Reflection by Tim Oslovich
The last chapter of Exclusion and Embrace shows us how Volf’s insights into violence, forgiveness, truth and redemption lead to a way of following Jesus that rejects aggression but does not lead to passivity or despair in the face of evil. It is a way that in various ways reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Howard Yoder, and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Volf begins the chapter by recounting Michail Bulgakov’s retelling of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate in which Jesus is condemned because he foresees a time in which the power of Caesar will be eliminated because people will “pass into the kingdom of truth and justice where no sort of power is needed” (Volf 275). This is the most dangerous kind of statement that one can make to a hegemon because not only does it threaten a particular government or leader, but it reveals that all those who rule by force are ultimately illegitimate. God’s rule is coming and there is no place for domination there. The promise of God’s coming Kingdom, along with Jesus’ death at the hands of evildoers, is what under girds Volf’s way of living faithfully in a world filled with violence.
Jesus is crucified for announcing God’s Kingdom. Volf warns us that we are too quick to pass over the crucified Messiah and too eager to follow the “victorious Rider on the white house” of the book of Revelation. We accept the crucified Jesus as the means for saving us from our sins, but we much prefer to follow the victorious Christ who comes to destroy evil (Volf 276). Some contemporary American Christianity clearly accepts this division of labor between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ. It is a wonderful thing that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, but it is even better that he ascended into heaven and will one day lead a great army to wipe out all of God’s enemies. We are on his side, and if we get a head start on wiping out evil, clearly we doing God’s work. We are imitating God.
Volf rejects this reading of how we are to follow Christ and suggests that there is an alternative that enables us to live peacefully and faithfully in a violent world. However, before detailing his proposal for being faithful to both the crucified Messiah and the Christ coming in glory, Volf discards several modern and postmodern solutions to the problem of violence.
First, Volf rejects the Enlightenment claim that the abandonment of religious beliefs and an acceptance of the rule of Reason will lead to the end of violence. Although acknowledging that the “civilizing process” (read: the spread of Enlightenment ideas, the establishment of more formal governments and the declaration of a state monopoly on violence) may indeed reduce the amount of “irregular” violence in the world (i.e., violence that is not state-sanctioned), it dos not necessarily reduce violence as such (Volf 280). Volf, citing Zygmunt Baumun, points out that the Holocaust and, by implication, other instances of state-sponsored murder are completely at home in the modern world. Volf goes further than Baumun, however, in seeing a more fundamental cause of the horrors of mass killing. Whereas Bauman argues that reducing the bureaucratization of society and constructing societies in which humans have deeper connections with one another would lead to less violence, Volf responds that it is often precisely in these places of close human proximity that hatred and violence thrive. “[H]uman beings destroy what they hate, and what they hate most is a rival on their own territory” (Volf 282). This brings to mind Volf’s story earlier in the book of the Muslim woman who was brutalized and humiliated by one of her students, the only son of her neighbor (Volf 111). If a person can treat one’s teacher, neighbor, and the friend of one’s parents in this way, clearly, proximity will not solve the problem of violence. The modern tools of bureaucracy and propaganda do make mass killings more likely. Bureaucracy can be a shield of denial (“I was only doing my job;” “I was just following orders;” “I didn’t know where the train was going, I only drive it”). Propaganda can shape people’s minds in profound ways, especially when other sources of information are limited. But as Volf’s story (and countless other stories from Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and other places) clearly shows, knowing the Other does not necessarily make him or her worthy of the status of human being.
The second solution to the problem of violence which Volf considers inadequate is inter-religious dialogue. Volf is not opposed to inter-religious dialogue, but he is not optimistic that peace among religions will produce peace among nations for the simple reason that the only wars that “peace among religions” would prevent are strictly religious wars (cf. Volf 284-8). Even if religions accepted one another’s right to exist, people would still have plenty of economic, social, cultural, racial, and other reasons to kill each other. Also, as Volf points out, believers in the same religion kill each other all the time. The Mennonites’ “A Modest Proposal for Peace,” a plea that the Christians of the world not kill each other, has clearly fallen on deaf ears.
