The Healthy Church: Embodying Diversity

Miroslav Volf

Speaking in a Christian Voice

I consider it an honor and a privilege to address you at this gathering of the representatives from the three great families of “Abraham’s children” — Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I am especially delighted that we are gathering in the great city of Skopje. In recent years Macedonia and its capital Skopje have suffered their share of violence. Though the causes of violence are many, religious differences among Macedonia’s various ethnic groups are certainly among them. Hence it is important to examine what each of our traditions says about living with the other, and to highlight resources that they provide for overcoming enmities and living in peace.

Since I am a Christian and have been invited to deliver “the Christian keynote address,” I will speak in a Christian voice. Though I seek to be faithful to the broad Christian tradition, I cannot speak authoritatively for all Christians; nobody can, because ecclesiastically Christians are not a monolithic group and even within a single church there is often disagreement and spirited debate. So I offer here my rendering of what the Christian tradition says about “living with ‘the other’.” Before I deliver the substance of my talk, however, let me briefly indicate what I mean by speaking in a “Christian voice” in an interfaith context. A simple way to do so is to discard two wrongheaded options and then suggest a better one.

Some suggest that all major world religions are at the bottom more or less the same. What is significant in each is common to them all. What makes each differ from others is only a husk conditioned by various human mentalities but holding an identical kernel. John Hick comes close to this view in that, together with Jalalu’l-Din Rumi, he argues that “the lamps are different, but the Light is the same” (An Interpretation of Religion [Yale University Press, 1989] 233).To speak in a Christian voice from the perspective of such an understanding of religion means to engage in cracking the husk of difference that distinguishes the Christian faith from other religions and displaying the kernel which unites it with them. Whoever speaks authentically in a Christian voice will end up agreeing with representatives of other religions provided they do the same.

While all major religions have much in common, including some fundamental convictions, and while their adherents all possess the same human dignity and therefore command the same respect, it is not clear that all religions are at bottom the same. Most of their adherents would disagree with the claim and feel that the one making it does not sufficiently respect them in their own specificity but is, as it were, looking through them in search of an artificially constructed essence of their religion. My sense is that they are right. Major religions represent distinctive overarching interpretations of life with partly overlapping and partly competing metaphysical, historical, and moral claims. To treat all religions as at the bottom the same is to insert them into a frame of meaning without sufficiently appreciating, as M. Barnes puts it (Theology and the Dialogue of Religions [Cambridge University Press, 2002] 182), “the irreducible mystery of otherness” of religions. It is because all major religions are not at the bottom the same that it is worth engaging in dialogues; such dialogues are exercises in mutual learning about ourselves and others. Equally, it is because all major religions are not at the bottom the same that their adherents rightly argue with each other about the merits and truth content of their respective religions.

An alternative view agrees that major world religions represent distinct overarching interpretations of life, but goes on to suggest that what is important in each tradition are precisely the places where they differ. This view is rarely defended theoretically; it represents more an unreflective way of relating to other religions, a stance toward them. With such a stance, what matters the most, for instance, is not that the children of Abraham all believe in one God, but that Christians believe that this one God is a Holy Trinity whereas Jews and Muslims staunchly object to this claim. To speak in a Christian voice is to highlight what is specific to Christianity and leave out what is common as comparatively unimportant.

But concentrating on differences seems to be a major mistake, so basic that it includes a mistake about how to define something. As any introduction to logic will make clear, you cannot define an entity by noting only its specific difference; you must also include in your definition its proximate genus. Human beings are rational animals; “rational” is the specific difference and “animal” is the proximate genus. Applied to the world of religions, what is important about the Christian convictions about God is not simply that God is the Holy Trinity, but also that the Father of Jesus Christ is the God who called Abraham and delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt, which is, from a Christian perspective, the God whom Muslims worship as Allah. Similarly what is important about the Christian sacred texts is not only that they contain the New Testament, but also that they contain what Christians call the Old Testament, which is originally a Jewish sacred text, and that there is a significant overlap between Christian and Muslim sacred texts. To think of one’s own or of another religion simply in terms of its differences from one’s own is to fail to respect it in its concreteness.

