The Emergent Theological Conversation

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Exclusion and Embrace

Chapter 2: Exclusion

Reflection by R. Keelan Downton

Volf reads “ethnic cleansing” as a manifestation of a desire for purity. The desire for a pure church appears as early as the Donatists and is repeated at various times throughout church history. This idea of purity seems to motivate the Essenes, various Muslims throughout history and even - if memory serves - some Buddhists, so this tendency cannot be restricted to a particularly Christian or even a particularly monotheistic impulse. Most religious communities engage in some form of line-drawing that can be (and has been) taken to extremes at various points in history. It is striking how quickly the theological question of purity (whether in terms of self, doctrine, or community) moves into the political. Purity - or at least the desire to be pure - has profound implications for how we order our lives, and once we begin to talk about ordering our lives, we are already enmeshed in political questions.

Volf draws attention (through Dussel) to the horrifying underside of civilization: empire, security, freedom is supported by conquest, theft, and slavery. It brings to mind a book entitled “Why Things Bite Back” exploring how problems tend to keep pace with the technology that is intended to resolve them (i.e. as cars become safer, people take more risks when driving; as computers enable greater office productivity, they provide more time-wasting distractions).

Volf drives home the point that any revulsion we feel towards the “ethnic cleansing” that others engage in ought to be redirected towards ourselves since our recent forebears engaged in acts of equal horror. When reflecting on slavery, I think we have a tendency to mentally side with the abolitionists - we feel good when we think of ourselves as similar to them because we share their conviction that slavery is wrong. The problem with this is that the relevant comparison is not their belief but their response to injustice. If you want to know whether you would have been a slaveholder, an abolitionist, or one of the millions who accepted slavery as a part of life, the question you need to ask is “what am I doing about racism today?

Tony has suggested we keep an eye out for Volf’s proposals for a middle way between modern and postmodern constructs. One example is the warning against developing a moralizing/civilizing zeal that erects new boundaries. The other is renouncing boundaries so much that “we are unable to name what is excluded or why it ought not to be excluded”. This is reflected in his defense of nonexclusionary judgment that rejects both moralizing judgment and Rorty’s replacement of judgment with irony. The Christologically decentered center of self-giving love that Volf puts forward in response suggests that love plays a role in limiting self-giving since simply acquiescing to the demands of the other would destroy the self in the giving. Love for the other probably includes maintaining sufficient self-identity that the other does not become culpable for domination. The dynamic reality of human interaction does not allow us to state the terms of engagement beforehand (“I will allow you to change this much of me but nothing else”), but approaching love in this way can help us to avoid a false idea that love means letting the other do whatever s/he wants.

The notion that those who were classified as “sinners” in Jesus’ day were victims of a false projection of sin onto those who were socially unacceptable has significant potential to reshape discourse about sin in (post-, neo-, or otherwise) evangelical subculture. In a society where tolerance is elevated as a value, there seems to be a polarizing tendency that causes us to either 1) project serious sin outside of ourselves and our community (yes, we’re all sinners, but s/he is a SINNER) or 2) emaciate the concept so that the only significant distinction between a Christian and a non-Christian is their eternal destiny (that is, their behavior is indistinguishable). There may be a need to take our own sin more seriously, but in a way that does not downplay the moral distinction those times we get it right (or the Spirit’s power to help us do so). Volf suggests two ways of doing this. One is “renaming” (sin as moral rather than cultural) and “remaking” (people dehumanized by their own moral failings into transformed members of the community). The other is distinguishing between solidarity in sin and equality of sins.

The final thing I’d like to note is this chapter is the move from Abraham (the stranger who becomes a means of identification) to Cain (the violent other that is us). Volf invites us, with Girard, to unveil and delegitimate evil. This means naming evil in ourselves and others in a way that makes distinctions - shoplifting is of an entirely different character than child-molestation. It seems possible that lamenting our failures (claiming to be “the worst of sinners” etc...) is really an expression of narcissistic self-obsession that makes my own experience the focal point instead of engaging in the real difficulty of naming and responding to evil while deeply enmeshed in it.


At 1:15 AM, Blogger George said...

The following statements from p.85 summarize the whole chapter for me:

“…the economy of undeserved grace has primacy over the economy of moral deserts.”

“…the relationship to others does not rest on their moral performance and therefore cannot be undone by the lack of it.”

“…at the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that the “others” need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers.”

I especially like these statements because they contrast the law-based and faith-based approaches to life in Christ and describe the core essence of Christianity. The Galatians 2:19-21 passage used by Volf to explain the re-centered identity (p.69) sits at the heart of the issue. Those that fail to live by faith in the new identity of Jesus still functionally live under legal prescriptions, which by their very nature produce “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” (Gal.5:20-21). If anything other than grace sits at the heart of the person, then legal prescriptions will be present as the source of evaluation of self and others. If legal prescriptions are the base, then sin, which is empowered by law, will produce every form of wickedness, i.e., evil exclusion. Those seeking to boast in their works remain dead under law, and in “religious fervor,” degrade and oppress those that fail to meet their standards all in the name of spirituality.

