Churches should stay away from culture wars, says Yale theologian

Culture wars have spread barbarians everywhere, and churches are making a serious mistake by engaging in these battles, says Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, founder of the Yale University Center for Faith and Culture. Volf updates one of his classics, “Exclusão e Abraço”, first released in 1996 and reissued to adapt to the spirit of our time. In Brazil, it was published by publisher Mundo Cristão.

The theologian talks to Folha about Good Samaritanism, which today means forgoing face-to-face religious meetings to stop Covid. “To insist on personal worship is to insist on harming our neighbors.”


M. launched “Exclusão e Abraço” 25 years ago. Since then, which half of this pair has prevailed? When I wrote the book, the world was going global quickly after the fall of the bipolar world [da Guerra Fria]. Identity conflicts were not uncommon, but they did occur on the periphery. When they descended into open confrontations, the West often experienced them as subcivilizational barbarism. Today, identity politics is a global reality. The “barbarians” are everywhere, to use the vocabulary that I generally disapprove of.

Because? I don’t want to stress that most right-wing identity politics are the expression of an anti-civilizational struggle. Except in the extreme, it’s a moral point of view. I totally disagree, but I don’t want to dehumanize anyone who believes this.

M. in 1996 he raised ways to avoid extremism. Has the world been successful at this point? Extremism abounds. The United States, which from its inception was a beacon of democracy, until recently had a deeply undemocratic president, Mr. [Donald] Trump, who pursued not only the “America First” policy but “White America First”. The country remains divided.

What does the Trumpist slogan “Make America Great Again” mean, which mr. quote in the preface, are you talking about our times? That we only care about ourselves. Not as supremacist as “Deutschland über alles” [Alemanha acima de tudo, adotado pelo nazismo], but it’s not far behind. There is nothing Christian about it, although many people have adopted it. The Christian faith is a universalist creed, which means that God takes care of every human being in the same way. A citizen is not like a Wall Street trader who demands the best deal for himself and his shareholders, no matter what happens to others.

What about Brazil? I have only visited the country once, in 2018. You can imagine that my perception of what is happening politically, economically and culturally is limited. But from the outside, it looks strangely like the situation in the United States. [sob Trump].

In this polarized context, can religion sow discord? Over the centuries, religions have played contradictory roles. Christianity, for example, gave birth to humanitarianism as we know it, but it also legitimized the colonization of peoples, blessed wars, and acted in a way that contradicts the mission of Jesus Christ. The argument of my book is that at the heart of this faith are the resources for a “politics of embrace.”

What would she be? I use the hugs as a metaphor for the parable of the prodigal son, which illustrates both the character of God Christians are to emulate and how He relates to rebels and “good citizens.” There is a feeling that enemies must also be loved, even if, and especially when, we must resist them.

M. Do you think temples should remain open during the most critical phases of the pandemic? Those who attend face-to-face services are not just putting themselves at risk. Infected in cults, they take away Covid. To insist on worshiping personally is to insist on harming our neighbors. I know some leaders claim that not meeting causes spiritual harm, which is worse than death. But persisting in meetings when the virus is on the rise is morally wrong. This is analogous to the justification that the priest, in the biblical story of the Good Samaritan, could have given not to help the injured person in the process: his urgent spiritual needs were more important than the life of the other. Jesus, however, praised the Samaritan, the one who put aside his priorities because of the needy. If the pandemic worsens, we will stay at home and do the same.

When the Supreme Federal Court ruled that churches would remain closed if governors and mayors so ordered, pastors said the ruling would undermine religious freedom. Do you agree? I do not believe. It is, or at least it should be, a matter of public safety. To become religious discrimination, a state or city would have to impose stricter restrictions on the masses and services than other comparable public or commercial activities in importance. But, even without decrees, churches must conduct their own moral deliberations guided by love of neighbor.

The crisis has caused many schisms in society, on topics such as the vaccine, lockdown and even the use of a mask. What lesson will we learn from this? I hope we are the keepers of our brothers and sisters. The current pandemic is a clear case in which, working for the good of others, I am working for my own.

What is the participation of religious groups in polarization? In the United States and parts of Europe, churches have been heavily involved in culture wars. I think this is a big mistake. Religious leaders believe that winning these battles will prevent secularization and keep the entire nation tied to the Christian heritage. I am convinced that this is not leading to a resurgence of religion, but to secularization. Christian political engagement only makes sense when we have a Christian-inspired social vision, not when we select certain issues. [morais] and fight for them.

Are you optimistic about the post-pandemic world? I prefer not to think of optimism and pessimism, but of the Jewish and Christian understanding of “hope” and “despair”. Legitimate optimism is based on the belief that the present is pregnant with the future and gives birth to it. If so, we have reason to be concerned. Hope, on the other hand, can exist even in the darkest of circumstances, even though we are at zero point. When Jesus hung on the cross in agony and shame, there was no reason to be optimistic. But then the miracle of the resurrection came, and the disciples of Jesus learned to hope that impossible things are possible. Understood, hope is “a cup of coffee” for now.

Miroslav Volf, 64 years old
Professor of Theology at the Faculty of Divinity at Yale University (USA), he founded and directs the Center for Faith and Culture at the same institution. He has written over 20 books, including ‘Exclusion and Embrace’ (1996, revised 2019) and ‘Allah: A Christian Response’.

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