and Embrace: A Book Review
Volf’s Text on Reconciliation
Will Enrich the SPU
As a person who loves the study of history, I think that
societies of every era have lived in their own uniquely
challenging yet hopeful times. Today is no exception.
Terrorism, disease, economic instability, ethnic and religious
conflict, and debates about race and sexuality divide our global
community. Yet hope is very real. There is nothing more relevant
to the transformation of our world than the Gospel of Jesus
Christ. And there is no more powerful witness to the world
than the Gospel lived out amid conflict.
In these divided times, we are in need of a perspective that
is both globally and locally relevant. Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace:
A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation is such
a text. It was recently honored as the most helpful literary contribution to
international conflict mitigation written in the past decade. A writer for Christianity
Today called it one of those rare books that “bridge the gap between the seminary
and the mall.” In it, Volf analyzes what many consider the toughest challenge
of our time: how to understand and respond to the persistent alienation of peoples
in our world.
This fall, Exclusion and Embrace will be a topic of discussion
for the Seattle Pacific University community. The book will inform our ongoing
Diversity Initiative as we reach out to students and faculty “from every nation,
tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). Though the book’s ideas are complex,
they are well worth exploring, because Exclusion and Embrace challenges
SPU and the entire body of Christ to truly engage the culture and change
the world by dismantling the walls that divide us.
Volf, a native Croatian, knows of what he writes. Within the past 15 years, he has
lived through the ethnic violence following the collapse of communist Yugoslavia,
taught at Fuller Seminary during a period of racial tension and riots in Los Angeles,
and spoken in Berlin while Neo-Nazis marched through the streets. Using his own
story as motivation, he weaves together the personal and the global in Exclusion
and Embrace, taking an atypical approach to issues of identity, difference and
reconciliation issues that are critical to creating and living in grace-filled
The Call to Embrace
“It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world
will depend on how we deal with identity and difference. The issue is urgent.
The ghettos and battlefields throughout the world in the living rooms, in inner cities, or on the mountain
ranges — testify indisputably to its importance.”
How does one begin to understand the depth of racial and cultural difference? Exclusion and Embrace
begins and ends with this very avoidable question. Avoidable, Volf would argue, because
we instead choose to focus on three main “social arrangements” or ways to accommodate
racial and cultural differences. One, we try to eliminate differences altogether,
seeking to universally conform everyone to mainstream culture while hoping for
unity. Two, we celebrate diversity indiscriminately, promoting all difference
equally. Or three, we open ourselves to the myriad of differences in our society,
attempting to create “newer” and “freer” selves without any particular identity.
Rather than focusing on social arrangements, says Volf, we should be focusing on
developing “social agents.” He argues that social agents, not social arrangements,
transform culture. This shift in focus is a key to Volf’s “atypical” approach.
Volf proposes that we as Christians should concentrate on “fostering the kind of
social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful
societies, and on shaping a cultural climate in which such agents will thrive.”
In light of this emphasis on Christians as social agents, Jesus’ death on the cross
becomes the example for Volf of the difficulty of embracing those different from
ourselves. Jesus opens his arms, wanting all to be embraced, no one to be excluded.
His willingness to openly embrace reveals the risk of being self-giving and open
to rejection and abandonment by those who choose not to return the embrace.
Such openness, says Volf, is the “eminently counter-cultural symbol that lies
at the heart of the Christian faith,” and it “is a scandal.”
In Exclusion and Embrace, the journey to become this type
of “social agent” is revealed through an exploration of the lives of Abraham
and Paul. For Volf, their lives represent “distance” and “belonging,” two key
concepts in the Christian call to embrace.
“Distance” means that we become strangers,
forsaking a given culture to follow the “God of all cultures” as Abraham was
called to do. Distance helps us make space for others out of allegiance to God,
by helping us see the truth about our own culture and how others can enrich it.
“Belonging” means that we are aware of our cultural heritage,
as Paul was, but do not allow it to become sacred, making us unable to leave
it in our pursuit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We each have a particular racial
and cultural identity that is brought to the foot of the cross, but we are not
accepted by God based on these different identities. Rather, we are accepted
through grace and faith in Jesus Christ. We are not asked to deny our racial
and cultural differences, but to become new creatures in what Volf calls our “new universality.”
Volf gives us reason to embrace, to make space for others, to be enriched by racial
and cultural differences, and to seek unity in our Christian faith. The desire to
build partnerships with different communities is one of our “growing edges” at
Seattle Pacific through efforts such as the Diversity Initiative. I believe these
efforts will enrich the lives of our students, staff and faculty.