In fact, both of the above approaches are wrongheaded because they abstract from the concrete character of religions, the one by zeroing in on what is the same in all religions and the other by zeroing in on what is different. In this they miss precisely what is most important about a religion, which is the particular configuration of its elements, which may overlap with, differ from, or contradict some elements of other religions. For religions are embraced and practiced in no other way but in their concreteness. To speak in a Christian voice is then neither to give a variation on a theme common to all religions nor to make exclusively Christian claims in distinction from all other religions; it is to give voice to the Christian faith in its concreteness, whether what is said overlaps with, differs from, or contradicts what people speaking in a Jewish or Muslim voice are saying. Since truth matters and since a false pluralism of approving pats on the back is cheap and short-lived, we will rejoice over overlaps and engage others over differences and incompatibilities, so as to both learn from and teach others.

It is the fact that I am speaking in a Christian voice that explains some features of my talk. When I say in my lecture something like, “The Christian faith has important resources to address this issue,” I by no means want to imply that other religions do not have similar or even better resources. What I am doing is simply speaking in a Christian voice rather than offering a comparative analysis of religions. I hope that the content of my talk will either find resonance with my Jewish and Muslim hearers or that they will tell me, “Consider this from our tradition,” or “But you got it all wrong, for these reasons.” I take my talk to be part of a movement back and forth of all parties involved between engaged explication of their own religious tradition on the one hand, and receptive hearing of the explication of another tradition on the other.

The topic of my talk is “Living With the ‘Other’”, and my presentation has a simple outline. I will try to answer three questions: (1) Who is the other? (2) Who are we? (3) How should we relate to each other? I will then conclude with a brief reflection on the relation between the universal reach of Christian love (any and every person) and particular obligations toward those with whom we have special relations (such as family, ethnic or religious group).

Before I proceed, let me make one linguistic observation. The title of my talk uses the singular “other” with a definite article. This is how the word is often used in philosophical, sociological, and anthropological literature (cf. M. Theunissen, Der Andere: Studien zur Sozialontologie der Gegenwart [de Gruyter, 1977]; T. Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other [trans. R. Howard; HarperCollins, 1984]; E. Dussel, The Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of ‘the Other’ and the Myth of Modernity [trans. M. D. Barber; Continuum, 1985]) There is nothing wrong with such use, provided we are not misled by the singular to make two mistakes: either to think that the other is only of one kind, or to reduce all distinct features of others to an abstract otherness. First, “others” are many. They come in a variety of shapes and colors, speak diverse languages, espouse different religions, and are characterized by different cultural markers. The grammatical singular denotes a plural reality, which I will partly indicate by shifting back and forth between the singular and the plural. Second, otherness is not an abstract undifferentiated quality. Individual traits of others matter a great deal for how we relate to them. Others may be simply different from us (say, speak Hungarian instead of Croatian). Or we may disapprove of some of the constitutive features of their otherness (such as their use of alcohol or their practice of genital mutilation). Or the other may be someone who has transgressed against us (such as Hutus having massacred hundreds of thousands of Tutsis). Indeed, the other may be and often is all three of these things together. So “the other” is a shorthand which opens a window to a richly diverse reality, not the indicator of the full content of that reality.

Who Is the Other?

Some people think of others as persons from distant lands with a very different culture. We read about them in books written by explorers and anthropologists, we travel to see them in their natural habitats, they fascinate us and repel us at the same time, and we return from our imaginative or real excursions into their world to the familiarity and tranquility of our own homes. This is the exotic other. In our global culture, the exotic other has increasingly become a rarity. We travel with ease over vast expanses, and the mass media has placed at our disposal vivid reports even from the most hidden and impenetrable regions of the globe. It could seem that we have come to understand others much better. But this is by and large not the case. For a real understanding requires a deeper knowledge than available through written reports, films or short visits. The ease of access to others has only stripped down from them the aura of the exotic. They have become ordinary—but still misunderstood.

The same communication networks that make it easy for us to meet and learn about distant others have brought multiple others to live in our immediate proximity. This is the neighborly other. Such others live next to us, at the boundaries of our communities and within our nations. Put differently, we live increasingly in culturally and religiously pluralistic social spaces. For Western countries, for instance, this means that the pluralism of civil associations existing under the larger framework of liberal democracy has been complexified. Formerly “Christian countries” have become religiously diverse nations (cf. D.L. Eck, A New Religious America: How A “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation [HarperCollins, 2001]).

But this is not a diversity of “anything goes.” For the most part, we don’t think that all religion and all values are either relative or that there is a rough parity between them. To say that our societies are culturally and religiously pluralistic is not so much to prescribe how each culture should be evaluated and how they should relate, but to note that a plurality of cultures is a social reality. We live near or with people whose values and overarching interpretations of life differ markedly from ours and who have sufficient social power to make their voice heard in the public square. In terms of living with the other, the main challenge today is this rubbing shoulders with diverse people in an increasingly pluralistic world.

