Thy Kingdom Comes, Embracing and Excluding

0687002826.jpgLots of people recommend books. But when Pastor Marty O’Brien recommends a book, I can be sure it will reorient my world. Exclusion and Embrace. A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996) is one of those books. Like Bonhoeffer and Barth, Miroslav Volk can challenge a Christian’s walk and understanding to the core.

As a native of what used to be Yugoslavia, Volk knows too well the challenge of loving and forgiving neighbors as oneself, when those neighbors seem hell-bent on destroying you and all that you love. The book is an intense meditation, as the introduction is entitled, on the cross, the self, and the other. “How should we approach the problems of identity and otherness and of the conflicts that rage around them?” he asks. His method: “Instead of reflecting on the kind of society we ought to create in order to accommodate individual or communal heterogeneity, I will explore what kind of selves we need to be in order to live in harmony with others.”

Volk rejects postmodernism for “creating a climate in which evasion of moral responsibilities is a way of life.” Instead, Professor Volk places the Cross of Christ in the Center: “as God suffers with victims, protects them, and gives them rights of which they have been deprived, so should we.” That’s the easy part. But Professor Volk also reminds us, “as God does not abandon the godless to their evil but gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through atonement, so also should we—whoever our enemies and whoever we may be.”

The book “seeks to explicate what divine self-donation may mean for the construction of identity and for the relationship with the other under the condition of enmity…. [T]he  book is an attempt to reflect on social issues based on the same decision Paul made as he proclaimed the gospel to the Corinthians – “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

But in the Present Evil Age we usually find that our Christian “self-giving is not met with self-giving, but with exploitation and brutality…In a world of violence, the cross, that eminently counter-cultural symbol that lies at the heart of the Christian faith, is a scandal:
“The ultimate scandal of the cross is the all too frequent failure of self-donation to bear positive fruit: you give yourself for the other—and violence does not stop but destroys you; you sacrifice your life—and stabilize the power of the perpetrator. Though self-donation often issues in the joy of reciprocity, it must reckon with the pain of failure and violence. When violence strikes, the very act of self-donation becomes a cry before the dark face of God. This dark face confronting the act of self-donation’s a scandal. Is the scandal of the cross good enough reason to give up on it? Let me respond by noting that there is no genuinely Christian way around the scandal. In the final analysis, the only available options are either to reject the cross and with it the core of the Christian faith or to take up one’s cross, follow the Crucified—and be scandalized ever anew by the challenge.”

Nevertheless, within the scandal is a promise:

“In serving and giving themselves for others-(Mark 10:45), in lamenting and protesting before the dark face of God (15:34), they found themselves in the company of the Crucified. In his empty tomb they saw the proof that the cry of desperation will turn into a song of joy and that the face of God will eventually “shine” upon a redeemed world.”

Professor Volk first employs the metaphor of Embrace: “the will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity… [M]y assumption is that the struggle against deception, injustice, and violence is indispensable… [W]ithin social contexts, truth and justice are unavailable outside of the will to embrace the other.”

Then comes the metaphor of “Exclusion”: “The practice of “embrace,” with its concomitant struggle against deception, injustice, and violence, is intelligible only against the backdrop of a powerful, contagious, and destructive evil I call “exclusion”.

If, as I have suggested in The Fiery Serpent, a Christian film, like a Christian life, is about a life redeemed through an in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, then Professor Volk’s work can help us, both as film and theater workers and as followers of the King, to understand how the verbs “embrace” and “exclude” affect the process of redemption. 

 I look forward to your discussion.


 Miroslav Volf challenges us, as Christians, to both belong to our culture and distance ourselves from it:

 “What we should turn away from seems clear; it is captivity to our own culture, coupled so often with blind self-righteousness.  But what should we turn to? How should we Christian communities today faced with the “new tribalism” that is fracturing our societies, separating peoples and cultural groups, and fomenting vicious conflicts? What should be the relation of the churches to the cultures they inhabit? The answer lies, I propose, in cultivating the proper relationship between distance from the culture and belonging to it.” (37)

Can our films and plays follow suit?

