Systemic Exclusion

I’ve mentioned in the past that my pastors quote a lot of books, so any single book which gets more than one mention automatically goes on my “To Read” list. One of the most frequently mentioned books is Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, whose ridiculously pretentious-sounding subheading is “A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.”

I borrowed a copy from one of the staff and it’s as tough to get through at times as the title suggests. The book is about a very fundamental idea–that we tend to “embrace” people who are like us and “exclude” people who aren’t. In particular, we’ll label those who are unlike us as “other,” and exclude them in sometimes obvious and sometimes very subtle ways.

For example, one idea that I’d never thought of as exclusion is force assimilation; when I was growing up in Ohio, I didn’t always feel excluded per se–but I felt a lot of pressure to flatten my Chinese identity in order to be accepted by my primarily white community. And that, Volf writes, is actually a form of exclusion too.

Anyway, I’m not too far into the book because it’s tough to read, but sometimes there are passages that hit you like a train. Extensive quote below:

“A…form of exclusion…becoming increasingly prevalent not only in the way the rich of the West and North relate to the poor of the Third World, but also in the manner in which suburbs relate to inner cities, or the jet-setting ‘creators of high value’ to the rabble beneath them. (Tamez 1993, 37ff) It is exclusion as abandonment. Like the high priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, we simply cross to the other side and bass by, minding our own business (Luke 10:31). If others neither have goods we want nor can perform services we need, we make sure that they are at a safe distance and close ourselves off from them so that their emaciated and tortured bodies can make no inordinate claims on us…

A ‘system’…insinuates itself between myself and the other. If the other is excluded, it is the system that is doing the excluding, a system in which I participate because I must survive and against which I do not rebel because it cannot be changed…Numbed by the apparent ineluctability of exclusion taking place outside of my will though with my collaboration, I start to view horror and my implication in it as normalcy. I reason: the road from Jerusalem to Jericho will always be littered by people beaten and left half-dead; I can pass–I must pass–by each without much concern. The indifference that made the prophecy takes care also of its fulfillment.” (p. 75, 77)

This passage puts into words the way I have thought about income inequality–with its interrelationship to race–in the U.S. and the world. Income inequality seems to me to be one of the worst problems of our time, but it’s a slowly developing chronic disease that occasionally has an exacerbation in the form of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. But the people who make and consume the most news media overwhelmingly belong to the “haves,” and even as they report on the plight of the “have-nots,” it’s almost more entertainment than information designed to spur action and change.

Not to mention, in most of our jobs or spheres of influence, what can we do?

In my own community group at church, this is something I have been thinking about a lot. Many of the churches in Boston considered to be “doctrinally sound” by Christians I talked to when I moved here largely cater to the educated and relatively wealthy. I think my church is unfortunately an extreme case of that reality. It’s hard to change a body of several hundred people, but change might just be possible in our little microcosm of Central Square Fridays.

Maybe. Praying and trying to figure out how to make this possible.



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