Much more important than peace among religions is the rejection of the religious legitimation of violence within each tradition (Volf 285). Only when religions reject the notion that violence can be “blessed” will religion cease to be used by political authorities to claim that their war is just and good. I think Volf makes an important claim here inasmuch as this is an either/or situation. Either religion can be used to legitimate violence (sometimes) in which case it will be used often and inevitably be used wrongly, or religion cannot be used to legitimate violence in which case no wars can claim to be “blessed.” Without downplaying the difficulties of such a choice, Volf opts for the latter as the faithful Christian option.
Volf next examines the claim that violence lies at the heart of Christianity and cannot be separated from it. Gilles Deleuze argues that the New Jerusalem, which (according to Deleuze’s reading of Revelation) comes into being when earth and most of the human race have been destroyed, is not better than the lake of sulfur. Indeed, it may well be worse because, from Deleuze’s point of view, all the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem are constantly under the gaze of God and forced to internalize God’s judgments. It is the ultimate totalitarian regime. People are completely under the control of the Ruler; everyone even thinks the same way. The fact that this Ruler is presented as a “Lamb who was slain,” simply is a mask of victimization which briefly conceals the desolation and oppression that is to come.
In order to avoid this tyrannical end, Deleuze’s postmodern solution is to eliminate making judgments. This would stop the cycle of exclusion and destruction of the other because there would be no “other.” Volf points out the inadequacy of this solution since it would prevent us from being able to “distinguish between the Butcher of Lyon and Mother Theresa” – no judgment means chaos and murder (Volf 290).
Volf acknowledges that violence is at the center to the Christian story. We cannot escape that God is involved in violence. We must acknowledge the violence done to God in Jesus of Nazareth and the violence which God must do in order to restore peace in a world gone horribly wrong. But we must also remember that violence is a distortion of the world that God created. God did not battle chaos monsters to form the earth; violence is not at the beginning of the story. As Volf reminded us in chapter II, violence and murder were human inventions. Jesus absorbed the violence that was inflicted on him, “demasked” the process of scapegoating, and struggled against violence nonviolently. Perhaps most importantly, “the cross is a divine embrace of the deceitful and the unjust” (Volf 294).
This redemption is only ultimately fulfilled in the Rider on the White Horse. Volf does not believe in the “infections power of nonviolence” (Volf 296). There are (or at least might be) some who are beyond redemption. All are offered the embrace of the Crucified One, but there are some who are not responsive to God’s love and goodness. God is patient and continually offers forgiveness and new life to everyone, but “God’s patience is costly, not simply for God, but for the innocent” (Volf 299-300). Eventually, God will (re-)create a world of justice and truth, love and peace, and God will “inflict violence against the stubbornly violent in order to restore creation’s original peace” (Volf 300). In the end, the only way to eliminate the “stubbornly violent” is violence, unless one has faith that everyone will eventually reject violence and repent freely. This seems a bit much to believe. We can posit that God’s patient love eventually wins everyone over, but could not the resister perceive God’s tenacity to change the resister’s mind as a form of violence?
God’s violence makes it possible for God’s followers to reject violence. Human violence only begets more violence. Human nonviolence will sometimes mean death for those who refuse to kill, but sometimes it also plants the seed of peace (Volf 306). What enables us to reject violence, in the face of not only our own deaths but also the deaths of others, is the conviction that God will do whatever violence needs to be done to ultimately bring about justice and redemption. Only God can do this because only God has embraced even the worst sinners and most violent perpetrators of evil on the cross. Volf argues that either humans must be violent or God must be violent if we are not to abandon any hope for justice. I agree with Volf: Unless we believe that those who are evil can always be loved into becoming good, there is no alternative to God’s violence as a penultimate reality. We can hope and pray for the redemption of all. But historical experience, not least the experience of Jesus himself, seems to indicate that nonviolence and love will not always win over the violent. That may be true even at the last judgment, and then only the exclusion of the “stubbornly violent” will usher in the Kingdom of God.
Nevertheless, we must remember that the end of the story is the Kingdom of God – the biblical vision of Isaiah 11 – a place where violence and death are no more despite the presence of (former) predators and prey. Here I would quibble with Volf over the name of that place. It is not utopia (“no place” or “good place”) but heaven, the place that is best and most real.