Who are the others? They are people of different races, religions, and cultures, who live in our proximity and with whom we are often in tension and sometimes in deadly conflict. But who are we?

Who Are We?

It is not possible to speak of “the other” without speaking of “the self,” not of otherness without speaking of identity. For the others are always others to someone else, and just like that someone else they too are to themselves simply “us” as distinct from “them.” We often define ourselves by what differentiates us from others. That by which we differ from others is properly and exclusively our own, and it is in what is exclusively our own that our identity resides, we sometimes think. If we operate with such an exclusive notion of identity, we will watch carefully to make sure that no external elements enter our proper space so as to disturb the purity of our identity. Especially in situations of economic and political uncertainty and conflict, we will insist on pure identity. If race matters to us, then we will want our “blood” to be pure, untainted by the “blood” of strangers. If land matters to us, then we will want our soil to be pure, without the presence of others. If culture matters to us, then we will want our language and customs to be pure, cleansed of foreign words and foreign ways. This is the logic of purity. It attends the notion of identity which rests on difference from the other. The consequences of the logic of purity in a pluralistic world are often deadly. We have to keep the other at bay, even by means of extreme violence, so as to avoid contamination.

An alternative way to construe identity is to think of it as always including the other. This is an inclusive understanding of identity. As persons or cultural groups, we define ourselves not simply by what distinguishes us from others and what we therefore need to keep pure from others. Instead, we define ourselves both by what distinguishes us from others and by what we have in common with them. This notion of identity is consonant with the OT account of creation. In Genesis God creates by separating things (say, the light from the darkness) and binding them together. When God creates a human pair, God both separates Eve from Adam and brings her to him so that they can become one flesh. Distinct-and-bound creatures necessarily have complex identities because they are what they are not just in and of themselves but also in relation to others. As P. Ricoeur puts it in Oneself as Another (University of Chicago, 1992), the “selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other.”

For such inclusive identity, two things are critically important, and they both concern boundaries. First, in order to have an identity, you must have boundaries. For without boundaries we would not have “a world”; everything would be jumbled up together and nothing distinct would exist, which is to say that just about nothing would exist at all. To have anything except infinite chaos, you must have boundaries. Hence when God creates, God separates. If boundaries are good, then some kind of boundary maintenance must be good too. Hence when boundaries are threatened (as they often are in a variety of ways), they must be maintained. Second, if to have identity one must have boundaries, then to have inclusive identity one must have permeable and flexible boundaries. With impermeable and inflexible boundaries, a self or a group will ultimately remain alone, without the other. For the other to come in and change the self or a group, the other must be let in (and, likely after a while also politely let out!).

Our homes provide good examples of complex and dynamic identities circumscribed by permeable and flexible boundaries. When I go to a foreign land I like to buy a local work of art. I bring it home and place it in our living room, my office, or wherever. A space that is properly our own contains a number of “foreign” objects. They are windows into worlds that have become part of me—Cambridge, Madras, Prague, St. Petersburg, Zagreb. As such, they are also symbols of an identity that is not self-enclosed, but marked by porous boundaries and therefore shaped by the other. Occasionally, I move a work of art to a different room to make space for another. Sometimes it even ends up in the basement. Something analogous happens with our identity. We enter new relationships and they shape us; certain things recede into the background and others receive new importance. We live as ourselves in that things which make up our identity multiply, shift, and change. Our boundaries are flexible and our identity dynamic.

Some of that change simply happens to us. Others with whom we are in close contact change, and as a consequence we change too. When my son, Nathanael, came into our family, I changed, whether I wanted to change or not. Moreover, I changed in ways that I could not fully control. Relationships are by definition made up of more actors than one, and persons can react to the presence and action of others, but they can neither control fully that to which they will react nor the conditions under which they will react. Chance and unpredictability come with having permeable and flexible boundaries. At the same time, we can refuse movement of our identity in certain directions and we can initiate movements in other directions. In encounters with others we are not a rudderless boat at high seas. We can significantly craft our identity, and in the process we can even help shape the identities of others.