Like Jesus, our will to embrace different communities must be unconditional. But,
as Volf says, the embrace itself is conditional; it requires truth, justice and
reciprocation. If we are not willing to be truthful with ourselves and justly respond
to others, the embrace is meaningless. Without truth and justice, wrongs are not
judged in others or ourselves. Without reciprocation, embrace is a one-sided grasp.
“Those caught in the vortex of mutual exclusion can resist its pull, rediscover
their common belonging, even fall into each other’s arms.”
Through the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Volf searches the depth of exclusion
the opposite of embrace without leaving readers hopeless. He astutely
differentiates between exclusion and the creation of healthy boundaries,
preference and judgment. For example, preferring liturgical worship to another
tradition of worship is not exclusion, says Volf. Creating healthy boundaries
and having preferences keeps us from “becoming caricatures of one another
we must refuse to consider boundaries as exclusionary.”
Instead, exclusion occurs when we allow our good and well-intentioned
ways to stop us from having creative encounters with those who are racially and
culturally different from us. The style of our worship, the songs we sing, the
unwritten rules for accepting others, the authors we read, the people we quote
in our lectures, those we play golf with and those we choose to do business with
can all be well-intentioned but can also become “impenetrable
barriers” that prevent us from embracing people and traditions different from
What is it that prevents us from relating to different traditions? Often it is
fear of losing our identity or our place in the world. But Volf warns us that we
only lose when we refuse to embrace the full richness of God’s diverse creation.
One of my mentors often reflects on the hip-hop music tradition, which is characterized
by its willingness to embrace different musical traditions. When another musical
tradition is embraced by hip-hop, a new sound emerges that honors the distinctive
sound of both music styles. For this reason, hip-hop is performed and listened to
by every race, creed, class and culture. To reject the creative encounter of jazz and hip-hop,
for example, would keep some very talented artist, and a new sound, in obscurity.
This is the result of exclusion; it keeps new sounds from emerging, new relationships
from forming, new leaders from rising, new curriculums from being created and
new stories from being told.
This is the exact opposite of the mutual giving and receiving and
creative nature of the Divine Trinity. Where exclusion emanates from the frailty
of sinful human nature, embrace emanates from the cross. Volf challenges his
readers to look beyond acts of exclusion and “insist on the primacy of love” as
we answer the biblical call to embrace one another as members of the family of God.
Simply put, we get very little reward for loving those who love us. Our truest
salvation is realized in adversarial relationships. Powerfully, Exclusion and
Embrace challenges us to consider a “reciprocal embrace of equals.” It was
a personal challenge for me in deciding to join SPU, a community very different
from my own. God asked me to consider true love as being willing to be in relationship
with those who do not necessarily understand or value my cultural heritage as an
African-American. I had to learn to sing “Be Thou My Vision” as if it was my own
worship style; I still find myself lip-synching the words at times. There are days
I am truly uncomfortable and events that I don’t like to go to. But I’ve learned
that the SPU tradition is equal to my own. It is just as sin-filled and grace-filled as my own.
The Journey Ahead
"I felt that my very faith was at odds with itself, divided between the
God who delivers the needy and the God who abandons the Crucified, between the
demand to bring about justice for the victims and the call to embrace the perpetrator.
I knew, of course, of easy ways to resolve this powerful tension. But I also knew
that they were easy precisely because they were false.”
Readers of Exclusion and Embrace will likely experience, as I have,
areas of tension and frustration. Volf himself acknowledges the profound difficulty
of truly embracing, in Christian love, those who are different from us. As the
SPU community seeks to be both a diverse and a grace-filled community, we will
undoubtedly experience similar moments. This is not a journey of political correctness
or liberal-conservative ideologies. It is a sincere effort to live out the Gospel,
as President Eaton says, “doing everything we can to make sure that all of God’s
on our campus.”
Our goal is to be a community that actively engages the culture and makes a difference
in the world. We must realize that the journey toward embrace rather than exclusion
is not a sprint, but a marathon. It requires us to endure the ups and downs that
come with a long journey. For these reasons, I am excited that the Seattle Pacific
community will be reading Exclusion and Embrace as a resource for the future
of our Diversity Initiative.
— BY W. TALI HAIRSTON, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF CAMPUS MINISTRIES
W. Tali Hairston is in his third year as the assistant director of campus
ministries at SPU. His responsibilities include providing a pastoral presence
to students through programs sponsored by the Office of Campus Ministries and advising students
involved in urban ministry. This year, he also begins an assignment as special
assistant to the president for community partnerships. Hairston was born and
raised in the cultural and economically diverse community of the Rainier Valley
in South Seattle. His passions include demonstrating God’s love for the city and
its multi-ethnicity, urban youth leadership development and social justice.
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