In 1996 Miroslav Volf published his most renowned work, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. In this book he directly engages the ongoing dramas inherent in human civilization, those of identity, recognition, and otherness. Volf does this on a deeply personal level, reflecting on his own experiences as a Pentecostal religious minority living amongst an ethnic Croat minority and in the context of clashing values of Serb, Croat, and Bosnia heritage (who are also Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim). However, he does not stay at the personal level but moves to engage these ongoing dramas at the global level. In this process he clarifies his unease with engaging each other with soft sentimentalism or vague universalism. Instead, he names the reality of very real differences, differences that require a heart-rending acknowledgement that the alien, the stranger, the “other” is deserving of something beautiful from us that moves far beyond bland tolerance. Volf is fundamentally challenging us to reflect on what it means to love our neighbor and to bless those who curse us.
Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School and has also taught at Fuller Theological Seminary. He engages comfortably in ecumenical circles as well as in multi-faith dialogue. Volf is a graduate of both Tubingen and Fuller and has written thoughtfully on topics, including Faith in the Public Domain, A Christian Response to Allah, Flourishing and Religion in a Global Context, Identity and Belonging, A Theology of Work, Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Love, Scriptural Engagement, and many more.
In our increasingly divided world where people cancel each other and label some as simply ‘other’ based on political, theological, and cultural differences, Volf’s thinking is increasingly important and increasingly necessary. We are facing a growing challenge in learning how to deal more constructively with those different from ourselves, especially with those who we feel represent the opposite of what we hold sacred. In fact, we often create our identity in opposition to those others! Volf speaks into this with the life and teachings of Jesus as central for Christians. His claim is that we are to engage the ‘other’ from the position of the crucified Christ, that self-giving love is our way into the divide that will bring hope. In his own words, “All sufferers can find comfort in the solidarity of the Crucified; but only those who struggle against evil by following the example of the Crucified will discover him at their side.” (p. 24). For Volf, the ability to forgive the enemy, the person who has wronged us, is the essential component of our discipleship that speaks loudest into our struggle with those with whom we disagree. In between exclusion and embrace is forgiveness.
In Exclusion and Embrace, and in other writings, Volf challenges followers of Jesus to be so steeped in the way of Jesus that they are enabled to maintain a posture of generosity toward those with whom they disagree. Biblical scholar Michael Gorman calls this way of walking the world, “cruciformity,” living our lives under the symbol of the cross so that we are empowered to love others self-sacrificially.
So what does this have to do with Christian educational leadership? Well, as Volf notes, whenever we create a community—and we do work hard to do just that in our schools—we automatically create an ‘other,’ those who are not a part of that community. Any definition of any specific community implies there are people who are not in. For Volf, the challenge to Christians is to create such a strong sense of community identity centered in obedience to Christ, that we can allow our borders to be permeable. We are to be so rooted in the story of Jesus, so confident in the goodness, the beauty, and the truth of the gospel, that we can open ourselves to engagement and dialogue with the stranger, the skeptic, and maybe even the blasphemer.
Try to imagine that in your school, a space where the boundary between the community and the school is less rigid, where confidence in the way of Jesus has overtaken some of the fear of difference. At Surrey Christian School we are trying to imagine what it would mean to have our identity so rooted in Jesus, so steeped in what NT Wright calls, “Messiah thinking,” that we are able to walk in the world in the “servant way of Jesus,” and in so doing be able to engage those around us who are different, those who disagree. In other words, ‘how do we, a PreK–12 Christian school, offer the friendship of Christ to those around us in the context of our vision and mission?’ In maintaining this kind of posture we hope that our engagement will be good for both our students and for those we engage, as well as the watching and waiting world around us.
Gorman, Michael. 2001. Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids.
Volf, Miroslav. 1996. Exclusion and Embrace: A theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation, Abingdon Press, Nashville.
Wright, NT and Michael Bird. 2019. The New Testament in Its World, Zondervan Academic, Grand Rapids.