Who are we? We are people with inclusive and changing identities; multiple others are part of who we are. We can try to eject them from ourselves in order to craft for ourselves an exclusive identity, but we will then do violence not only to others, but also to ourselves. Who is the other? Others are our neighbors who differ from us by culture and whose very otherness is often a factor in our conflicts with them. Now, after the discussion of inclusive identity, we can say that the others are also not just others. They too have complex and dynamic identities, of which we are part, if we are their neighbors. Just as we are “inhabited” by others and have a history with them, others are also “inhabited” by us. If persons and groups are attuned to such complex and dynamic identities, they will not relate to each other according to simple binary schemata: “I am I and you are you” (in case of persons) or “you are either in or out” (in case of groups). Their relations will be correspondingly complex. How do such complex relations look?

How Should We Relate to Each Other?

The Will to Embrace the Other
In a sense, the commitment to live with others is the simplest, but also the most difficult, aspect of our relation with them. Instead of considering others as my own diminishment, I have to imagine them as potential enrichment. Instead of thinking that they disfigure my social landscape, I have to think of them as potentially contributing to its aesthetic improvement. Instead of only suspecting enemies, I have to see them as potential friends.

We have reasons for wanting to keep others at bay. For one, we are afraid for our identity. Above all we fear being overwhelmed by others and their ways. There is a German word for this fear: Überfremdung. It is as if a guest in your home would start to bring in her own furniture and rearrange and take out yours, cook foods and play music you do not like, and bang around working when you would like to sleep. So you say to your guest as politely as you can, “This is my home, and this is not how I want to live. Go back to your own place, and there you can live as you please. Here we are going to live as I please.” Globalization brings others into our proximity. The consequence is often the feeling of Überfremdung. Smaller cultures, like the Macedonian and the Albanian, are threatened by the huge wave of global mono-culture washing over them. They are attracted to many of its features, but they fear that the centuries-long, rich traditions which give them a sense of identity will be replaced by a culture foreign and shallow. Prosperous Western democracies worry that the processes of globalization, which bring to their lands people in search of better living, will undermine the very culture that made possible the freedoms and prosperity which they enjoy.

Second, we fear for our safety. The myth of an “innocent other” is just that—a myth. Relationships between people are always sites of contested power, and there is a permanent danger of misuse of power, especially between those who are reciprocally “other.” Yet we should guard lest we, in refusing to accept the myth of the innocent other, embrace two other myths at the same time: the myth of the “innocent self” and of the “demonic other.”

Third, old enmities make us hesitate about living with the other. We know that old wounds can lead to new injuries. Even when our safety is reasonably assured, either because we have become more powerful or because both parties have been inserted into a larger network of relations which guarantee our safety, we may still hesitate about living together with the other on moral grounds. Would positive relations with the other not amount to betrayal of our ancestors who have suffered at others’ hand? Would we not betray ourselves if we reconciled with our former enemy? Finally, the brute fact of enmity pushes against the commitment to consociality. Just like sin in general according to the Christian tradition, enmity has power. Once established, it is a force beyond the individual wills of actors, and it perpetuates itself by holding enemies captive.

Our sense of identity, fear for safety, and old enmities all militate against the will to embrace the other. So why should we want to embrace the other? First, it may be in our interest to do so. The alternatives—either building a wall of separation or perpetuating enmity—are often much worse. As proximate others, we are intertwined by bonds of economy, culture, and family. Severing these bonds can be worse than trying to live together. But the more important reason is that living with the other in peace is an expression of our God-given humanity. We are created not to isolate ourselves from others but to engage them, indeed, to contribute to their flourishing, as we nurture our own identity and attend to our own well-being. Finally, for Christians, the most important reason for being willing not only to live with others but positively to embrace them is the character of God’s love as displayed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died for all human beings because he loved them all. Though not divine and though in no way capable of redeeming anyone, human beings, too, should love indiscriminately, each and every human being, including not only “the other” but also the enemy (cf. G. Outka, “Universal Love and Impartiality,” in The Love Commandments: Essays in Christian Ethics and Moral Philosophy [ed. E.N. Santurri and W. Werpehowski; Georgetown University Press, 1992] 9).

We may be persuaded that it is good to embrace others, and we may want to embrace them, but still find ourselves unable to do so. Our fears and enmities may get the best of us. Our previous failures may make us lose hope. How do we acquire the will to embrace the other? How do we sustain it through difficult times? Let me try to answer these questions with a story. I was in Zagreb, Croatia, speaking at the promotion of the Croatian translation of my book Exclusion and Embrace. As I was explaining the idea of “will to embrace”, which is central to the book’s argument, I noticed a person in the audience who was listening intently but restlessly. After I finished my lecture and the crowd had cleared, he almost charged toward me and said, “But where does it come from?” And I said, “Where does what come from?” He said, “Where does the will to embrace come from?” He was agitated. He went on, “Is it inborn? Can one learn to will in such ways?” We went together through different possibilities. Ultimately, I said, the will to embrace comes from the divine Spirit of embrace, which can open up our self-enclosed sense of identity, dispel our fears, and break down the hold of enmity over us.

