Exclusion and embrace

December 18th, 2019

The story of embrace

In Dr. Seuss’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, the citizens of Whoville don’t know exactly why the Grinch is so ill-tempered, cynical, distrustful and vengeful, but the narrator speculates that he was born with a heart “two sizes too small.” He hates many things, especially the Christmas season, and decides to destroy it by disguising himself as Santa Claus and breaking into the homes of the Whoville residents to steal their presents.

However, on Christmas morning, he’s stunned to hear the Whos joyfully singing Christmas carols in spite of his burglary. At this moment, it dawns on him that the Whos understand something about Christmas that he has missed. Feeling remorse, he returns the stolen presents to the Whos and joins in their celebration. The narrator even tells us that his heart has grown three sizes larger.

This story may seem childish — it is, after all, written for children — but it’s also a profound look at the power of embrace to change people. This concept of embrace is at the core of Miroslav Volf’s work Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.

When Volf first began to discuss this concept of embrace at a public lecture in Sri Lanka, he noticed a dispute between a German theologian and an African bishop about the appropriateness of the metaphor. Volf recalls, in a 2017 speech, “The German theologian thought that it was way too intimate. Handshake would be just fine. And the burly African bishop, said, ‘Oh, no! We need an embrace!’ ” Volf says that he didn’t have the presence of mind to say at the lecture that the handshake is an embrace as well.

“There is a range of embraces,” Volf writes in the chapter titled “Embrace” in his book Exclusion & Embrace. This includes “finger holding finger, palm holding palm, hand holding arm, . . . hands over shoulders.” What’s ultimately important is what the metaphor stands for: “the dynamic relationship between the self and the other that embrace symbolizes and enacts.” 

The drama of embrace

Volf describes “four structural elements in the movement of embrace.” The process starts with “opening the arms,” which is followed by “waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again.”

  • The first part of this drama, open arms, suggests “the pain of [the] other’s absence and the joy of the other’s anticipated presence.” Open arms are a sign of creating space for the other, a gesture of invitation. 
  • The second act is waiting, which entails respecting the boundaries of the other. Volf writes, “The other cannot be coerced or manipulated into an embrace; violence is so much the opposite of embrace that it undoes the embrace.” 
  • The third act involves closing the arms, which is “the goal of embrace, the embrace proper, which is unthinkable without reciprocity.” Volf insists that “it takes two pairs of arms for one embrace; with one pair, we will either have merely an invitation to embrace (if the self respects the other) or a taking in one’s clutches (if there is no such respect).” 
  • The fourth act of the drama of embrace is opening the arms again. Volf says that “if the embrace is not to cancel itself, the arms must open again.” If the two selves merge into one, both lose their identity. 

Is embrace realistic?

The challenge is imagining how this metaphor of embrace works in the real world where the grinches, intentionally or not, threaten to steal our joy, peace and hope, not only during the Christmas season but also during the other times of the year. Unless we’re hermits and cut ourselves off from all communication, we will encounter others who don’t share our most deeply held values and our most cherished convictions.

In addition, the action of reaching out to the other is always a risk. We can be ignored, rejected or worse. Volf reminds Christians, “For the self shaped by the cross of Christ and the life of the triune God, . . . embrace includes not just the other who is a friend but also the other who is the enemy. Such a self will seek to open its arms toward the other even when the other holds a sword.” 

Embracing those we’d rather exclude

According to Volf in the introduction of his book, the key factor in embracing those whom we’d rather exclude is “the will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them.” He says that this comes “prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.”

Identifying others in their humanity reflects one of the foundational claims of the Christian faith, that God is love. “If God is love, God creates out of love,” Volf declares in his 2017 speech. “Redemption is also God out of love coming to the world to save the world.” God loves and justifies all, and from that claim comes Jesus’ teaching of love of the enemy. Volf says that “love of enemies . . . is motivated by imitation of the character of God who lets God’s sun shine on the good and the evil.” In other words, we can love unconditionally when we understand and take to heart the unconditional love of God for everyone.

Perhaps the best place to learn to have these hard conversations, to learn how to embrace the other, is by showing love to those in our families and communities whom we would rather avoid and recognizing that they’re made in God’s image and out of God’s unconditional love. 

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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