The title of his most recent book—Exclusion & Embrace: The Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon)—sounds like the scholarly work that it is. But for Croatian-born Miroslav Volf, this academic exploration of who we and our enemies are to each other was driven by a personal quest. As a young man in Communist Yugoslavia, Volf saw firsthand the ethnic frictions that turned bloody after the breakup of the country. "An important factor in the war," he says, "was the drive for pure identities—hence the term 'ethnic cleansing.' Persons belonging to the other ethnic group would be swept away like dirt so that one could have a 'clean' ethnic house. Since we live in a world that is inhabited by many groups, the desire for pure identities leads inescapably to violence and bloodshed." He began searching for a resolution to the tension that existed in him between the "natural instinct to fight for your rights" and the teaching of his Pentecostal parents "that the enemy is there to be loved."

His quest took the form of theological reflection—which soon caught the notice of the academic world. This month, Volf, 42, begins a new position as Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, following seven years of teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. He maintains ties to his homeland by serving as visiting professor of systematic theology on the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Osijek, Croatia, his alma mater. After studying at Osijek, Volf attended Fuller Seminary and the University of Tubingen, where he received his doctoral and postdoctoral degrees under Jurgen Moltmann. He talked with CT about the impact the story of the Prodigal has made on his thinking.

You say the story of the Prodigal Son teaches us a "theology of embrace." What do you mean by that?
After the war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, I started thinking about the whole issue of relationship between cultures and between individuals who are part of cultures. How should I relate to my friends and my fellow Christians who are Serb, and who find themselves on the other side of the barricades? Right about that time I was asked to write a paper addressing the upheavals in Eastern Europe from a theological perspective. I asked myself, How am I going to relate to those who have injured me and my country?

I tried to apply liberation theology to the situation, which says we need to fight first for justice and liberation and then we can get reconciliation. It didn't work. Both parties saw themselves as oppressed, and both saw themselves as engaged in the struggle for liberation. So the main categories of liberation theology, oppression and liberation, serve to justify the struggle rather than lead to peace. Then it occurred to me that one of the best portrayals of what lies at the core of Christian faith is this amazing story of the Prodigal, which I read as an expression of what God did for us on the cross. Suddenly those open arms of the father became for me the picture of who God is, how God had acted toward sinful humanity. And not only how God acted toward humanity, but how we ought to act toward those who have sinned against us.

Article continues below

How did that lead you away from a liberation-theology paradigm?
I started thinking about the implications of the Prodigal story for how we relate to one another in situations of conflict, of enmity, of wrongdoing, of suffering. At the center of Christian faith lies not so much liberation, but the embrace of the wrongdoer. That was where the idea of a "theology of embrace" was born. It is simply the Prodigal's father not giving up his relationship with his son—in spite of the wrongdoing of the younger son. When that son returns, the father runs toward him without having heard a single word from that son. He shows his son grace and acceptance because he was and he is and he remained his son even through the wrongdoing. That is what we see on the cross.

But it doesn't stop there. The God who runs toward us—the wrongdoers— also demands we do the same with those who have wronged us. So there is a social meaning to the cross. Divine grace obli-gates. In his book The Real Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson argues that the core of the gospel is found at the end of the Gospels in the story of the crucifixion. The significance of the crucifixion is not only what God does for us; consistently throughout the New Testament the crucifixion is portrayed as the pattern that we are to follow. It is a model of social behavior toward the other as well as a statement about what God has done for us.

How does a theology of embrace apply to conflicts in places such as Bosnia and Northern Ireland?
The basic challenge in all these conflicts—indeed, the basic challenge in all human conflicts—is the same one identified in the story of the Prodigal: the relationship between justice and peace, liberation and reconciliation, law and grace. Do you call first for justice, then peace? First liberation, then reconciliation? Or is it the other way around?

Article continues below

When I read the Prodigal story, I saw that the primacy was given to grace, embrace, reconciliation. Not cheap reconciliation—"nothing that happened between us matters, so let's hug each other and everything's going to be okay." Everything wouldn't be okay. But also not the pursuit of what you might call "strict justice." As a way of resolving problems between people, this simply will not work, because strict justice is impossible in the real world in which we live. The stage on which we fight for justice was partly built by unjust means, and the fight for justice itself always and inescapably creates new injustice. If our relationships are governed by the idea of strict justice, they will never be healed.