The appeal to the Spirit does not exclude other sources of the will to embrace but includes them. The Spirit of embrace is the Creator Spirit, who has fashioned human beings to live in loving relationships with others. So we may well be motivated by the fulfillment that love provides. The Spirit of embrace is also the Redeemer Spirit, who is calling into being communities which embody and through their practices transmit the will to embrace. So our characters may be shaped through communities of embrace. And yet ultimately the source of the will is that same Spirit which rested on Jesus Christ and led Him to die for the ungodly.

Inverting Perspectives
To live out the will to embrace we need to engage in inverting perspectives. But before we discuss “inverting perspectives,” it is important to note one important feature of otherness. It is a reciprocal relation: if others are “other” to me, then I am an “other” to them. This is especially important to keep in mind in cases when otherness is not just a neutral term to describe difference, but when otherness acquires derogatory connotations, when to be other means not to be as good in some regard as I am myself.

Let me illustrate what I mean. When I was a doctoral student in Germany, along with many other Croats (as well as Greeks, Italians, Turks, and others) I felt like a second-class citizen. I was an Ausländer, and for many Germans Ausländers are by definition deficient in some important ways. Once I was given a ride to Croatia by a porter of my dormitory who was driving there for a vacation. After we crossed the border I made a joking comment, “Now you are an Ausländer!” He did not think this was funny. In his mind, a German was a German and never an Ausländer. And yet that cannot be. If I am Ausländer in his home country, then he is Ausländer in mine; the relationship is reciprocal. The denial of reciprocity is in part what constitutes a prideful and injurious denigration of the other.

Once we understand reciprocity involved in the relation of otherness, we will have more reasons to be interested not only in what we think about ourselves and about others, but also in what others think of themselves and of us. This is what I mean by “inverting perspectives.” There are pragmatic reasons for this endeavor. As R. Williams has written in his comments on the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center entitled Writing in the Dust ([Eerdmans, 2002] 55), “we have to see that we have a life in other people’s imagination, quite beyond our control.” Not attending to other people’s imaginations of us may be dangerous. But there are also moral reasons for this inverting of perspectives. Commitments to truth, to justice, to life in peace with others all require it. We cannot live truthful, just, and peaceful lives with others in a complex world if the only perspective we are willing to entertain is our own. To be unwilling to engage in inverting perspectives is to live, as Immanuel Kant put it, as a self-enclosed one-eyed Cyclops in need of another eye which would let him see things from the perspective of other people.

What does inverting perspectives entail? First, we need to see others through their own eyes. It is natural for us to see them with our own eyes, from our own perspective. To see others through their own eyes takes a willingness to entertain the possibility that we may be wrong and others right in their assessment of themselves, a leap of imagination to place ourselves in their position, a temporary bracketing of our own understanding of them, and receptive attention to their own story about who they see themselves to be.

Second, we need to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Sometimes we think that if we know anything well, it is ourselves that we know well. But I can fail to see something well not simply because it is too distant, but also because it is too close. Moreover, I have a vested interest in seeing myself in a certain way—noticing that what is positive but not that is negative, or letting that which is positive overshadow or relativize the negative. Because we often fail to see ourselves adequately, we need to learn how we are perceived by others. Take as an example the debate on so-called orientalism (the stereotypes that the Christian West has about the Muslim East) and occidentalism (the stereotypes that the Muslim East has about the Christian West). Where the West may see itself as “prosperous,” the East may see it as “decadent”; where the West may see itself as “freedom loving,” the East may see it as “oppressive”; where the West may see itself as “rational,” the East may see it as “calculating” (cf. A. Margalit and I. Buruma, “Occidentalism,” New York Review of Books [January 2002]). It is important for the West to see itself from the perspective of the East, and to inquire seriously as to the adequacy of its own self-perception in light of the way it is perceived. The same, of course, holds true for the East.

