Summer Reading Group: “Conflict, Violence, and Reconciliation”

This is the fifth post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2016 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Flourishing by Miroslav Volf. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

This summer I took 15 undergraduates on a Holocaust Study Tour in Central Europe. The students were asking the same questions that are frequently asked in such settings: “What causes people to do such violent things to each other?” and “What can be done to prevent this?” Miroslav Volf’s personal background and much of his scholarship is taken up with such questions. Coming from the former Yugoslavia, which also went through its own genocide, he has invested a great deal of time in analyzing and proposing answers to that second question—how can reconciliation and peace be achieved in spite of deep differences and past tragedies?

Chapter Five of Flourishing, “Conflict, Violence, and Resolution” builds on Chapter Four’s assertion that religious exlusivism need not (indeed, for our world to work well, must not) negate a commitment to political pluralism. In fact, while religious exclusivism has the potential to incite violence, it isn’t inherently violent, and in a highly globalized world, we need the reconciling potential of world religions.

Volf basically accepts Steven Pinker’s work on the decline of violence in the world, though not completely his rationale for why it has occurred. Still, Volf writes, globalization has resulted in widespread agreement on the importance of the free market (Mammon), pluralistic states with representative governments (Leviathan), and human rights (Iusticia)—and all of these elements reduce both the benefit of violence and its frequency. Vitally, Volf does admit that the pacification of the world through the increased power of the state has happened at great cost and even oppression to many people groups.

While much of globalization has reduced violence, it has also caused “three dark clouds” that the contemporary world faces: diversity with competing notions of the good life, the gap between rich and poor, and ecological catastrophe (p. 168). He argues that the world’s religions can help with the latter two ”clouds” by promoting devotion to the transcendent. Having a greater sense of what matters in the world beyond the material can mitigate class war and also lessen ecological footprints. But Volf is primarily concerned in this chapter with the power of religious identity and commitment to motivate and assist with reconciliation.

Volf’s work in Exclusion and Embrace is famously effective in highlighting the elements that are needed for reconciliation and he provides a quick summary of them here. It is in the world’s religions, although not those alone, that Volf roots the models and motivations for repentance, apologies, forgiveness and then reconciliation. I highly recommend this chapter as quick survey of how Volk thinks this is best done. We live, he reminds us, in a world where demographic realities mean we live cheek by jowl with people whose visions of the good life are different from ours. How are we going to deal with the conflict that (inevitably) comes?

I am one of those people who do not believe in the myth of a secular enlightenment that invented toleration. I do not think that getting rid of religion will solve conflicts, or even most of them. The Holocaust Tour that we just finished in May was very convincing in this regard: all of the countries we visited had enforced secularism for most of the 20th century and yet continued the process of ethnic cleansing for totally “secular” reasons. Like Volf I am also optimistic about the role of religion to “attend to the wrong-doing of the past, preventing it from colonizing the future” (p. 194). We desperately need this attention to something beyond raw power and self-indulgence to mitigate these conflicts.

Volf’s description of how globalization has reduced violence is thin and contested. As a historian, I would like more evidence beyond the anecdotal, though I do not disagree with his articulation. I think another weak point is his reliance on “rightly held” religious beliefs—on the “original articulations” of the world’s religions that he thinks can somehow stand up to the threat of violence and conflict and promote reconciliation. We have ample evidence that many people don’t hold to those original articulations.

Still, as a pragmatist, I’m inspired by the idea of allowing the visions of the transcendent to counter the ugly economic challenges and ethnic conflict we daily experience in our globalized world. The diverse worldviews aren’t going away and neither is the human mash-up that is most large cities and almost all countries. I’m convinced, like Volf, that the main source of violence is a commitment to state power. Religions, with their possibility of looking beyond the state for succor, can be a great counter to political exclusivism.

For myself, the Christian vision of the Body of Christ and the language of the priesthood of all believers, has done a great deal to help me attend to the full humanity of others. As a Seventh-day Adventist, being part of a world church has dampened my nationalistic ardor enough to help me imagine having more in common with my SDA brothers and sisters in (for instance) Kenya than I might sometimes have with my atheist neighbors in Chattanooga. This doesn’t mean that I am alienated from my local neighbors who don’t share my vision of the transcendent, just that my world religion allows me to expand my heart and imagination.

And it was this same sort of imagination, often of the religious kind, that helped some people at various times during the Holocaust (as my students and I learned, over and over on our tour), resist going along with genocide and ethnic cleansing and the ceaseless round of reprisals. In this context, “love your enemy,” “turn the other cheek,” and the language of unmerited forgiveness are all powerful antidotes. Research shows that group identity based on a common focus on the sacred can make people kinder to each other, both within the group and without it. Secular identity does not allow for this level of practical kindness. Volf is arguing that we need religion to help us deal with the problems of modernity.

