I recently had a long conversation with a young man from Argentina after watching a challenging performance on the #BlackLivesMatter movement by HartBeat Ensemble, a theater group from Hartford, CT. Entering U.S. society as a foreigner who was nonetheless privileged and structurally white, he instinctively empathized with whites who felt that they were being blamed for something that wasn’t their fault. “Blacks have to take responsibility for change as well,” he insisted. I tried explaining how centuries of slavery, segregation, and mistreatment trap communities in cycles of poverty and powerlessness, asking why the victims had to be the ones who build bridges with the perpetrators. Regardless, he refused to believe that all of the blame lay with whites and thought that African Americans were just “too sensitive.”
In Exclusion and Embrace (1996), Miroslav Volf points out that Jesus didn’t tell the rich and powerful Romans to repent of oppressing the Jews. Instead, he turned to the victims of the Roman Empire and said: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.” At first glance, this doesn’t make much sense. Volf writes, “should Jesus not have demasked the ideological construals of ‘the poor’ as sinners and challenged the oppressive practices these construals served to legitimate?” Of course, Jesus did this as well, but by calling on the victims to repent He prevents them perpetuating the cycle of hatred. “Victims need to repent of the fact that all too often they mimic the behavior of the oppressors,” Volf says, “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.” Repentance and forgiveness are divine acts, and Volf recommends that we bring our rage before God just as the Psalmists did. He observes, “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. Hidden in the dark chambers of our hearts and nourished by the system of darkness, hate grows and seeks to infest everything with its hellish will to exclusion. … But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion – without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.”
People who expect that a stubborn commitment to nonviolence will end violence are naive, Volf writes. He says that when he preached non-retaliation in his native Croatia at the end of the Yugoslav wars, his sermon fell flat. He was preaching to “people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit.” The idea that “we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love” just doesn’t work in the face of such evil. And so Volf turns to the Rider on the White Horse in the Apocalypse, who is also the crucified Lamb. We are not God, Volf reminds us, so it is not our place to take revenge on our enemies. God alone will judge “those who insist on remaining beasts and false prophets,” and He will do so violently. These are people, the Bible assures us, who, “ensnared by the chaos of violence which generates its own legitimizing “reason” and “goodness,” … have become untouchable for the lure of God’s truth and goodness.” We can rest assured that evil will be dealt with completely, and that on the cross Christ died “for an unjust and deceitful world.” Christ’s death and resurrection is the basis on which we can forgive. Volf writes that “since the new world has become reality in the crucified and resurrected Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) it is possible to live the new world in the midst of the old in an act of gratuitous forgiveness without giving up the struggle for truth and justice. One can embrace perpetrators in forgiveness because God has embraced them through atonement.”
The idea of embrace is central to Volf’s theology of reconciliation. “Reconciliation with the other will succeed only if the self, guided by the narrative of the triune God, is ready to receive the other into itself and undertake a readjustment of its identity in light of the other’s alterity,” Volf says. This requires a sort of “double vision,” where instead of trying to see things from nowhere, which is clearly impossible, we approach truth both from our perspective and, stepping out of ourselves, from the perspective of our enemies. This involves crossing a social boundary in order to enter into the world of the other, and also that we take the other into our own world. Volf is remarkably pragmatic about how successful this sort of double vision will probably be, but it is certainly a good start. “Nothing can guarantee in advance that the perspectives will ultimately merge and agreement be reached,” he writes. “We may find that we must reject the perspective of the other. Yet we should seek to see things from their perspective in the hope that competing justices may become converging justices and eventually issue in agreement.”
The motivation for peace-making must be that we see the other in terms of relationships instead of thinking only about right and wrong. Volf recommends “redeeming the past … not by willing but by thinking, by an interpretative act of inscribing the tragedy of the past in the pre-condition of a nontragic future.” His ideal is the father of the prodigal son, who remembered his son as son rather than as someone who had sinned against him. When the father welcomed back his long lost son, Volf writes, “no confession was necessary for the embrace did not rest on moral performance and therefore could not be destroyed by immoral acts.” When seeking reconciliation, we need to look at what unites us as humans, sisters, brothers, and children of God, instead of focusing on what has and has not happened in the past. This is much more of a challenge for people of color than for whites, for whites have been much more sinners than sinned against, but it requires all of us to repent and to move forward.
As a manifesto of this new way of living, Volf offers this ecumenical confession based loosely on the Barmen Declaration of 1934:
“You were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; or all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galations 3:28).
All of churches of Jesus Christ, scattered in diverse cultures, have been redeemed for God by the blood of the Lamb to form one multicultural community of faith. The “blood” that binds them as brothers and sisters is more precious than the “blood,” the language, the customs, political allegiances, or economic interests that may separate them.
We reject the false doctrine, as though a church should place allegiance to the culture it inhabits and the nation to which it belongs above the commitment to brothers and sisters from other cultures and nations, servants of the one Jesus Christ, their common Lord, and members of God’s new community.”