Instead, I see in this story a dual emphasis. One can distinguish in it the will to embrace and the embrace itself. The will to embrace the other is absolutely indiscriminate and unconditional. It does not depend on anything that the other person has done, and it applies to every and any individual. The Prodigal's father runs toward his son; he is willing to embrace him no matter what the son will say. The will is there. And yet the full reconciliation takes place after the Prodigal's confession. It takes confession for the Prodigal to be transformed into a son.

The grace we see demonstrated here affirms justice in the act of transcending it. Just as forgiveness always entails blame (try offering forgiveness to somebody who thinks he or she has done no wrong!), similarly, every act of grace entails affirmation of justice precisely in the act of transcending the claims of justice.

But it still takes two to embrace.
Yes. The offer of embrace can be there, but there must also be a willingness on the part of the other party to belong to the relationship and to behave in a way that builds rather than undermines the relationship. Consider the relationships between the father and the Prodigal and the older brother and the Prodigal. It took the willingness of both the father and the younger son before their embrace could take place. But the older son did not will to embrace. Therefore, no embrace followed, at least as far as the story goes.

In your book you talk about the older brother's use of moral categories versus the father's use of relational categories. How are these different?
The older brother's behavior is governed strictly by the rules, by moral rules: if you do this, then this must happen to you. If you squander the inheritance, you've got to return as a hired hand. He is unwilling to accept his younger brother's return because he is received not as one who had squandered but instead is reinstated as a son. From the perspective of the older brother, not only did the younger brother break the rules by leaving, but also the father broke the rules by accepting the younger. The older son operates on the basis of established rules and organizes all behavior around those rules.

Article continues below

One might expect that the father would, in contrast, simply set aside the rules. But he does not. He both affirms and transcends them. He affirms them in that clearly the younger son will not get a second inheritance. The son must bear the consequences of his action. And yet the rules are also transcended in that the son is reinstated as a part of the family. The older brother is concerned with rules that regulate who is in and who is out; the father is governed not by the rules but by his unshakeable love toward both his sons. Augustine puts it something like this: "Love, then do as you please." In other words, love, which is not completely beyond the law but represents its fulfillment, will do the right thing.

If you say that relationship is prior to moral rules, how would you answer people who say, "Well, I've taken on this certain identity that may not be morally fitting of the rules, but relationship is prior to that, so let's just love each other"?
What I'm suggesting is that there is a middle road. It runs between an indiscriminate acceptance of everything and anything (which is typical in modern cultures that emphasize "inclusion") and a life according to inflexible, strict moral rules (which is often used as a bulwark against the culture of inclusion). That middle way is a supple kind of love that attends to who the other is and how the relationship is developing.

Rules help govern and steer a relationship along, so they're good things. But they become bad things when they become the narrow gate though which the relationship must always pass. When this happens, the rules become the basis for the relationship and, in a sense, become a substitute for the relationship. Relationships are too complex, our lives too messy and too wonderful, to be governed by strict rules. This doesn't mean rules should be pushed aside—especially grand rules that specify for us what is right and what is wrong. And yet, I think we have to say that relationship ought to endure even the breach of those rules. I have to hold on to the other, even when the other is doing wrong.

Article continues below

You've talked about "a theology of embrace" and "strict justice." In your book you also talk about the interplay of "identity of otherness." How does that fit into the story?
I see it in the behavior of the father, but also negatively in the behavior of the older brother. In order to extend grace, you need to make a journey together with the person to whom you are extending that grace. That's what the father does in never giving up on his son. The father never becomes self-enclosed in his own existence after the son has departed into the far country. Instead, he keeps his erring son, the son who sought to undo himself as a son, in his heart. He suffers the son's departure and therefore is always willing to readjust his identity as the identity of his son shifts.

That's a very significant feature of grace—the sense of being with another person and making a journey with that person. It requires being open and providing space in oneself for the other person even as that person is changing for the better or for the worse. To do this, I must readjust my own identity in the relationship to that other. In good relationships, we are happy to grow as the other person becomes part of us and who we are. When we suffer the changes in fractured relationships, we keep possible the healing of that relationship. It is this kind of commitment that I see exemplified in God's coming into the sinful world to die for our redemption.