Professor Volf raises father Abraham and St. Paul as a models for us:

Abraham “would either belong to his country, his culture, and his family and remain comfortably inconsequential, or, risking everything, he would depart and become great…If he is to be a blessing he cannot stay; he must depart, cutting the ties that so profoundly defined him….The narrative of Abraham’s call underlines that stepping out of enmeshment in the network of inherited cultural relations is a correlate of faith in the one God….To be a child of Abraham and Sarah and to respond to the call of their God means to make an exodus, to start a voyage, become a stranger.”(38-39)

If  ”departure is part and parcel of Christian identity”, how does the Christian theater worker or filmmaker leave his inherited networks of theatrical and cinematic relations? How can he work as the stranger God, asks him to be?

Abraham’s departure is but a temporary state, Professor Volf points out, not an end in itself:

“Departures without some sense of an origin and a goal are not departures; they are instead but incessant roaming, just as streams that flow in all directions at one and the same time-are not streams but, in the end, a swamp in which all movement has come to a deadly rest.”

Abraham takes his community with him. He “is surrounded by a wandering community. Unlike Penelope of Homer’s The Odyssey, Sarah is not at home waiting and weaving while Abraham is voyaging and fighting.” (42)

St. Paul, in a sense like Abraham departs without leaving. Though St Paul did not bring a family, Volf cites N.T. Wright’s analysis of Paul’s departure without leaving. St Paul first, in the name of the one God, relativized the Torah; second, for the sake of equality, he discarded genealogy; and third, for the sake of all the families of the earth, St. Paul embraced Christ. (44-45).

St Paul moved “away from (differentiating but internally undifferentiated) bodies to the (unifying but internally differentiated) body of Christ.” As a result, “precisely because of the ultimate allegiance to God of all cultures and to Christ who offers his ‘body’ as a home for all people, Christian children of Abraham can ‘depart from their culture without having to leave it (in contrast to Abraham himself who had to .leave his ‘country’ and ‘kindred’). Departure is no longer a spatial category; it can take place within the cultural space one inhabits…The proper distance from a culture does not take Christians out of that culture. Christians are not the insiders who have taken flight to a new ‘Christian culture’ and become outsiders to their own culture; rather when they have responded to the call of the Gospel they have stepped, as it were, with one foot outside their own culture while with the other remaining firmly planted in it. They are distant, and yet they belong.Their difference is internal to the culture. (49)

So for the Christian filmmaker and theater worker “distance from a culture must never degenerate into flight from that culture but must be a way of living in a culture.”

Christians take distance from their culture because their primary allegiance is to Jesus, the King of the Kingdom of God. The Age to Come has arrived and with it comes a whole new world. “The Spirit of God breaks through the self-enclosed worlds we inhabit; the Spirit re-creates us and sets us on the road toward becoming what I like to call a ‘catholic personality’, a personal microcosm of the eschatological new creation.”

But must this ‘catholic personality’ include all others, or as some say, all “otherness”? No, says Professor Volk, “it always entails a judgment against evil in every culture.” Even in an age of great toleration, “there are evil deeds that cannot be tolerated.”

However, following Jesus’ admonition, ”the judgment must begin, however, with “the household of God” (1 Peter 4:17)—-with the self and its own culture…Distance created by the Spirit opens the eyes to self-deception, injustice, and the destructiveness of the self.”(52)


In Western society today inclusion seems to be the overriding aim: “every person must have access to all functions and therefore all persons must have equal access to education, to all available jobs, to political decision-making and the like.”

Today, including is almost always seen as good, and excluding is always seen as bad.

But the Cross of Christ arose because “they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good”.

Should Christian theater workers and filmmakers imitate Christ by rejecting false notions of good? Of truth? Of beauty? Or are we called to tolerate or “to embrace” all and everything?

