“I am who I am in relation to the other”

February 9, 2011

A clergy friend strongly recommended that I read Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace. He said that it would help me in my struggle to understand the meaning of the cross—especially in my effort to make sense of penal substitution. Volf is an evangelical Christian theologian from Croatia, who endured the war in the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s.

It just so happens that within days of my friend’s recommending it, I read this essay on penal substitution by my favorite contemporary theologian, N.T. Wright, in which he also sang the book’s praises. Needless to say, I’m now reading the book.

Although I’ve barely started, I want to stick a pin in this paragraph because it seems profoundly right. In it, Volf explains humanity’s tendency toward violence. It’s rooted, he argues, in the fact that other people are a necessary part of how we define ourselves. That being the case, our well-intentioned libertarian impulse to live and let live is naive.

I am who I am in relation to the other; to be Croat is, among other things, to have Serbs as neighbors; to be white in the U.S. is to enter a whole history of relations to African Americans… Hence the will to be oneself, if it is to be healthy, must entail the will to let the other inhabit the self; the other must be part of who I am as I will to be myself. As a result, a tension between the self and the other is built into the very desire for identity: the other over against whom I must assert myself is the same other who must remain part of myself if I am to be myself. But the other is often not the way I want her to be (say, she is aggressive or simply more gifted) and is pushing me to become the self that I do not want to be (suffering her incursions or my own inferiority). And yet I must integrate the other into my own will to be myself. Hence I slip into violence: instead of reconfiguring myself to make space for the other, I seek to reshape the other into who I want her to be in order that in relation to her I may be who I want to be.

† Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 91.

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