immediately knew what I wanted to say. “No, I cannot — but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” In a sense this book is the product of the struggle between the truth of my argument and the force of Moltmann’s objection.

It was a difficult book to write. My thought was pulled in two different directions by the blood of the innocent crying out to God and by the blood of God’s Lamb offered for the guilty. How does one remain loyal both to the demand of the oppressed for justice and to the gift of forgiveness that the Crucified offered to the perpetrators?

This is, at last, a book about violence and faith and reconciliation that comes from the perspective of someone who has lived that struggle personally. As he says later in the introduction,

No free-floating and unaffected mind is trying here to resolve an intriguing intellectual puzzle! … My people were being brutalized, and I needed to think through the response appropriate for me, a follower of the crucified Messiah.

This brings to voice my dissatisfaction with much of the writing about this point, and particularly about violence and the attitude of the Christian community toward that violence. It is easy to talk about being an absolute pacifist, but (in my mind) far less easier to consider an appropriate response when you are about to watch your neighbours raped and murdered, and you have at hand the means to stop that. What does the Christian do? Volf does not answer that question, but he does give a perspective on our response to “the other” after the neighbour has been brutalized. (a good, if challenging summary of Volf’s work is contained in this article by a former student.)

This forms the core of my sermon for tomorrow, with brothers and sisters in Christ at St Paul’s. They are finishing a month of reflection on the question of what reconciliation means in the context of Canada’s brutal history with First Nations and other indigenous peoples. The thought was that my own struggle with identity after finding out about my indigenous heritage could form a model for the call on the greater community.  As I’ve worked through the idea, there is a direct parallel.

This is a hard topic, and even less easy for me to speak about publicly. But, I can see through Volf’s lens, that my coming to a place of accepting my “other” reflects the pattern of what our communities need to do to reconcile ourselves with the violence that we, our church and our culture have brought on our indigenous “other”.

I’ll post my sermon notes when done (at 2 am probably). The pattern starts with the New Testament narrative about “the other”, those isolated and rejected from their communities because of illness, possession and continuing ritual impurity. Christ comes to resolve “the other” by permitting them to enter back into right relationship. The healing is what allows that, but the point is not the healing (which we often focus on), but the reconciliation and return to right relationship.

Now in Canada we have the same situation historically. “The other” are those who are different, dangerous, and unacceptable. When the settlers first asserted themselves, the indigenous became “the other”, illustrated in the language of the time: killing the Indian in the child, educating savages, prohibiting pagan ceremonies, and imposing Christian faith. Now we are faced with the question of how do we reconcile ourselves with these aboriginal “other”?

Volf sets this out in fine detail in the book. It’s really a mind-blowing opus that contains almost infinite challenge to a Christian. It also presents us with an indirect commentary on the modern practice of church splits to preserve theological “integrity”. I’m particularly focusing on Volf’s use of the prodigal son parable as a model for what the motion of exclusion to embrace looks like practically.

The sermon outline:

2 Cor 5:20, “…be reconciled to God.”
Reconciliation = changed relationship after sin, repentance and forgiveness are offered and received. (Rev Don Aellen)

Call to be reconciled to “the other”, yet we fear for ourselves.
Our personal purity/holiness at risk, we exclude “the other”.

Pure <-> Impure / Holy <-> “the other” / Settler <-> Indigenous

Yet Christ came to heal “the other”: leper, bleeder, possessed are all made pure and restored to right relation.

Now, what if “the other” is a part of you long denied?

*My family story of denial, shame and loss -> healing

Need a willingness to embrace “the other”, with the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. (Volf)

The willingness requires we make space within for “the other”, and to allow mutual healing of memory. (Volf)

The prodigal son models this (Luke 15:11-32), also after Volf:

1. Opening of arms (willingness to embrace)
2. Waiting (respecting the other)
3. Closing of arms (in embrace)
4. Opening of arms (self preserved and transformed)

There is no justice without mutual embrace. (Volf)

All have sinned (Rom 3:23) and need God’s grace.  This includes the oppressor and the oppressed.

The unique call to be reconciled and reconcilers.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 1996


Written by sameo416

October 3, 2015 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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