Saturday, January 9, 2010


After much deliberation, I have decided to switch blogging servers. My new blog address is:

So...come on over! I've already added some new blog entries and hope that you won't find them too dull. I guess that starting a new year just inspired me to freshen up some things in my blog-life. Look forward to hearing from you, and I pray that you have a great new year!


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Reconciliation Book Reflections #3: Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, by Miroslav Volf

I feel significantly impacted in a number of ways by Volf's powerful material. Like many (all?) of us, I inhabit a number of narratives -- two of these narratives that often clash with one another are the story of late modernity and the Christian story. From the beginning of Exclusion and Embrace, Volf helps me gain a piece of clarity between these two stories when he addresses the two dangerous myths I’ve inherited from modernity: “the world can be healed,” and our hope lies in "social control and rational thought.” It is a sobering starting place as we come to realize that both time and the cross reveal the inadequacies of these myths. The importance of this for me is an increasing willingness to let go of humanistic Utopian hopes and to place greater stock/faith in the self-giving love displayed at the cross and in the resurrection of the Crucified.

In regard to Christian mission, I think this has the potential to sharpen our identity and purpose. First of all, as Christians, our identity is not drawn primarily from what we do or how “successful” we are. Rather, our identity is fundamentally rooted in being children of the Triune God who gives of himself to us and who will bring all things to completion in his world of perfect love. In other words, this world is in the hands of a profoundly loving and sovereign God. And therefore it may not be our purpose then to “reach the world for Christ in this generation,” as this is a profoundly modern idea. Rather, we can set the even more challenging goal of practicing self-donation as a community of God’s people called to walk worthy of our calling.

One particular insight in Volf’s chapter on “Exclusion” continues to resurface in my mind during quiet moments and it is this: “Most of us are unwilling to make space for the other because we are so intent on shaping them into who we want them to be. This is violence and exclusion.” I struggle with this thought on a least two levels. First, this characterizes so much of the tension that I experience in my relationships precisely because I become hyper-aware of what I perceive to be character flaws or weaknesses in the other person. Especially when I think of people who are close to me (i.e. immediate family members) I become despondent when I see the futility of my efforts to shape them into who I think they should be. My desperation to shape them indeed leaves little to no space for the other. And yet though I realize this proclivity toward violence and exclusion within myself, I struggle for a new approach and attitude toward these people that I am so intent on changing. How should I strike a balance between “being real” with people and not letting them “walk all over me”?

In struggling with these thoughts, Volf’s suggestion of “double vision” becomes an increasingly attractive, though still very challenging, option. Instead of making change in the other a precondition to embrace, I must begin with a desire to embrace the other. “Double vision” allows me to stand here and there where I reverse perspectives and allow the voices, ideas, and experiences of others to find room for empathy, contemplation and consideration. I will see them and myself from their perspective. I learn about the other and learn what I may have neglected within my own relatively narrow confines of life experience. It is this profound theology of the cross in which Jesus embraced his godless oppressors where I find hope and power to be open to receive others and to see things from their perspective. My willingness to embrace the other will actually lead to a deeper sense of identity since our identities are co-constitutive of each other.

What implications does this have for Christian mission? When in Christ God intends to reconcile all things, not only is he talking about the big picture, but about the small and the local as well. Christians so often get starry-eyed thinking about how they can do great things for God and yet neglect the places of brokenness in their own families. And maybe we neglect to position ourselves for reconciliation in our own families because we know just how truly difficult it will be -- we have intimate, first-hand knowledge that that kind of reconciliation can’t be done. We have become unwilling to make space in ourselves for the other family member because they’ve refused to be shaped into the person we want them to be. However, if we, precisely as Christians, allow the vision of Jesus’ embrace of sinners on the cross to shape us, then learning to practice double-vision within our own families without intention to mold others in our image can become a channel for healing and reconciliation.
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Cover of "The End of Memory: Remembering ...Cover via Amazon

Reconciliation Book Reflections #2: The End of Memory, by Miroslav Volf

Before reading The End of Memory I never thought very deeply about the subject of memory. On a somewhat superficial level I conceded with those whose cry to remember atrocities simply meant that in doing so we were honoring the victims and protecting future victims. However, in reading Volf’s book I have become convinced that, as he says, memories are morally ambiguous and must be redeemed, not just put up with. In chapter three Volf explains that an important component of remembering is remembering truthfully. When we fail to remember truthfully we also commit injustice.

As God’s people who locate ourselves especially with the weak, marginalized, and oppressed of the world, I think that Volf’s work is helpful because it reminds us that solidarity and liberation is only one aspect of the mission God has called us to. If we forget the theological importance of positioning and intervening for reconciliation among the victims of this world, then our attempts at liberation can easily tend toward oppression once then weak have gained power. In our lives with the oppressed, it is the Passion memory that can shape our interaction with those who oppress. The Passion memory teaches us a number of things: 1) to extend unconditional grace, 2) to affirm as valid the claims of justice (these first two translate into the pursuit of forgiveness), 3) to aim for communion, 4) for victims to see themselves also as sinners embraced by God, 5) that any wrongdoing committed against me is already atoned for, and 6) in light of the anticipated final reconciliation, every wrongdoing can be remembered in light of future reconciliation with the wrongdoer. If the Christian community in solidarity with those who suffer live out this story then new communities of reconciliation can be born and cycles of violence will be broken.

