Exclusion and Embrace

by Miroslav Volf

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.


Volf focuses particularly on God’s call addressed to the biblical patriarch Abraham to leave the land of his fathers and to go to the Promised Land. From the point of view of the New Testament, Abraham is not only the progenitor of the Jewish people but also the spiritual father of all those who believe in Christ. Volf states that the core of every Christian’s identity is departure from a given culture: that is, they become a stranger in the world in response to Jesus’s call, which excludes them from former allegiances. Volf considers Abraham’s calling as he engages with two opposite philosophical positions.

The first one, that of some postmodern thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze, advocates a “nomadic” approach to existence. However, it is radically different from what Abraham is called to do. While Abraham’s call is very specific in terms of the points of departure and destination, as well as the promise that is affixed to the call, the “nomads” of postmodernism roam from place to place without direction. Volf explains,

Departure is here a temporary state, not an end in itself; a departure from a particular place, not from all sites... And this is the way it must be if the talk about departures is to be intelligible. Departures without some sense of an origin and a goal are not departures; they are instead but incessant roaming . . . (chapter 1)

The second position, that of some feminist thinkers, would disapprove of Abraham on the following grounds:

Abraham could appear as a paradigmatic male, eager to separate himself . . . to secure his independence and glory . . . crush those who resist him . . . be benevolent to those who praise him . . . and finally extend his power to the ends of the earth . . . (chapter 1)

Volf believes that Abraham’s departure does not equal a denial of relations. He is bound first to God and then to a new community which is formed around him. He is both transcendence and immanence. Not only does he depart, he also generates a new nation and a new history.


Volf writes that “no other biblical text describes better the anatomy, dynamics, and power of exclusion than the story of Cain and Abel” (chapter 2). Fittingly, then, focuses on the power and identity struggles that the relationship between the brothers is fraught with. Cain’s identity is constructed in relation to Abel from the very beginning. Once God pronounces Abel “better” and his sacrifice more “acceptable,” Cain is faced with the choice either to radically readjust his own identity or (in his logic) to eliminate Abel. By killing Abel, Cain not only loses his brother; he excludes himself from the possibility of belonging, as he is banished from the land. However, Cain is not simply a paradigmatic murderer. He is also the progenitor of the Kenites, a southern tribe excluded from the blessings of Israel:

The story of Cain and Abel is then not only an example of rivalry between two brothers, but it narrates the structure of encounter between “them” and “us” . . . (chapter 2)

The story about Cain and Abel is one about otherness. Each one of us is potentially Abel and Cain both:

The story takes the perspective of the victim not only to condemn the perpetrator, as Girard claims, but at the same time to contravene the tendency of the victim to turn into perpetrator. Its greatness lies precisely in that it combines a clear judgment against the perpetrator with the commitment to protect him...

(This entire section contains 817 words.)

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from the rage of the “innocent” victim. (chapter 2)

Pontius Pilate

Pilate’s judgment of Jesus highlights the relation between power and truth. Contrary to many commentators’ opinion, Volf believes that Pilate is not an impotent and almost benevolent judge who wants to release Jesus but fails to do so under pressure from the Jewish leaders. Pilate’s main goal, in Volf’s estimation, is to preserve his power, and the discourse between Pilate and Israel’s religious chiefs is arranged accordingly. In this battle, he wins by forcing them to acknowledge Caesar as their only king and making Jesus an example of the fate of any future pretenders to the title of king.

However, Pilate, this official who recognizes only the truth of power, loses to Jesus, who confronts him with the power of the truth. The scorn for truth evidenced in Pilate’s decision is the flip side of the scorn for human life, in Volf’s view. Linking Pilate’s approach to truth with Nietzsche’s antihumanism, Volf concludes,

Nietzsche knew that by not taking truth seriously Pilate was deciding not to take “a Jewish affair” seriously. And he shared Pilate's scorn for the “little Jew” from Galilee . . . Unlike Pilate and Nietzsche, however, the followers of the crucified Messiah must have passion for the freedom of “every little Jew.” Hence they will seek both to speak truth and to be truthful people. (chapter 6)