In an example I believe is as descriptive of the anatomy and dynamics of exclusion as the story of Cain and Abel, Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome provides a great deal of insight into this issue. While many look at the book of Romans as “Paul’s complete treatise on the gospel,” most commentators miss the occasion of the letter—Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were judging, disdaining, and in serious conflict with each other. Romans 14:1-15:13 describes the situation in the churches quite well. The Jews needed to give up their identity in the Jewish legal system. The Gentiles needed to see that grace requires non-judgmental love for those weaker in faith. Both required an explanation of new identity rooted in their common humanity and common salvation, but did not require the complete erasure of their former selves. Was not Paul trying to redeem exclusionary attitudes and practices with the liberating gospel of grace? Ultimately, as Volf concludes, exclusion ends when maturity in the gospel occurs.

Personally, this is a challenging vision. I am reminded of Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when he and Lizzy have finally resolved their differences and have come to be engaged. In his explanation of his change of character, which Lizzy’s previous rebuke initiated, Darcy explains, “As a child, I was taught what was right; but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit.” I find that I hold myself above others that have different or outmoded ideas and approaches to Christianity and culture and often fail to realize that at that point, I’ve left Christianity. In the pride of my Christianity, I judge others. By God’s grace and Spirit, I am seeing it sooner and am actually catching myself in the act at times. Volf’s book will strengthen this effort.


1. In Volf’s affirmation of order (p.63) and the economy of grace (p.85), does Volf see any power over exclusionary practices in the oikonomia (house order) of God’s household (Eph. 2:11-3:13)? Would there be value in understanding how Paul ordered the churches to see how he broke down exclusionary barriers?

2. Where does Volf acknowledge the role of legitimate authority structures? While all authorities do have the potential of dissolving individual identities (p.71), this does not negate social arrangements’ need for them.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Jason Clark said...

The process of exclusion by having no boundaries (page 63), reminded me of some of the ecclessiogical exclusions we have.

When church is solely about a gathering of people, with correct langauge and belief etc, nothing is church, except that defined place. In this system, church is not at work, in the world etc. All is excluded.

Then we have to other extreme, maybe a pomo construct in comparison, where everything is included for church. Everything becomes church, my hobbies, my job...and ironically the last place church is, is gathered congregationally. Yet in this costruct, when everything becomes church nothing is church, and just as exclusionary.

At 12:38 PM, Blogger Jason Clark said...

Page 77, and Volf suggests that the exclusion by indifference, can be more sutainable and deadly than hate.

This ties into his previous chapter and introduction on the aborgation of the post-modern self, seeing no moral responsiblility for committment or involvement.

I fear with regards to this observation he is correct, and indifference is the malaise of consumer identity.

At 11:04 AM, Blogger George said...

I was listening to NPR this AM on my way to the office and heard a great example of exclusion and an opportunity for embrace, as understood in Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace.

According to NPR and the Washington Post, 9th Street NW between U and T streets in DC has become a culturally significant space steeped in American black culture and identity. It has been known as “Black Broadway.” However, in recent years, Ethiopian entrepreneurs and businesspersons have increasingly invested themselves in this “long-neglected strip of Northwest Washington.” The Ethiopians now want to call it “Little Ethiopia.” Black leaders resist the designation and complain about the aloofness of the Ethiopians, claiming that the Ethiopians have failed for forge ties with the black Americans. So, as you can expect and as history repeatedly tells, there is ethnic tension over territory, identity, and the naming of things.

The NPR host made an interesting comment. He said something like, “Here you have two groups of people that one would expect to work hand-in-hand and resolve this problem without conflict.” I thought, “Why would he believe that. Just because they are black?” Why would Ethiopians and American blacks automatically rise above the same sins as every other race and group of people in global history? Certainly, American blacks have endured much exclusion at the hands of white Europeans and Americans, (and African blacks), but does that make them immune to committing the same sins? As Volf says, the victims, after emerging from oppression, often commit the same crimes.

So, what does Christianity have to do with this? Well, identity is always a community thing. I’m not there and am not proposing that I could solve the problems, but I would think that there are some Christian communities in both the Ethiopian and black American communities that could provide an example and cut a path of embracing each other, knowing that the most important identities are our common bonds as people and as Christians. Is this not a place for Christian leaders to pay attention and lead in social arrangements, even as loose as these may be? Maybe this embrace would never be seen in the Post or heard on NPR, but it would eventually create an alternative to the current conflict. Again, this is commentary from the outside, and maybe I shouldn’t even be commenting on this. Anyway, true reconciliation is always a matter of giving and forgiving, which finds its root in the gospel and example of Jesus Christ. I don’t believe reconciliation and embrace is possible without this foundation. It is a change of heart.


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