To include willy-nilly would mean the destruction of all boundaries – physical, social, personal, and spiritual. The absence of boundaries is not the end of exclusion, but rather the beginning of chaos, the end of life.

Volf asks, how do we “engage in the struggle against exclusion without selling our souls to the demons of chaos?”(65)

His answer involves distinguishing between differentiation and exclusion, and exclusion and judgment.

For Volf, differentiation describes “the creative activity of ‘separating-and-binding’ that results in patterns of interdependence…The human self is formed not through a simple rejection of the other – through a binary logic of opposition and negation – but through a complex process of ‘taking in’ and ‘keeping out’.”(66)

Exclusion, on the other hand, is not a creative act. Exclusion, as sin, seeks to undo the creation by “reconfiguring the creation.” Exclusion  “can entail cutting of the bonds that connect, taking oneself out of the pattern of interdependence and placing oneself in a position of sovereign independence;” the other becomes the enemy. Or exclusion can deny the other as one ‘who in his or her otherness belongs to the pattern of interdependence;” the other becomes an inferior. (67)

A judgment must be non-exclusionary, Volf demands. We need to distinguish “between legitimate ‘differentiation’ and illegitimate ‘exclusion’ and made with humility that counts with our proclivity to misperceive and misjudge because we desire to exclude.” (68)

By participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through faith and baptism, the human self is de-centered and re-centered in Christ, “who lives in it and. with whom it lives.”

Through Christ, the Christian obtains a new King, a new center. “Significantly enough, however, the new center is a de-centered center…At the center of the self lies self-giving love…; the new center opens the self up, makes it capable and willing to give itself for others and to receive others in itself…For Christians, this ‘de-centered center’ of self-giving love—most firmly centered and most radically open—is the doorkeeper deciding about the fate of otherness at the doorstep of the self.” (71)

Jesus did not come to proclaim the Kingdom of Inclusion and defeat the Enemy Intolerance. “Instead, he was the bringer of ‘grace,’ who not only scandously included “anyone” in the fellowship…, but made the ‘intolerant’ demand of repentance and the ‘condescending’ offer of forgiveness.” (73)

The Kingdom of God comes both re-naming and re-making. He did not just name the unclean “clean”; he actually made clean things out of unclean things: “People indwelled by unclean spirits” were delivered from oppression. “People caught in the snares of wrongdoing” were forgiven and transformed. “The mission of re-making impure people into pure people aimed at tearing down the barriers created by wrongdoing in the name of God, the redeemer and restorer of life, whose love knows no boundaries. By the double strategy of  re-naming and re-making Jesus condemned the world of exclusion — a world in which the innocent are labeled evil and driven out and a world in which the guilty are not sought out and brought into the communion.”

Jesus proclaimed that the source of evil is not outside us, but rather in our impure hearts. In the Kingdom of God, sin is wanting “the world cleansed of the other rather than the heart cleansed of the evil that drives people out by calling those who are clean ‘unclean’ and refusing to help make clean those who are unclean.” (74)

Volf  points a finger at cinematographers who focus on suffering without changing their hearts through Christ: “I zoom in with a camera at some exotic exemplar of suffering, which amounts to turning the eyes away because it both satisfies my perverse desire to see suffering and appeases my conscience for having turned the heart away from the sufferer.”(77)

All are guilty, Volf maintains: the victims as well as the perpetrators. He suggests that, even if originally innocent, victims rarely resist being drawn into  the violent conflict. “From a distance, the world may appear neatly divided into guilty perpetrators and innocent victims. The closer we get, however, the more the line between the guilty and the innocent blurs and we see an intractable maze of small and large hatreds, dishonesties, manipulations, and brutalities, each reinforcing the other.”(81)

So where are we left?

