In the Preface to his book Exclusion and Embrace, theologian Miroslav Volf tells a story about how at the end of giving a lecture once, Professor Jurgen Moltmann asked him publically ‘But can you embrace a cetnik?’ Volf explains that at that time in 1993 cetniks were Serbian fighters who were destroying his homeland. The lecture that Volf had just given was on embracing our enemies. He writes that he struggled with that question but ultimately answered by saying, “No, I cannot- but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to.” I thought that was a really honest answer and one that reveals the struggle that we have as followers of Christ who are called to practice forgiveness, generosity and inclusivity towards those we would see as our enemies.
Who is the enemy?
A question for us I think is; who is the enemy? For Volf at that time, it was the cetnik group who were committing atrocious acts on his people. This is a horrible case of oppression, injustice and violence being perpetrated on civilians. But what about those who we interact with regularly within the body of Christ, whether personally or in a disembodied manner through social media, who we vehemently disagree with? While we may not call them our enemies out loud, I think that the way we build up walls among each other and exclude one another reveals that perhaps in a way, we do perceive them as our enemies. Even though the illustration I have given from Volf is an example of the struggles we have in showing generosity towards those who commit horrendous acts, I think it also relates somewhat to our wrestles with those in the body of Christ who we simply cannot agree with.
The fallacy of, ‘It’s not personal’
One reason why we disagree with others in the Body and can sometimes then see them as the enemy, is because our personal values are being challenged and provoked. Whether it has to do with the issue of women in ministry, megachurch pastors or the debate between Calvinists and Arminians, as we converse around these topics, our deeply held beliefs are being questioned. People who hold to a more egalitarian position on women in ministry for example, see it as unjust (and therefore out of step with the gospel) to restrict women’s roles in the church. In this case the value is justice, which people who hold an egalitarian position, feel is being compromised. Since justice is a quality of God and that as his missionaries in the world we are called to practice that justice, when a fellow Christian expresses a different view, feelings can be hurt and debates can become very heated. In that sense I think that it is unhelpful to have a view which sees that our differences can be discussed in an impersonal and theoretical way. The reason that we are tempted to build walls, exclude and even perceive one another as enemies, is because we care deeply about the various matters of the gospel. Those beliefs become a part of who we are. We then feel that if we build protective walls, perhaps it is less likely that we will be hurt. When we engage in discussions around interpretations of the gospel, it is very personal.
‘If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say it at all’
That is possibly why I hear some Christians repeating the cliché, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say it at all’ as though it’s a scripture verse. Saying this in the midst of conflict is an attempt I believe, to make sure that people’s feelings do not get hurt due to disagreement. However is this not merely a suppression of feelings and thoughts which is ultimately unhelpful for building relationships? This is more Disney than it is Christian since it’s a saying taken from and popularised by the rabbit Thumper in the film Bambi. Has popular culture once again affected Christianity, in this case to the point that is seems as though a person is acting ‘unchristian’ if personal views are being critiqued?
Can we embrace those we fiercely disagree with?
Instead of suppressing debate by stating a popular and unhelpful cliché what can we do to build unity and ‘embrace’ those who we disagree with? Is it possible to embrace those who hold radically different values to us, even when we can find those values to be unjust or even oppressive? Isn’t the likelihood that we will then get hurt? Volf’s answer to Moltmann I think is helpful here in its simplicity and honesty. The first part of his answer to the question around embracing those who we see as our enemies is that no, they cannot be embraced. We are deluded if we think that we will always agree with one another on matters to do with the gospel. The fact is that we all have our set boundaries which delineate what we believe to be right and wrong, they are our values. ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ is a relativistic saying which our society uses to convey the difficulty of holding to absolute values. It can apply somewhat to our views on the interpretation and application of the gospel, in that what I might find to be oppressive and even unjust can be gospel truth to another person. However the second part of Volf’s honest and simple answer to the question around embracing our enemies is that we should be able to embrace them if we are followers of Jesus. In his book A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Embrace the Common Good, Volf says that we need to be committed to fostering a culture of peace and we can do this in two ways as Christians. Firstly we hold to the ‘centre’ of our faith that is based around the act of God which was to enter into our world in order to save it even though the world had rejected him. We are told in John 3:16 that God did this because he loved the world. God’s action reveals his character of course and this characteristic of radical love which extends to God’s enemies is something that we also must aspire to practice as followers of Jesus.
Sometimes I feel as though our popular Christian notions of love are much too romanticised and as a result we forget that love is a discipline or a practice that we must strive to flesh out through the power of the Holy Spirit who transforms us into the image of Jesus. As opposed to the ‘feel good’ interpretation of love, sometimes loving our enemies, at least in the short term, can be sheer hard work. Volf cautions however, that loving our enemies does not mean being in agreement with them. He says ‘Love doesn’t mean agreement and approval; it means benevolence and beneficence, possible disagreement and disapproval notwithstanding’ and that what can be possible in a Christian framework is to have a ‘combination of moral clarity that does not shy away from calling evil by its proper name and (at the same time) of deep compassion toward evildoers…’
Secondly, building a culture of peace means reflecting on how we think about the issue of our identity. Establishing identity is about setting boundaries therefore ascertaining who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. This is a necessary and normal aspect of the expression of our life and faith. We see it in the labels that we use such as Arminian and Calvinist or Complementarian and Egalitarian, Charismatic or Liberal, Progressive and Evangelical and so on. However the point that Volf makes is that this is not everything there is to say about boundaries and that they are also permeable. He says ‘With such (permeable) boundaries, encounters with others don’t serve only to assert our position and claim our territory; they are also occasions to learn and teach, to be enriched and to enrich, to come to new agreements and maybe reinforce the old ones, and to dream up new possibilities and explore new paths. This kind of permeability of religious individuals and communities when they engage one another presupposes a basically positive attitude toward the other- an attitude in sync with the command to love the neighbour and, perhaps especially, to love the enemy.’ While we hold to our identity we also know that it is permeable as we interact with one another, and as a result hopefully transform one another through the Spirit at work in us.
All of this sounds so ideal yet it is what we must aim for as Christians today in a context where Christianity in the West is in a state of liminality. We are all wondering, in some way or another, what it looks like to be the hermeneutic of the gospel as Leslie Newbigin famously said. Will there be potential for hurt as we practice embracing our ‘enemies’ within the Body? I think so.
But this is what it means to vulnerably practice the gospel of peace within the body of Christ.