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.