“The question cannot be how to locate ‘innocence’ either on the intellectual or social map and work our way toward it. Rather, the question is how to live with integrity and bring healing to a world of inescapable noninnocence that often parades as its opposite. The answer: in the name of the one truly innocent victim and what he stood for, the crucified Messiah of God, we should demask as inescapably sinful the world constructed around exclusive moral polarities—here, on our side, ‘the just,’ ‘the pure,’ ‘the innocent,’ ‘the true’, ‘the good,’ and there, on the other side, ‘the unjust,’ ‘the corrupt,’ ‘the guilty,’ ‘the liars,’ ‘the evil’ — and then seek to transform the world in which justice and injustice, goodness and evil, innocence and guilt, purity and corruption, truth and deception crisscross and intersect, guided by the recognition that the economy of undeserved grace has primacy over the economy of moral deserts. Under the conditions of pervasive noninnocence, the work of reconciliation should proceed under the assumption that, though the behavior of a person may be judged as deplorable, even demonic, no one should ever be excluded from the will to embrace, because, at the deepest level, the relationship to others does not rest on their moral performance and therefore cannot be undone by the lack of it.”

“The answer, I hope, would be that 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. As I read it, the story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the ‘sons and daughters of hell’. ‘Since all have sinned,’ argued Apostle Paul, ‘they are now justified by his [God’s] grace as a gift through the redemption that  is in Jesus Christ’ (Romans 3:23-24)”.(84-85)

Why are we such captives to the system of exclusion?

Because our souls have been poisoned by the power of The Present Evil Age. The Prince of This Age rules too much of our lives. A preoccupation, (like Peer Gynt), with the self – identifying it, creating it, protecting it, distinguishing it, asserting it, developing it- and a failure to recognize the true nature of the self’s relationship with the other:

“The ‘will to be oneself, if it is to be healthy, must entail the will to let the other inhabit the self; the other must be part of who I am as I will to be myself. As a result, a tension between the self and the other is built into the very desire for identity: the other over against whom I must assert myself is the same other who must remain part of myself if l am to be myself. But the other is often not the way I want her to be (say, she is aggressive or simply more gifted) and is pushing me to become the self –that l do not want to be (suffering her incursions or my own inferiority). And yet I must integrate the other into my own will to be myself. Hence I slip into violence: instead of reconfiguring myself to make space for the other, I seek to reshape the other into who I want her to be in order that in relation to her I maybe who I want to be.”(91)

“Central to the Christian faith is the belief that the Spirit of the crucified Messiah is capable of creating, the promised land out of the very territory the Pharaoh has beleaguered. The Spirit enters the citadel of the self, de-centers the self by fashioning it in the image of the self-giving Christ, and frees its will so it can resist the power of exclusion in the power of the Spirit of embrace…It is by this seemingly powerless power of the Spirit—the Spirit who blows even outside the walls of the church—that selves are freed from powerlessness in order to fight the system of exclusion, everywhere—in the structures, in the culture, and in the self.” (92)


Embrace is the heart of Professor Volf’s book: “God’s reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is a model for how human beings should relate to the other.”

“Oppression” and “liberation”, terms popular in higher education’s analysis of social relations, have little place in Volf’s paradigm because he rejects “freedom” as the ultimate social goal. In the Kingdom of God, freedom is but the road leading into God’s kingdom of love, His ultimate goal.

All of us are faced with the question of how do we reconcile profound differences and hurts? Volf suggests that we leave that “Messianic problem” in God’s hands. “Merely by trying to accomplish the messianic task”, we have already ”done too much work the antichrist.” (109)

The right question for the Christian seeking the Kingdom of God is “what resources [do] we need to live in peace in the absence of the final reconciliation?”

Professor Volf urges the radical Politics of the Pure Heart:

From the perspective of contemporary Western sensibilities, these two things together—divine love and human repentance—addressed to the victims represent the most surprising and, as political statements, the most outrageous and (at the same time) most hopeful aspects of Jesus’ message.” (113)

But Jesus also called the victims of oppression themselves to repentance.