Inverting perspectives is second nature for the weak. In encounters with the strong, they always have to attend to how they and their actions are perceived by the strong. Their success and even survival depend on seeing themselves with the eyes of the other. The strong are not in the habit of taking into account what the weak think of them; they can do without inverting perspective. If the weak do not like what they see, so much the worse for the weak. If the only thing that matters to the strong is power and privilege, they will charge ahead, without regard for the perspective of the weak. But if they want to be truthful and just, they will want the weak to free them from their own false judgments of themselves and of their relations with others.

Engagement with the Other
To see oneself and the other from the perspective of the other is not the same as agreeing with the other. As I invert perspective, I bracket my own self-understanding and the understanding of the other and I suspend judgment. After I have understood how the other wishes to be understood and how the other understands me, I must exercise judgment and either agree or disagree, wholly or in part. This is where argumentative engagement comes in.

I could refuse to engage the other with arguments. I could simply insist that I am right. But the result would be irreconcilable clashing of perspectives. In the absence of arguments, the relative power of social actors would decide the outcome. True, we cannot argue interminably, for life would then have to stop. As we are in fact acting even when we are waiting to resolve our own intellectual questions—there is no exit from acting, as W. James has argued in “The Will to Believe” (The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy and Human Immortality [Dover, 1956] 1-31)—so we will be acting even as we are waiting to argue through our differences in perspectives. But we can act in our best light, and then return to argument. In fact, this is what citizens in well-functioning democracies do: they argue, they vote, and then, if some of them don’t like the result, they argue and vote again. And as N. Wolterstorff has suggested, they do so even when a larger polity does not have “a shared political basis,” but lives with “a politics of multiple communities” (“The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issues,” in Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate [Rowman & Littlefield, 1997] 109).

Some would argue that arguments cannot be rationally adjudicated across multiple communities. There is no common ground between them, the argument goes, and therefore we are left with conflicting rationalities, which is to say that we are left with conflict. But the claim that there is no common ground between “others” seems patently false. Commenting on the picture of people marching in the streets of Prague with signs which simply say “Truth” and “Justice,” M. Walzer writes, “When I saw the picture, I knew immediately what the signs meant—and so did everyone else who saw the same picture. Not only that: I also recognized and acknowledged the values that the marchers were defending—and so did (almost) everyone else (Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad [Notre Dame University Press, 1994] 1).

Even if we all have our own maximalist definitions of moral terms shaped by culturally specific and “thick” morality, we also share minimalist moral definitions which “are embedded in the maximal morality” (3). We can argue successfully over cultural boundary lines because we understand and for the most part acknowledge minimalist definitions of relevant terms. When incommensurability threatens between diverse communities, it is not because in principle rational argumentation between them is impossible, but because the readiness to seek through common discourse the truth which transcends one’s own convictions is lacking or because the communities do not possess even an elementary willingness to share the same social space.

Positive engagement with the other is not just a matter of arguments. Even when arguments fail to bring anything like consensus or convergence, we can still cooperate in many ways, unless a dispute concerns acts of grave injustice. The belief that we must agree on overarching interpretative frameworks and all essential values in order to live in peace is mistaken. It ultimately presupposes that peace can exist only if cultural sameness reigns. But even if one considered such sameness desirable, it is clearly unachievable. Take major world religions as an example. A consensus between them on overarching interpretations of the world is not on the horizon in the near future. Must their adherents be therefore at war with one another? Of course not—they can live in peace and cooperate, their fundamental disagreements notwithstanding, and they can do so out of their own properly religious resources. Though the practice of Christians sometimes seems to falsify this claim, everything in the Christian faith itself speaks in favor of it, from the simple and explicit injunction to live in peace with all people (Rom 12:18) to the character of God as triune love (cf. M. Volf, Christianity and Violence [forthcoming]).

Embrace of the Other
A simple willingness to embrace the other does not suffice. A further step of actually embracing them is needed. As we are arguing with others about issues of truth and justice, we are making sure that embrace, if it takes place, will not be a sham, a denial of truth and trampling on justice. As we are engaged in inverting perspectives, we have started embracing others in that we have taken them, even if only in a symbolic form and for a time, into our own selves; we have made their eyes our own. But for embrace to take place, more is needed. We need to make space for them in our own identity and in our social world (though how that space will be made remains open for negotiations). We need to let them reshape our identity so as to become part of who we are, yet without in any way threatening or obliterating us but rather helping to establish the rich texture of our identity. Just as after the birth of my second son, Aaron, I let him be inserted, so to speak, into my identity, so also we ought to let our proximate others be a part of whom we are (adjusted, of course, for the differences between family and neighbor relations). To use a local example, this would mean that Albanians living in Macedonia would not see themselves as just Albanians; they would see themselves as Albanians, whose identity consists in part in being neighbors to Macedonians and sharing a larger Macedonian political space with them. The same, adjusted to account for the differences between the two groups, holds true for Macedonians.

