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.