The Kingdom of God cannot break in without a change of heart and behavior in everyone.

The Politics of the Pure Heart requires a critique of envy and enmity:

“Most of us when we are victims need to repent of what the perpetrators do  our soul. Victims need to repent of the fact that all too often they mimic the behavior of the oppressors, let themselves be shaped in the mirror image of the enemy. They need to repent also of the desire to excuse their own reactive behavior either by claiming that they are not responsible for it or that such reactions are a necessary condition of liberation.  Without repentance for these sins, the full human dignity of victims will not be restored and needed social change will not take place…Though victims may not be able to prevent hate from springing to life, for their own sake they can and must refuse to give it nourishment and strive to weed it out.” (117)


“Every act of forgiveness enthrones justice; it draws attention to its violation precisely by forgoing its claims.” (123)

How do we find the strength to forgive? How do we satisfy “our thirst for justice and our passion for revenge”?

Those who follow the King, must place our rage before God: “By placing unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice…Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” (124)

Crossing from Excluding to Embracing

“More than just the passive suffering of an innocent person, the passion of Christ is the agony of a tortured soul and wrecked body offered as a prayer for the forgiveness of the torturers. No doubt such a prayer adds to the agony of the passion.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw clearly, forgiveness itself is a form of suffering; when I forgive I have not only suffered a violation but also suppressed the rightful claims of strict restitutive justice…Forgiveness is the boundary between exclusion and embrace.” (125)

“Instead of aping the enemy’s act of violence and rejection, Christ, the victim who refuses to be defined by the perpetrator, forgives and makes space in Himself for the enemy.” (126)
“Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us. Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others in ourselves and invite the in – even our enemies.” (129)

“After we have repented and forgiven our enemies, after we have made space in ourselves for them and left the door open, our will to embrace them must allow the one final, and perhaps the most difficult act to take place, if the process of reconciliation is to be complete. It is the act of forgetting the evil suffered, a certain kind of forgetting…Yet, if we must remember wrongdoings in order to be safe in an unsafe world, we must also let go of their memory in order to be finally redeemed,… only those who are willing ultimately to forget will be able to remember rightly.”

In what way can forgetting be redemptive?

“Vivid or clouded, the memory of exclusion suffered is itself a form of exclusion —a protective one to be sure, but an exclusion nonetheless. In my memory of the other’s transgression the other is locked up in unredemption and we are bound together in a relationship of nonreconciliation. The memory of the wrong suffered is also a source of my own nonredemption. As long as it is remembered, the past is not just the past; it remains an aspect of the present. A remembered wound is an experienced wound…. Even remaking the whole world and removing all sources of suffering will not bring redemption if it does not stop incursions of the unredeemed past into the redeemed present through the door of memory.” (133)

“[S]ince no final redemption is possible without the redemption of the past, and since every attempt to redeem the past through reflection must fail because no theodicy can succeed, the final redemption is unthinkable without a certain kind of forgetting. Put starkly, the alternative is: either heaven or the memory of horror. Either heaven will have no monuments to keep the memory of the horrors alive, or it will be closer to hell than we would like to think.” (136)

Now and Then

“[A]s long as the Messiah has not come in glory, for the sake of the victims, we must keep alive the memory of their suffering; we must know it, we must remember it, and we must say it out loud for all to hear…We remember now in order that we may forget then; and we will forget then in order that we may love without reservation.”

“Joseph inscribed it into the name of his son, Manasseh – ‘one who causes to be forgotten’. A paradoxical memorial to forgetting (how can one be reminded to forget without being reminded of what one should forget?), Manasseh’s presence recalled the suffering in order to draw attention to the loss of its memory.” (139)

So, as an actor might ask,”What is my action?”
“I open my arms,  make a movement of the self toward the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated or whether my action will be appreciated, supported, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim—possibly both. Embrace is grace, and grace is gamble, always” (147)

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