Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Exclusion and Embrace

I am about halfway through an absolutely amazing book on the subject of forgiveness by Miroslav Volf entitled "Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation". In it, he examines (among other things) the root of conflict throughout the world and history in terms of Identity and Otherness, and why man-made solutions to hostilities always fall short.

Identity, with any particular group, often leads to a sort of defensiveness against the Other who does not share that identity. Groups have different ideas, values, roots, and various groups find themselves "at odds" with other groups around them because of that difference, a difference which is "always close to, and often the same as, hate". In the name of ethnic "purity", the defensive posture of Identity leads individuals and groups to drive out the Other. The Other must either change to be like us, or be wiped out of existence. One problem with this ideology is that one's Identity is partly made up of one's relation to the other. A great part of what makes me who I am is how I relate to those around me who are not me, not like me, and not a part of my group. Hence, to drive out the Other is in one sense to drive ourselves out.

Volf talks about the Christian response to this conflict of Identity and belonging in the world in terms of the scandal of the cross. If Christians, in baptism, share in Christ's death, and are therefore also raised with Christ, then Christ is the new "center" of our identity, not replacing but rather reorienting (transforming) while reinforcing our own identity around Him and His Kingdom. And this center is one of self-giving love. The scandal of the cross and of this self-giving love, writes Volf, is the all-too frequent failure of such love to bear positive results. It doesn't seem to "work", as we would wish it to. but it is the way we are called to follow.

The Christian is called to be separate from (though not removed or alienated from) his cultural identity. His allegiance is to God's Kingdom, but his uniqueness is not sacrificed because of that, but rather accepted as part of the body of Christ, a body with many different and unique members which all serve a unique function. Both distance and belonging are essential. It is essential to a Christian understanding of our new "Kingdom reality" that we "listen to the voices of Christians from other cultures so as to make sure that the voice of our culture has not drowned out the voice of Jesus Christ". Too often it is too easy for Christians to confuse their culture (and it's perceived benefits) with Kingdom values. Far from being "tainted" by other cultures through interaction (as "ethnic purists" fear), other cultures offer the possibility of enrichment.

A key concept to keep in mind is the fact that, within each of us, there is evil, there is the proclivity toward sin. It is easy for us to draw conclusions of a "good" side and a "bad" side in conflicts, but this division is deceptive. There is a tendency, on the part of any group that is liberated from oppression, to become the oppressors of those they have been liberated from. Conflict continues unabated throughout the world because neither side is really seeking an "end to the violence" (as is so often touted in the media), but rather they are simply seeking to become the oppressors over against those who now oppress them. It is about the desire for power and the frustration that comes from the desire for power being restricted by others.

Volf's insights have deep resonances with each of our lives, collective or individual. We all have "enemies", to one degree or another, and we all need to forgive and to be forgiven. One of the central prayers in Christianity is that God would forgive us as we forgive others. We need forgiveness, and we need to forgive if we hope to receive as much.

Forgiveness, for Volf, is not simply each going their own way without further conflict. This is not real forgiveness, which entails reconciliation. We do not ask of God to forgive us by letting us go our way as he goes elsewhere as well. Rather, we wish to be reconciled to God, to be "embraced" in his love. And so, forgiveness and reconciliation with each other can entail no less. Reconciliation begins, at it's most essential, with the willingness to embrace. This embrace cannot fully or truly happen until the sins committed have been addressed and dealt with, but without the desire to embrace the other, forgiveness hasn't even begun, no matter how "peaceful" the situation may be at present. Sin must be dealt with, not ignored. And ultimately, sin forgiven is sin forgotten - as if it never happened.

At present I am only just over halfway through this book (finished with the first major section, other issues being dealt with in more specifics in the latter half of the book). Even there I can't begin to do it justice in any sort of review. I've barely even scratched the surface of this books depths. Suffice it to say, I can't imagine a better work on the subject of forgiveness and reconciliation.

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