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Summer 2003 | Volume 26, Number 3 | Features

Exclusion and Embrace: A Book Review

Volf’s Text on Reconciliation Will Enrich the SPU Diversity Initiative

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 Christian community.

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.

Resisting Exclusion

“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 our own.

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, many 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 children flourish 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.


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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