Embracing the Enemy: Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace

“After I finished my lecture, Professor Jurgen Moltmann stood up and asked one of his typical questions, both concrete and penetrating:  ‘But can you embrace a četnik?’” writes Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf in his preface to the first edition of Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.    “It was the winter of 1993.  For months now the notorious Serbian fighters called “četnik” [or chetnik] had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities.”

Only a few years earlier Moltmann had been Volf’s professor of theology and mentor at the University of Tübingen in Germany.  One of the most internationally esteemed theologians of the last decades of the twentieth century, he had known war even more intimately than Volf.  In 1944, he had been drafted into the German army and a year later had surrendered to the British. During his three years as a POW, he read the New Testament and Psalms for the first time and brought his personal  experience of war to his study and reflection. Later he wrote, 

In July 1943 I was an air force auxiliary in a battery in the center of Hamburg, and barely survived the fire storm which the Royal Air Force’s “Operation Gomorrah” let loose on the eastern part of the city. The friend standing next to me at the firing predictor was torn to pieces by the bomb that left me unscathed. That night I cried out to God for the first time: “My God, where are you?” And the question “Why am I not dead too?” has haunted me ever since.

In his lecture Volf had been arguing  that “we ought to embrace our enemies, as God has embraced us in Christ.”  So when Moltmann asked, “Can you embrace a četnik?”, his former student knew it was not a theoretical question. Moltmann had first-hand experience in struggling to love the enemy, and his question was part of what led Volf to write Exclusion and Embrace.

This 1996 book was named by Christianity Today as one of the best books of the twentieth century.  Several months ago Abingdon Press published a revised and updated edition, largely because it speaks to the hatred, conflict and the distrust of the “other” that are so prevalent around the world today.  Volf, who later founded the Yale Center on Faith and Culture and still teaches at Yale University Divinity School, wrote the first edition in a time when he believed that identity conflicts would fade as the processes of global integration would unite the world.  In his preface to the revised edition, he writes that such has not been the case: “The whole globe looks now more like Yugoslavia did on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities among its ethnic groups than like Europe when the Berlin Wall, that symbol of the bipolar world, came down and the European Union was expanding.” (1)

I’m one of the writers for FaithLink, a United Methodist digital curriculum on current affairs. This year’s Advent lessons were inspired by Volf’s book.  Although the curriculum is available only by subscription, the main essays from these lessons are posted on the Ministry Matters website:

“Violence and Peace” by Lyndsey Medford
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Violence+and+Peace
“Deception and Truth” by Jill M. Johnson
https://www.ministrymatters.com/search/?t=a&q=Deception+and+Truth
“Oppression and Justice”  by Doug Paysour
https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9991/oppression-and-justice
“Exclusion and Embrace”  by Jeanne Torrence Finley https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9996/exclusion-and-embrace

Our times are racked by division and hatred–both stoked by fear of the other.  Volf’s book presents an alternative vision and a way toward human understanding and peace.  It’s a challenging read, but my colleagues and I at FaithLink hope that our essays provide a gentle welcome into his important work.  Mine begins with the story of the Grinch, which is not to be dismissed on December 25.  Remember that this is the 5th day of Christmas. Maybe the Grinch and the people of Whoville are still celebrating.

(1) To view Volf’s lecture, “Before Embrace,” visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5CFDY_9efU