That makes sense, considering how the Old Testament Law was broken, and yet God did not void the covenant with his chosen people.
You have Yahweh saying in Hosea, "How can I hand you over, O Israel?" Why? Because God is bound to Israel with "bonds of love." God's commitment and covenant are irrevocable. That's the eternality of the covenant and, therefore, I would say, the priority of the relationship. All sorts of things can happen within a relationship, but relationship is forever; the commitment to the other is eternal. And because this eternal commitment is there, it leads God—and anyone who is in relationship—to suffering on account of the other who has done wrong. If anything, in the New Testament, this kind of divine commitment gets intensified and its scope expanded.

A different way of making the same point would be to say that, at its core, the Christian faith is not about justice. It's about justification. There's a world of difference between the two. Now that does not leave justice outside of it, but puts a different spin to it. If Christian faith was about justice, it would also be about enforcement of justice in relationships between people. The whole of the relationship between God and people and people by themselves would be governed by enforcement of justice, so violence would then be an integral part of what Christian faith is about. But it's not about that. It's governed by justification of the ungodly; it's governed by showing the kind of grace to the one who has done wrong, which makes that person and the relationship just again. This is the Christian—the Christlike—way of dealing with the wrong that is presumed to be there.

Article continues below

We need to justify each other even when there's wrong done.
That's exactly what I want to argue. In our human way—a way that is both alike and different from the divine way—we need to seek to make the unjust person just and thereby create just peace between us. To say that we need to justify each other is a different way of saying what the apostle Paul said. He summarizes the whole teaching of Romans by applying it to the relationship between Christians. In 15:7, he instructs, "Accept one another as you have been accepted by Christ." This is in his letter in which justification plays such an important and significant role. His injunction is to make the pattern of divine action toward us a pattern of our actions toward the other.

Does this theology of embrace apply only to the follower of Christ or also to non-Christian institutions like governments?
I think it also applies to governments. But what we don't have yet is extensive exploration of ways in which it does. I think one of the things that we as theologians ought to be doing is dialoguing with political scientists and lawyers to explore what kinds of implications this would have for establishing and meting out justice.

I think a very good example of this kind of possibility is what's happening in South Africa with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There was a marvelous piece in the Christian Century by Peter Storey, past president of the Methodist church in South Africa, in which he argues that the experiences of the commission there point "beyond conventional retribution into a realm where justice and mercy coalesce, and both victim and perpetrator must know pain if healing is to happen. It is an area more consistent with Calvary than the courtroom. It is the place where the guilty discover the pain of forgiveness." I think we ought to explore what this may mean for our judicial system. I'd like to explore it with colleagues in other disciplines, but I'm not sure that I have ready answers about it yet. What I am pretty sure, though, is that not to explore social and political implications of divine grace extended to sinful humanity in Christ would be to betray the love of our faith and to abdicate our social responsibility.

Article continues below

How do you respond to those who say that what you are proposing is conceptually elegant but of no practical good?
My friend Jurgen Moltmann put that question to me in a slightly different way. I was presenting the paper on the social upheavals in the former Yugoslavia that I referred to earlier, arguing that we need a theology of embrace rather than a theology of liberation. Rather than Croatians simply fighting for their liberation and Serbians simply fighting for their liberation, and therefore Christian faith serving to legitimate their fighting, we need something that will unite the two, a theology that reconciles the warring factions. Moltmann, who has been a granddaddy of liberation theology in many ways, in his very pointed and penetrating way asked me, "But can you embrace a cetnik?" Cetniks are notorious Serbian fighters. I paused—not because I didn't know what to say, but because it was difficult to say for me. It was at a time when a third of Croatia was occupied and when many of our cities and towns were being destroyed. Many people had been driven off their lands, and Croatia was full of refugees from many other countries. Finally, my response was, "I can't; but as a follower of Jesus Christ I ought to be able to." And in many ways, that question and my answer accompanied me as I was working through these issues. What would it take to embrace a cetnik? What would it take for me to have the will to embrace? What would it take then for that embrace to actually take place? I think those are some key issues with which we have to struggle.

Have you ever literally embraced a cetnik?
Actually, I've never met one, but if I did I think I would have the will to embrace him, though I also think that much would need to happen before the embrace—a full embrace, an embrace that is not a charade—could take place. Most of us, though, have our own cetniks. And yes, I've done the embracing of those whom I felt have wronged me deeply. It's hard. It's clumsy to do. It's like God's call to Abraham to "go to a land that I will show you." You have no idea where that land is, but you open your arms and you embrace, unsure about what's going to happen. It takes tremendous courage to do so. It takes practice to do so. It takes self-giving. It also takes suffering. That's the tragic side of it. And yet, in that tragedy there is incredible promise.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.