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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