Such welcome is possible on Christian terms because we Christians should not think of ourselves as having a pure national, cultural, racial, or ethnic identity. Not only do we, along with Jews and Muslims, believe that all human beings are creatures of one God and therefore that the humanity which unites them is more significant than any difference that may divide them. Further, an image of the Christian life which looms large in the Bible and in the Christian tradition is that of a pilgrim. A pilgrim is not defined primarily by the land or culture through which he or she is traveling, but by the place toward which he or she is on the way; his or her primary identity comes from the destination, not from any point along the journey. And the land toward which Christians are moving is God’s new world, in which people from “all tribes and languages” will be gathered. Being a pilgrim does not exclude a whole range of secondary identities, such as citizen of Macedonia, ethnic Roma, woman, or mother of three rebellious teenagers. But in Christian understanding, all these identities ought to be subordinated to the primary identity as a person on the way to God’s new world.

The unsettling of Christians’ sense of cultural identity cuts deep. The Apostle Paul writes that Christians “are not their own.” This is a strange thing to say. A lot of things are my own, and I guard them carefully. And it would seem that what is more my own than anything else is myself. And yet the Apostle insists that we are not our own, but belong to the Lord. As a Christian in Paul’s sense, I am so much not myself that “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Christian identity is taken out of our own hands and placed into the hands of the divine Other, and by this it is both radically unsettled and unassailably secured. Because Christ defines our identity in the primary way, Christians can confidently set on a journey with proximate others and engage without fear in the give and take of the relationship with others that marks an inclusive identity. What will be the result of this engagement? Like Abraham’s, it will be a journey of faith and hope toward the land which one has not yet seen.

But should we not maintain our boundaries so as to protect our cultural identities? Yes, we should. If I am crushed in the process of embrace with the other, this is no longer an embrace but an act of covert aggression. Whereas the will to embrace the other is unconditional, the embrace itself is not. It is conditioned, first, on the preservation of the integrity of the self. Boundaries are good, I argued earlier, because discrete identities themselves are a good. And because both are good, they have to be protected. Earlier I have argued for protection of identities—of one’s self and of one’s group—by appealing to creation. To have anything distinct at all and therefore to have “a world,” you must have and maintain boundaries. Hence when God creates, God separates (and binds together, of course). One can argue for protection of identities also on the basis of redemption. Since God showed redeeming love in Christ for all humanity, the self cannot be excluded as a legitimate object of love. I should love myself, provided my love of self is properly related to the love of God and of the neighbor. And since I can love myself, I can certainly love my group because such love includes both the love of the neighbor and the love of the self (since my own well-being is often connected with the well-being of my group). Hence one is entitled to ensure that the embrace of the other does not endanger the self.

Moreover, the embrace is predicated on settling of the disputes with the other around the questions of truth and justice. How should these questions be settled? For Christians, the guardian at the boundaries of identity is Christ, and the self inhabited by Christ is therefore committed to making the story of Jesus Christ his or her own story. A one-word summary of that story is grace. Now grace is grace only against the backdrop of the law of justice. I am gracious in situations of conflict if I forego the rightful claims of the law, forgive, and reconcile with the other. I am gracious in situations of need if I do not only what the law of justice prescribes, but also engage in acts of generosity toward the needy. In the act of grace the law of justice is not inoperative; to the contrary, its demands are implicitly recognized as valid. In showing grace, however, I “transgress” the law of justice, not by doing less than it requires, but by doing more (cf. J. Murphy, “Mercy and Legal Justice,” in Forgiveness and Mercy [Cambridge University Press, 1988] 169).

Two things follow from this understanding of grace. First, grace is very much compatible with ongoing arguments between parties about what relations between them would be just and with the demand that one not be treated unjustly. Second, the receiver of grace has no claim on the grace of the giver; though the giver may be obliged to give (as Christians are obliged to forgive), the receiver cannot demand to be given.