Finally, Volf’s explanation of the not-coming-to-mind of wrongs suffered in the world to come is a beautiful vision of hope and freedom, I think. This eschatological vision of the world of perfect love, though speculative, is truly beautiful and something to anticipate. If we know that the memory of wrongs suffered will one day not come to mind, maybe this helps us to release our greedy hold on such memories. I have learned that we remember so that we can forgive and reconcile, and we forgive and reconcile so that we can let go of those memories. In God’s world the purpose of memory is a community of perfect love and embrace.
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Reconciliation Book Reflections #1: Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision For Justice, Peace and Healing, by Katongole & Rice

Even in the secular world, where most do not live into God’s grand narrative, the desire for reconciliatory studies, programs, and commissions is greatly increasing. Though modernity has promised new levels of peace as our understanding increases this has patently not materialized. Instead we see ever deepening divisions across racial, economic, cultural, religious, and familial lines in such alarming ways that people are crying out for some sort of reconciliatory procedures. But, as the authors point out, without a coherent narrative framework our definitions of reconciliation will lack clarity. And thus we find some of the most prominent notions of reconciliation today to be: 1) reconciliation as individual salvation, 2) reconciliation as celebrating diversity, 3) reconciliation as addressing injustice, and 4) reconciliation as firefighting. The first of these focuses completely on the reconciling relationship between God and humanity without concern for social realities. The second, celebrating diversity, fails to offer a higher vision than of simply celebrating one’s own uniqueness. Reconciliation as addressing injustice is limited when it does not cast a new vision of former enemies restored and living together. And reconciliation as firefighting, often done by “experts,” cannot offer a long-term alternative vision for victim and victimizer embraced.

In contrast to these distorted understandings of reconciliation the authors propose that the concept should be understood as something that emerges out of and is sustained by the story of “the living God of Israel who raised the crucified Jesus from the dead” (42). This story reveals a God who gifts reconciliation to humanity as well as enacts transformation in the world and lives of people. Reconciliation is God’s mission in the world and he calls his church to join him in this costly journey of intimate relationship, worshipful community, belonging to places of pain, forgiveness, and living in the gaps where bridges between former enemies can be built.

The journey toward God’s new creation requires a community that is steeped in the story of Scripture and the life of God. While the church itself is flawed and does not perfectly represent the new reality of all things reconciled, in its life, ministry, and practices it is nonetheless called to be a demonstration plot that points beyond the conflict to an alternative way of living in communion together. If the church is to properly play her role in “reconciling all things,” she must join in conversation with others and be a voice that points to God’s realities beyond the visible (interrupting church). Moreover, the church must have a constant openness to be interrupted by the stranger and the needy. This all points to the fact that the church belongs very much in the material realities of everyday life, revealing that reconciliation is inexplicably tied to incarnational living.

Christian leaders, though they may not even call themselves leaders, also play a significant role in the ministry of reconciliation because they have radically dedicated their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ. These are men and women who are inspired by a vision of God’s future, see and are disturbed by the gaps of injustice and pain that exist, and then go out of their way to respond to these gaps. One cannot point to the marks of “normal” leadership for these people: efficiency and control. Rather, it is their determination to be faithful, remain in the gaps, respond to the Holy Spirit, suffer with others, and be continually transformed by God in the process that makes them so indispensable for God’s work of “reconciling all things.”

After reading Miroslav Volf’s two works, Exclusion and Embrace and The End of Memory, I found this book to be much more accessible to the “everyday” reader. Although this is a much less “academic” piece of writing I was still a bit surprised that they did not engage any of Volf’s material -- especially his exegetical work regarding the Passion. However, I feel like Katongole and Rice still offer excellent introductory insights on what a Christian vision for reconciliation should and can look like in our world today, a vision that is cogent and accessible enough for passionate followers of Jesus. My guess is that the authors are targeting ministers who are awake to the growing interest in the subject of reconciliation so that these ministers can get this book into the hands of their people.

In their argument the authors do well to show that many prevalent notions of reconciliation are watered down and lack the vision and power that God’s new creation of a community enveloped in shalom inherently evokes. Yes, reconciliation needs a narrative framework, and the authors provide theological grounding for their arguments throughout, using such stories as Creation, Ramah, and the Passion. Still, I would have liked to have seen at least a small bit of work explaining why reconciliation is so central to the biblical narrative. Overall, their argument is strong, though now having read The End of Memory, I feel like the section on “no reconciliation without memory” needs to be nuanced with the insight that there can be no reconciliation without remembering rightly, as Volf would say.

I found the section on the discipline of lament to be especially instructive and powerful. Before we can point out all of the great things about God and a future hope, we must “learn the anguished cry of lament” (77). In order to learn the practice of lament the authors say we need to unlearn three things: speed, distance, and innocence. In unlearning speed we begin to see the places of brokenness, attend to our own local places of pain, and pursue peace and reconciliation without the boastful talk of great deeds. In unlearning distance from suffering we allow ourselves to be “interrupted” by the suffering of others in our daily lives. And when we unlearn innocence it teaches us that the church is also a part of the problem and that we too must be transformed. The practices of pilgrimage, relocation, and confession can help us to engage the discipline of lament. These concrete examples help take reconciliation out of the realm of the esoteric and into simple yet challenging practices that everyone can grasp.

I also appreciate the way that the authors remind us that reconciliation is central to God’s mission, and that God’s mission has a church -- a group of people dedicated to embodying his story of new creation. We need to remember that reconciliation is not just something that individual believers decide to take on. The community of believers is a “demonstration plot” that the world can observe and see that an alternative way of living is possible. If the authors do indeed desire for this book to get into the hands of more and more laypeople, I will be right there along side of them, encouraging others to read this important book.
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