Exclusion and Embrace [Revised and Updated] A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

Exclusion and Embrace
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Published: August 20, 2019

I am re-reading Miroslav Volf’s influential work from 1993, “Exclusion and Embrace,” in its recently released revised and updated edition.  It is such a helpful orientation stake for me in the midst of our cultural milieu. I am going to offer a brief introduction the work by quoting from his introductory chapter.  Not a light read, but one I deem a worthwhile one, none the less

The author acknowledges the shift from trending globalization when he first published his work, to the current reactionary identitarian generation. He explains this shift: “Partly because the awareness of centuries-long oppression of some groups has increased dramatically . . . But also certainly because run-away globalization processes have left in their wake a trail of suffering and disorientation, exemplified most potently by extraordinary discrepancies of wealth and power among and within nations, progressive ecological devastation, and loss of a sense of cultural, religious, and national identity and control.”

“. . . In reaction, anti-globalist, nationalist and religious sentiments have conquered the world, and struggles over identity and recognition are dividing societies. . . . National, ethnocultural, religious, racial, gender, and sexual identities are major drivers of politics everywhere.”

“. . . They are mostly about multiple and intersecting identities, often bundled into a dominant one; . . . The dynamic of assertion and contestation of social identity, of the attempts at reassertion of erstwhile dominance and anger over its loss, of the search for recognition and resentment over its refusal, is central to them all.”

Then, he begins to examine the role of religions in the shaping of identities. He feel his analysis is a clarion call for our time:

“Religions are both an identity concern and force in their own right and they often get attached to other identities and interests, legitimizing and reinforcing them. . . . In identity-centered struggles, religions tend to function as markers of group identities and tools in service of political forces acting as guardians of these identities. They transport the conflict into the realm of the sacred and heighten its stakes.  That’s bad for the world, above all for the people immediately affected. But that’s bad for the religions themselves.”

“In their origins and in their best historic expressions, all world religions are universal religions, addressing every person as a human being, a member of the global human ‘tribe’ rather than primarily as a member of any local cultural tribe. When such religions become markers of group identities and weapons in political struggles, they push their universal character into the background and morph into particular political religions.”

“In monotheist versions of political religions, God becomes a servant of the group, identifying who are “us” and who are “them.” . . . This is clearly a betrayal of the monotheist faith itself, a demotion of God from Master of the Universe to a lackey of a particular group’s interest. . . .One God is by definition the God of all humans, and the relation of that one God to all persons is the foundation of their common humanity.”

Throughout the book the author explores identity and identity-centered conflicts. In examining conflicts, the author holds the core conviction that “the unconditionality of divine love requires and makes possible the corresponding unconditionality of human love.”

Being specifically a follower of Jesus, the author claims that “commitment to the God revealed in Jesus Christ and made present by the Spirit should regulate identity-constituting boundary maintenance and other kinds of relations among people with diverse identities.”

Volf states this thesis for his work: “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.”

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