The four elements of relating to the other— commitment to consociality, inverting perspectives, engagement, and embrace—leave many thorny issues unresolved. I have said nothing about political arrangements most suitable for living with multiple others. Nicholas Wolterstorff has argued for a particular kind of liberal democracy as best suited for culturally and religiously pluralistic societies. It has two features that distinguish it from other conceptions of liberal democracy, notably from that of J. Rawls. First, it is not necessary to have a shared political basis rooted in the idea of public reason. Instead, we should learn to live “with the politics of multiple communities” (The Role of Religion, 109). Second, the state should be “neutral with respect to the religious and other comprehensive perspectives present in society,” and that neutrality should be understood “as requiring impartiality of the state with respect to all comprehensive perspectives rather than separation of the state from all of them (115). I share Wolterstorff’s position. Important as the four elements of relating to the other that I have analyzed are in their own right, they can be also seen as part of an ethos of a genuinely pluralistic liberal democracy of the kind Wolterstorff advocates.

“The Brother” and “the Other”

Let me conclude by making one qualification. The last part of my lecture — How Should We Relate to Each Other? — is predicated on an important but contested persuasion. It is that we should relate to the other not simply as a bearer of rights, but also as a proper object of love.

Avishai Margalit has distinguished what he calls “the Christian project” from “the Jewish project.” The Christian project, he writes, “is an effort to establish, in historical time, an ethical community based on love. This community, ideally, should include all of humanity, and it should be based on the memory of the cross as an ultimate sacrifice for the sake of humanity” (The Ethics of Memory [Harvard University Press, 2002] 72). In contrast, the Jewish project “retains the double tier of ethics and morality at least for historical times, and postpones the idea of a universal ethical community to the messianic era. Jews are obliged to establish themselves as an ethical community of caring. The force of the obligation is gratitude to God for having delivered their ancestors from the ‘house of slaves’ in Egypt…. In distinction from ethics, morality, in the Jewish view, is based on a different source. It is based on the debt of gratitude all humanity owes God for having been created in His image” (72).

The basic obligation in the first-tier communal ethics is care, and the basic obligation in the second-tier universal morality is respect. To the brother—whether he is a family member, compatriot, or co-religionist—we owe care; to the other, we owe respect.

In Margalit’s terms, I was engaged in this lecture in “the Christian project.” I have not reserved love for “the brother,” but applied it to “the other” as well. As he rightly notes, for Christians love applies to the other because the central saving event, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, concerns every human being. As God loved “the world” and “gave his only Son” (John 3:16), so Christians are obliged to love every human being. But noble as it may be to consider the whole human commonwealth as an ethical community of love, is it not also an impossible ideal? So it is. Theologians have rarely advocated that it takes, as Margalit puts it, only “a little helping of grace” for humanity to “be established as an ethical community of love” (72). Much like Jews, Christians have left the realization of this ideal to God’s intervention at the end of the age. But still they have refused to correlate “love” with “thick” relations and “respect” with “thin” relations. Love and respect apply to both kinds of relations.

But do not people to whom we are “thickly” related demand special attention? A spouse and children seem to do so. Why not fellow members of the same ethnic group? Insisting that “every human being is my neighbor,” some Christians have advocated that we should be impartial in our love, extending it to those to whom we are “thinly” related no less than to those to whom we are “thickly” related. Yet even those Christian theologians who, like Augustine, claim that “all people should be loved equally” (Augustine, Teaching Christianity, trans. E. Hill, in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century I/11 [New City, 1996] I.29), insist that “proximity” makes a difference. Augustine writes, “since you cannot be of service to everyone, you have to take greater care of those who are more closely joined to you by a turn, so to say, of fortune’s wheel, whether by occasion of place or time, or any other such circumstance.” Other Christian theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, have claimed that all neighbors should not be loved equally; we have special relations to some people and “the union arising from natural origin is prior to, and more stable than, all others” (Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province [Christian Classics, 1981] IIa IIae, q.26, a8). So to claim that love’s scope is universal does not imply that we do not differentiate in how we ought to love those with whom we have special relations and those with whom we do not.

There is no good reason to wed the claim that love is universal in scope with what G. Outka has called “simplified egalitarianism” which does not take into account that “our capacity for reciprocal help and harm is deeper and more varied with those closely related to us.” The Christian claim that we should “love” all people, not just those with whom we have special relations, does not imply undifferentiated cosmopolitanism which would preclude giving special attention to our own family, ethnic group, nation, or broader culture. Not only is it right to maintain boundaries of discrete group identities, as I have argued earlier. It is also right devote one’s energies so that the group to which we belong would flourish. What Christians ought not to do, is fail to love “the other,” especially the proximate other. This I take to be one of the points of the story of the Good Samaritan.

[This essay is adapted from an address given in Skopje, Macedonia.]

Posted Mar 01, 2003