"Before speaking about victims and to victims I need to listen. We all who are not victims need to listen." In a follow-up to his May 30 response to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, Miroslav Volf speaks frankly about the necessity of listening to black perspectives about racism, police brutality, and the history and continuous experience of black suffering.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity.
Hi everyone, Evan here, and thanks for listening today. I’m going to pass things right over to Miroslav Volf for some additional thoughts on what needs to be said and done in this moment. What you need to know now is that we’ll be posting more episodes this week that focus in on the black experience, racism, police brutality, and structural injustice. We’ll be joined by Willie Jennings of Yale and Keri Day of Princeton Theological Seminary. Here’s Miroslav.
Miroslav Volf: Friends and listeners—in our most recent episode of the podcast, I addressed very briefly the suffering of African Americans under unabating racism, most recently exemplified in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and the death of George Floyd, caused directly by police brutality. I spoke from the perspective developed in my book Exclusion & Embrace. I spoke about forms of exclusion involved in racism; I called for solidarity with those who suffer under its brutal daily burden. I spoke also about the importance of the will to embrace the other, the importance of not closing ourselves into pure identities that are either indifferent or bellicose.
In the seven minutes that I spoke, I left many important things about exclusion unsaid, both more generally, but also about its more specific expression in racism, especially racism in this country. But it is not just that important content or ideas about racism today was missing. Even more importantly, an indispensable perspective was missing. I spoke as a third party, a person moved by the suffering—by the dehumanization of others—but still an observer.
Now those who are familiar with Exclusion & Embrace, you will know that I wrote the book from the perspective of victims. From the perspective of victims’ struggle for truth and justice and against the spirit of exclusion, victims’ struggle for the will to embrace to be born in them and for them to embark upon a difficult journey of embrace, and to do so even under situations in which every fiber of their bodies and all the stirrings of their souls wants to counter violence with violence and exclusion with exclusion.
I could write about the call of Christ crucified and resurrected to the victims partly because I belonged to a victimized group myself: my home country Croatia was partly occupied, the town in which I was born was for months under siege and exposed to shelling, my people were being driven out of their homes. Even more importantly, I could write this way because I wrote the entire book primarily for myself: its many pages are one lengthy attempt to discern what the integrity of the Christian response looks like when a third of your country gets occupied and thousands of its inhabitants get “ethnically cleansed” and, many of them, killed. In some way, I was also trying to give myself reasons to do what in the depth of my soul—a depth that remained undisturbed by my pain and rage—I knew needed to be done. And what I believed and still believe needed to be done is to make a costly journey into what Martin Luther King called “the beloved community.”
In the racial tensions in the United States, I do not belong to the victimized group. Instead, I belong to the privileged group that has, since the beginning of the European colonial project, benefited in many ways from the centuries of racial oppression. The fact that I am a naturalized U.S.citizen, and therefore innocent of the centuries of oppression of the blacks in this country, makes little difference; my whiteness is my privilege. The fact that I came from the part of Europe that did not do the colonizing but that was itself the object of centuries of colonization by Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, that too makes little difference; in this country, my whiteness is still my privilege.
Before speaking about victims and to victims I need to listen. We all who are not victims need to listen. One of the points I make in Exclusion & Embrace is that in encounters with others a posture of “non-understanding” is necessary. It seems paradoxical, but it’s true. If I think I already understand the other and their behavior, I have intellectually closed myself to them and my image of them has become unresponsive to who they are and to who they want to tell me that they are. I am then ready to judge, to declare their behavior either as good or bad, to condemn or to praise it. My presumed understanding can easily then become a form of closing myself off to them, even a form of exclusion. Then even in my attempt to embrace them, I may actually exclude them because I do not understand them as they understand themselves. Even in my attempt to be in solidarity with them, I can actually betray them because I am not in solidarity with them as they understand solidarity and themselves in the need of solidarity. For this reason, my posture should not be one of offering perspectives on how they should engage in the struggle against injustice, deception, and violence to which they are exposed.
Since producing our recent episode last week, the situation has escalated; protests and demonstrations, some of them violent, have spread across the country. We also failed to speak the name of Breonna Taylor, a black woman who was killed by police in her Louisville, Kentucky home in March.
These realities require faithful and courageous Christian response, a much-needed exercise in public theology. So in the coming days we will host on this podcast some of our African American friends. Willie Jennings, my colleague at Yale, and a leading theological voice in this country, will return to our podcast to offer his own commentary on our situation. We will also bring a conversation with Keri Day, Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religion at Princeton Theological Seminary; importantly, she is the main author of “Princeton Seminary & Slavery Report.” I want to invite you to take time, to listen, and open yourself up for what they have to say.
Thank you for listening, friends—we look forward to sharing these resources with you in the coming days.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu. Thanks for listening.