on March 2, 2000
Exclusion and Embrace is one of the most important books I have read in years. Although a very difficult book (having been written for an extremely critical academic community), it was completely worth the effort.
As one recently evacuated from a war in Africa, I began the book looking for answers on how to rebuild a broken society. I found some of those, but more importantly I found an approach to my own life as the macro issues were ultimately based on how each individual operates.
Volf's exploration of "double vision" -- building understanding through seeing from each other's perspectives -- continues to affect me, as I apply it to marriage, friendships, work, and relationships in general.
I cannot recommend the book highly enough.
on December 3, 1999
This is a sane, sober, and suggestive work. It is also nothing short of brilliant. The book will force advocates of liberation theology to gulp hard when they encounter these probing questions: "What happens when, armed with the belief in the rightness of its own cause, one side wins? How will the liberated oppressed live with their conquered oppressors?" (104). Here the primacy of reconciliation is asserted, a notion that liberation theologians have sometimes been accused of trivializing. While the book has not weakened my allegiance to liberation theology, it has made me consider eschatological possibilities and scenarios that I had heretofore overlooked. I was particularly taken with this passing line: "I am not a universalist, but God may be" (299). On the matter of style, some readers might have hoped for more footnotes to alleviate a cluttered text. Citation references are given in the body of the text itself and keyed to a very thorough bibliography. There can be no dismissing the book out of hand, however. Miroslav Volf is an outstandingly able theologian, holding two earned doctorates from Germany's University of Tuebingen. I have spoken with him in person and have found him quite engaging and friendly. His numerous writings need to be pondered diligently.
on May 9, 2005
I read this book because Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church quoted from it more than once, and what he quoted caught my attention. Here is the passage:
"Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion - without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person's humanity and imitate God's love for him. And when one knows that God's love is greater than all sin, one is free to see onself in the light of God's justice and so rediscover one's own sinfulness." (p.124)
In 306 pages, the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf shares the lessons he was teaching his seminary students while Serbian forces were establishing rape camps in and around his hometown.
In short, Volf's Exclusion and Embrace is an incisive study on whether Jesus' command to love one's enemies (Matthew 5:44) can be taken seriously. Why it must be done, how it can be done, and the obstacles that must be overcome to at least be willing to embrace the perpetrator make up the bulk of the text.
At first glance why Christians must love their enemies is obvious: because their Lord commands it. But beyond that, the importance of the commandment itself has never before become more apparent. We live in a world of holocausts, gulags, killing fields, suicide bombings, and ethnic cleansings. Volf goes at lengths to show, that unless people of difference - different cultures, religions, races - are willing to embrace the enemy, i.e., the "other", atrocities will only get worse as man's capacity to harm others grows with each technological and sociological advance.
But conceding the necessity of "loving our enemies" as the only attitude that can end the cycle of violence that plagues so many cultures, even families, for generations, Volf addresses the most difficult question of just how a believing Croatian father of a raped and murdered daughter can obey Christ's command to love the Serbian soldier who committed the crimes when every ounce of his being cries out for blood.
Remembering, forgetting, covenant, making space, double vision, living the truth, hoping in the God of violence, all of these combine to help one love his or her enemies, to help beat swords into plowsheds.
For example, Volf extrapolates from the Parable of the Prodigal Son the profound insight that it was the prodigal's rememberance of his sonship that made his repentance possible. (p.158) Moreover, it was because the father rejected the older brother's demand for plain justice and instead upheld that "relationship has priority over all [moral] rules" that reconciliation - the ultimate goal of justice - could be made complete. (p.164) Only by pursuing justice in the context of recognizing the others' common humanity can true justice be done. "Only those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice." (p.123)
Regarding making space in ourselves for the other, even when it requires much personal sacrifice, Volf writes:
"When God sets out to embrace the enemy, the result is the cross. On the cross the dancing circle of self-giving and mutually indwelling divine persons opens up for the enemy; in the agony of the passion the movement stops for a brief moment and a fissure appears so that sinful humanity can join in (see John 17:21). We, the others - we, the enemies - are embraced by the divine persons who love us with the same love with which they love each other and therefore make space for us within their own eternal embrace." (p.129)
On making space, Volf elaborates that when a person becomes a Christian, and becomes a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), "the Spirit of God breaks through the self-enclosed worlds we inhabit . . . and re-creates us and sets us on the road toward becoming . . . a personal microcosm of the eschatological new creation . . . a personality enriched by otherness." (p.51)
To take away the sting of vengeance that only swells over time, Volf also argues that we must "ultimately reach the stage of nonremembering - in the arms of God" on the basis of Revelation 21:4 and Isaiah 65:17. "Redemptive forgetting" however does not imply that judging guilt and exacting punishment must be forgotten. Indeed Volf argues for the necessity of remembering justice in order to help bring a perpetrator to a state of being able to receive forgiveness and consequently a new identity from God. (cf. the Prodigal Son) (p.136) It is this willingness to bring the enemy to this restorative new state that Volf interprets loving one's enemy entails; and this willingness, Volf argues, posits forgetting just as in Isaiah 49 a mother forgets the iniquities of her child because "she would not lose the memory of their embrace." (p.137)
I have space for only two more points. One of the book's main purposes is to instruct humanity on how to live peacefully with each other. In addition to what has already been stated, acquiring "double vision" is imperative.
