'Exclusion & Embrace' - Identity, otherness and reconciliation

October 05, 2009

In our next issue of Case magazine (#21) we will examine 'Otherness'. The issue will offer a theological exploration of a topic that has long interested philosophers, sociologists and psychologists. Being able to define the 'other' (someone not like myself) is part of how we define the self. It is also the basis on which individuals, groups, communities and societies in general reject or distance themselves from other people; we use perceptions of difference to exclude rather than to 'embrace' (to use Volf's term). Miroslav Volf's work is central to much recent discussion of the topic and hence is important to the theme that we address. In his book 'Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation', Volf suggests that understanding the problem of identity and otherness and the conflict that results, can be approached from multiple perspectives including that of the 'universalist' who seeks to control difference and instead promote common values, the 'communitarian' who seeks to celebrate all difference and promote heterogeneity, and the 'postmodernist' who wants to flee both of the above and seek instead the radical autonomy of the individual. But Volf (1996, pp 20-21) suggests that a Christian examination of otherness should take us in a different direction:
These proposals [i.e. the above arguments] do entail important perspectives about persons who live in societies, but their main interest is not social agents, but social arrangements. In contrast, I want to concentrate on social agents. 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. My assumption is that selves are situated; they are female or male, Jew or Greek, rich or poor - as a rule, more than one of these things at the same time...often having hybrid identities...and sometimes migrating from one identity to another. The questions I will be pursuing about such situated selves are: How should they think of their identity? How should they relate to the other? How should they go about making peace with the other?
Volf suggests that our starting point in this journey of discovery should be the cross of Christ, for it is the starting point to understanding the character of the Christian self in relation to the other. He suggests that Moltman's work (e.g. 'The Spirit of Life' 1991) offers insight into our need for solidarity with those who suffer and are excluded - "the sufferings of Christ are not just his sufferings but are those of the poor weak, which Jesus shares in his own body and in his own soul, in solidarity with them". As well, Moltman points to the need for atonement for the perpetrators of injustice - "just as the oppressed must be liberated from the suffering caused by oppression, so the oppressors must be liberated from the suffering caused through oppression". But Volf suggests we need to go further, we need to consider "divine self-donation for the enemies and their reception into the eternal communion of God" (Wolf, 1996, p. 23). In doing this, Volf seeks to consider the social significance of the theme of divine self-giving. God does not abandon the godless to their evil. Instead, he gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through Christ's atoning sacrifice. As a result, he argues, we too should embrace our enemies. The metaphor of embrace he suggests is helpful in moving us in this direction. He describes it this way:
'The will to give ourselves to others and 'welcome' them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgement about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any 'truth' about others and any construction of their 'justice'. This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into 'good' and 'evil'." (Volf, 1996, p. 29).
Volf's ideas are personally challenging for me, living in the relative comfort of a western nation with stable government and in a pluralistic society that at least claims to embrace the isolated, the weak, the disabled, the alien, the oppressed. While I see myself as a person with a sense of justice and a heart for the oppressed, I'm repulsed at times by the inner attitudes of my heart to the 'other' that may manifest themselves in politely ignoring needs, avoiding those who I see as different, condemning those who do evil and so on. I find it easy to embrace those who share much in common with me, but in my community how would I deal with the paedophile, the alien of radically different faith, the severely disabled, the homeless, the drug addict and so on. What does my understanding of the divine self-donation of the Cross mean for the construction of my identity and my relationship with the 'other' under the varied conditions of life?

If you are interested in these issues then check out Case. Case magazine is published quarterly. Issue 21 is due out in December. For more information consult the CASE website (here).

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