I wonder about the readers of this site. Has your faith contributed to your own flourishing and that of others, or has it led to barriers? I would like to say “yes” to this, though the realities of the globalized, demographically dense world Volf described to challenge me. I pray that my claims to a vision of the transcendent as seen in the life and death and forgiveness and resurrection of Jesus help me reconcile with the people I most need to each day—the ones I rub up against on the roads, at work, on my street, in my church—who offend or annoy me. And I live each day so grateful that I get to receive unconditional love and forgiveness within a local church, that expression of the Body of Christ that is practice ground for both the whole world and all eternity.


Lisa Clark Diller lives with her husband Tommy in Chattanooga, TN where she is a professor of history at Southern Adventist University.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The Scofield Bible and its resultant Dispensationalism is at the root of the extraordinary linkage between Evangelicals and Trumpism. There is nothing about inclusiveism or ethnic compassion. Only the separation of church and state prevents a new deadly purge. tZ

[quote=“tjzwemer, post:2, topic:11499”]

[quote=“tjzwemer, post:2, topic:11499”]
inclusiveism or ethnic compassion

Fine. The Democrats can be Neville Chamberlain and we will let Trump be Winston Churchill. After all, One oblivious Chamberlain doesn’t save you from a force determined to enslave you. But a Winston Churchill knows, "It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary."
Winston Churchill

I appreciate your thoughts on this chapter Lisa. In particular, I like this sentence, “This doesn’t mean that I am alienated from my local neighbors who don’t share my vision of the transcendent, just that my world religion allows me to expand my heart and imagination.”

Richard Rohr is doing a series in his daily meditations on paradox and non-dualism. He contends that, “The source of spiritual wisdom is to hold questions and contradictions patiently, much more than to find quick certitudes, to rush to closure or judgment, as the ego and dualistic mind want to do.”

Too often, religion is (ab)used by those seeking quick certitudes and a right/wrong dualism to create us versus them dichotomies. As a result we become alienated not just from our neighbors of different or no faith but even from members of our own faith whose beliefs differ from ours. The difference between a dualistic versus a nondualistic approach is illustrated by these links to two recent reviews on this website of Reinder Bruinsma’s new book Facing Doubt.

Religion can either expand our heart and imagination to appreciate and even include those with whom we differ or it can be (mis)used to divide, expell, and demonize others. I agree with Volf that we need religion to deal with the problems of modernity as long as religion critiques rather than perpetuates modernity’s dualism.


The “Sermon on the Mount” instructs us to turn the other cheek when struck by an adversary - OUR cheek; not someone else’s cheek. When robbed of our shirt, we are asked to give up our cloak as well. OUR cloak; not someone else’s cloak. We are to forgive our enemy as his sward comes down on OUR neck; not on someone else’s neck.

At this time, a group is ravaging the globe - kidnapping, raping, and killing the innocence. Do we have a responsibility to protect and rescue the suffering? Are we asked to forgive ravaging hordes on behalf of the victims?

“He argues that the world’s religions can help with the latter two ”clouds” by promoting devotion to the transcendent. Having a greater sense of what matters in the world beyond the material can mitigate class war and also lessen ecological footprints. But Volf is primarily concerned in this chapter with the power of religious identity and commitment to motivate and assist with reconciliation.”

It is precisely “religious identity” that is the problem in this current crisis - “72 virgins when you kill the adversary”. Reconcile that.


Your commitment, Lisa, to faith as a reconciling influence is crucial and timely.

Two quick points:

  1. I don’t think we can overstate the disastrous effects of Constantinianization, or official entanglement of the church with political power. Jesus’ themes of reconciliation and anti-violence complicate state power and do not figure importantly in its exercise. As long as Christians find faith and (thoughtless versions of) patriotism to be compatible, the church will be vulnerable to critics who associate religion with violence.

  2. I have now read Reinder Buinsma’ book, and of course I have seen the reviews on the website and the insightful perspective by Jason Hines. I think Reinder has given a great gift to Adventism, but I did, just this morning, ask myself why he does not spend substantial time on Christian-sponsored violence as one main source of doubt. Questions of justice and non-violence attract too little attention even among the reformers of Adventism.



Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don’t do it!"
He said, "Nobody loves me."
I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, "Yes."
I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"
He said, "A Christian."
I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, "Me, too! What franchise?"
He said, "Baptist."
I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, "Northern Baptist."
I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!”

Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

"Can two walk together, except they be agreed?"
Amos 3:3

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