Double vision is enlarging our thinking "by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspectives." (p.213) The humility that double vision presupposes, that no one should assume that they have a monopoly on the truth, is prerequisite to establishing any lasting peace, because it is the only attitude that can prevent a group from unsheathing the sword with dogmatic, judgmental zeal.
Lastly, rather than repeating the mantra that "God is love," Volf argues that in order for there to be peace in the world, believers must also uplift the God of violence. He powerfully writes:
"Without entrusting oneself to the God who judges justly, it will hardly be possible to follow the crucified Messiah and refuse to retaliate when abused. The certainty of God's just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but a necessary correlate of human nonviolence."(p.302)
The world would be a better place if people practiced the ideas explained and defended in Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace. This can be said of only a handful of contemporary books. That is the lasting impression I carried away after finishing this thoroughly satisfying work.
on September 18, 2005
I love this book and include it in the top 10 books that have influenced my life. Living in the fault zone between Muslim and Christian civilizations, and having gone through religious riots and killings in our town, the book's message is especially relevant. Reconciliation is something still being worked on.
The book is loaded with insights and nuances that cannot be boiled down to a simple message. However, it is definitely not for everyone. Much of it is extremely academic and as a doctor I could only understand it because I had been doing some reading about postmodern culture, criticism and thinking. As an outsider to Volf's academic discipline, I had the feeling I was reading a message of vital importance encased in something that the academy might accept. If so, I think it was 100% appropriate and hopefully successful. Unfortunately it also limits the audience. It's not a book I can easily get my colleagues to read. I would dearly love to see a rewrite for non-specialists, and have even started editing a readable version for friends here.
Finally, I think that there is something to Rev. Thomas Scarborough's criticism. I do not agree that the book is in any way shallow, but it does not deal satisfactorily with the difficult problem of what to do when "the other" apparently wants nothing except your own destruction, and where "justice" might seem to require the destruction or at least constraint of "the other." This can be a problem, for example, in extremely abusive family relationships, and appears to be true in some political and religious conflicts. Volf addressed this after September 11 in an interview with Christianity Today, and doubtless in other writings and addresses, but I did not get much understanding of this from the book.
on May 6, 2006
As I read this book I was challenged to understand theological foundations and keys to understanding deeply rooted conflict among peoples around the world. That is why I recommend this book to you.
I have often pondered how we, the Christian Church, are to disciple nations. Some say it is done by winning a majority of souls in a nation, but the African nation of Malawi with 90% Christians is a dismal failure in terms justice, economic development, and overall of quality of life. Some say discipling a nation is all about quality of life and institutional reform, particularly reforms consistent with modern democracies.
What is Exlusion?
Exclusion is when we set ourselves apart from others for the purpose of defining our selves and justifying ourselves; we hope to purify ourselves. The difference between us has been healed when Jesus broke the wall of enmity. However, he did not erase the difference (p. 47). The need to restore "Identity" in individuals and whole cultures is a key message of this book. As Christians, we are called to depart from our culture and step into another. It is impossible to cross-cultures effectively if you do not know who you are. Volf encourages unity in diversity, "One body, many members" (p. 48), not a universal human identity. The bible says we are distinct in our diverse individualities and cultures. The cross of Christ is central. In the scandal of the cross, we find the promise of fellowship with the Crucified Christ. He explains that the core theme of the Gospels is "come and die". Our identity is "in His image".
However, this identity is not the end; it is a means to the end. Once crucified, we are called to engage the world that is broken. Therefore every social issue must be processed through reflection on the cross. (p. 25). Volf calls us to give up on modern hopes in order to see the only hope in self-giving love (p. 28). Volf defines "exclusion" as a powerful, contagious, and destructive evil.
What is Embrace?
"Embrace", he writes, is distancing ourselves from our own cultures to create space for the other (p. 30). We must both cultivate a distance from culture and at the same time belong to our culture (p. 37). "Solitarity", Volf writes, rightly underlines God's partiality to the `helpless'. However solidarity must include self-donation, self-giving. The story of the Good Samaritan illustrates the evil of exclusion in overt acts of violence as well as the non-actions of the disinterested. Truth and justice, Volf argues, are unavailable if we do not choose to embrace (p. 29). What is needed is "space" in our hearts to embrace our neighbors (p. 51). Other cultures are not a threat, but a potential source of enrichment. As we make some distance from our own culture, we actually express judgment against evil in every culture (p. 52).
Modernity will emphasize social arrangements, not social agents. Modernity shifts the "moral responsibility away from us individually and toward society. (p. 21). In ministering to the modernist and the postmodernist, we must insist upon trans-national, trans-ethnic, transcendental communities (p. 39). We must set our hearts on pilgrimage, from our own cultures and to the kingdom of God. Modern Christians tend to seek freedom, without the accompanied "binding" responsibility to a community (p. 42). We must depart our culture with a goal. To depart without a goal, like a nomad always leaving is post-modern. (p. 40) Postmodernity creates a climate in which evasion of moral responsibility is a way of life. Relationships have become "fragmentary" and "discontinuous". Our modern culture fosters "disengagement and commitment avoidance". (p. 21)
If what Volf says is true, then `calling' must remain the focus in my ministry. My ministry focus should, as Volf exhorts, "concentrate less on social arrangements and more 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." (p. 21) What Volf makes clear is that exclusion is a sinful activity that ultimately reconfigures the creation in order to distinguish it from the creative activity of differentiation.
on August 12, 1999
This is a tremendous book. While the author writes in an academic style, there is a warmth and questioning tone that makes the method engaging. Perhaps the important thing is that I learned from this book and it is making a difference in my life. The concepts of looking at others in an attitude of embrace and of love being a necessary precursor to justice are antithetical to my societal training. I was also struck by the section comparing the concepts of covenant and contract. Permanence in relationship, what a novel concept. Volf's book is an honest attempt by a scholar to look at the complexities of relatedness and identity. An attempt to summarize his thoughts in 1000 words is bound to fail - read the book.
on June 20, 1999
This is a beautiful and powerful examination of the forces that bring us together or tear us apart. The book contains many profound ideas with abundant illustrations from the Bible and modern history. Volf is a thoughtful Protestant theologian born in Croatia who has experienced first hand all of the devastating consequences of "exclusion" as practiced between his people and Serbia. He looks at the many ways we exclude people who are different from ourselves by dehumanizing, judging, labeling and demonizing. Thus, we render inferior and less than human, people who differ by race, culture, economic status, religion and gender. And so we perpetuate injustice and victimization.
Volf then shows us that the injustices of "exclusion" can not be righted by revenge. Victims need to repent of what the perpetrators do to their souls lest they mimic the behavior of their oppressors and let themselves be shaped in the mirror image of the enemy. Neither revenge nor reparations can redress old injustices without creating new ones. The only healing path is forgiveness and reconciliation. He suggests that agreement on justice depends on the will to embrace the other and that justice inself will be unjust as long as it does not become a mutual embrace.
He has an interesting view of God's justice. We usually think of justice as treating everybody the same. Volf says that God treats different people differently so that all will be treated justly.
This book is a treasure.
on June 3, 2006
Miroslav Volf has written a somewhat complex piece that in the end advocates non-violence in a world of violence. He writes as one who has been in the war zone of the Balkans and come out the other side. This book is important for what it has to say about justice, but more importantly love. Volf has had to deal personally with Serbian fighters who raped, pillaged, put in concentration camps, and murdered his fellow Croatians and he comes down in the end on the side of taking up your cross and following Jesus. Lest one think that he is a weak pacifist, he does come down theologically on the side of a God who judges, if even by violent means, and he calls on us, who wish to appeal to the Christ of the cross for our actions, to trust in the wrath of the Lamb and the one who sits upon the throne.
He discusses what it means to set boundaries and yet embrace the other. Every chapter is important in this book. Vof comes down on the side of love even over justice and he sincerely believes that love is right and that violence is wrong.
This book has already had a major impact on many and hopefully this will continue. In a time when preachers on television are advocating war and violence it is important that somehow the real message of Christianity would come out. Volf, Desmond Tutu, Walter Wink, L. Gregory Jones, Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, N. T. Wright and others are showing the real way for Christians to be in the world and so this work is greatly appreciated.
This is not an easy read, as some other reviewers have pointed out. Volf engages many dialogue partners and the issues are at times technical and deeply philosophical, but as the spotlight reviewer put it, it is worth working through this book.
Volf does give high priority to all of scripture and some of the best sections in the book are when he works through such the Cain and Abel story, the prodigal son, and the book of Revelation.
I recommend this book for all theologians, preachers, and very serious bible students. Those outside the discipline of theology will have a harder time with the technicalities of the book, but it is worth the struggle. I recommend this book along with Desmond Tutu's book "No Future Without Forgiveness" to all of those Christian Zionist preachers out there who are misguided by the god of War and need to return to the Jesus of the cross.
Questions or Comments Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
on July 28, 2003
Volf's Exclusion and Embrace is an important book for those interested in finding their way through the murky waters of our pluralistic world with both respect for the beliefs of others while holding to one's own convictions. Volf offers a biblically based model for embracing "the others" - the real people who hold differing beliefs, values and lifestyles than ourselves.
on February 13, 2014
This is not a book for the casual reader. It is difficult in two ways. First, it is academic, highly researched with many references to theologians who are not familiar to most. Volf also writes from personal experience. Second, the "embrace" of the "other" of the "enemy" is a very difficult concept. A group at our church is reading this. It has sparked intense discussion on how difficult it is to authentically follow Christ in an angry world.
The Kindle version is difficult to read as there are many typos that leave the reader questioning meaning. Almost every page has misplaced punctuation, misspellings and typos that distract from the intensity of the discussion.
This is an important work, get the printed edition.