Embracing the Other: Engaging a theology of “embrace”

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I shared this post originally in the winter and am sharing it again as the polarization within families, communities, and churches continues.

I am unsettled by the frequency I have unfriended or blocked people leading up to the national election. I have placed friends and family members into a metaphorical box, labeled it Others and placed it in the back of my heart closet. I exclude Others from my life and create a distance from, whether that be an emotional or physical or relational distance. I dismiss these Others by not taking them seriously, by trivializing or mocking them, by refusing to listen to their heart stories of joys and pains, and ultimately, I exclude them from God’s love. I consider them unworthy of God’s love, grace, and mercy.

In his book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), Miroslav Volf describes three qualities of exclusion. First, exclusion entails the cutting of bonds that connect individuals to one another. The Other emerges either as an enemy that must be pushed away and driven out of its space, or as a nonentity that can be disregarded and abandoned. We see this everywhere on social media, cable news, and even within the church. We see people disregarded and abandoned, with news reports of refugees and immigrants fleeing their homes only to be refused entry into other countries. We see this in our national political conversations. We see this in all forms of social media. And we see this refusal to meet the Other within our congregations, conferences, and denominations.

Second, exclusion entails erasure of separation, meaning the Other emerges as an inferior being who must either be assimilated by being made like ourselves, or be subjugated to ourselves. We see this in the continued fragile relationship between people of color and white people; English and non-English speakers; LGBTQ and hetero persons; progressive believers and fundamentalist believers; Republican and Democrats. These are all forms of exclusion.

And third, exclusion is judgment. Volf writes, “Strong disagreement with a lifestyle, religious belief-system, or a course of action—a disagreement that employs adjectives like ‘wrong,’ ‘mistaken,’ or ‘erroneous,’ and understands these to be more than expressions of personal or communal preference—is felt to be exclusionary.”

Volf suggests a “theology of embrace” as the way of loving and reconciling with the Other. He breaks down the image of an embrace into four movements to help us understand how we might do this. These elements of embrace include:

  1. Opening the arms is a gesture of the body reaching for the Other. Open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in, and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other. Open arms are a gesture of invitation and hospitality.
  2. Waiting is the act of postponing the desire of welcoming the Other to myself until I know the other is willing to open their arms in reciprocation. Waiting on the Other allows the other to decide if they wants to be reconciled or left alone. The Other cannot be coerced into an embrace, otherwise the embrace becomes an act of violence. If embrace takes place, it is because both individuals want it—embrace must be reciprocal.
  3. Closing the arms is the goal of the embrace. It takes two pairs of arms for one embrace.
  4. Opening the arms again allows the individuals freedom to be themselves. Additionally, opening the arms again begins the cycle of embrace.

The embrace transforms the Other—the person I have dismissed or hated or oppressed—into my brother or my sister, one that I can truly love. In truly loving my brother or my sister, I enter into a relationship based on trust, forgiveness, reconciliation, and intimacy, as modeled by Jesus Christ. I begin to see the Other as God sees them—as one who is created and loved by God—not as a monster to be rejected by the world.

Our ability to embrace the other is not based on our willfulness, on our insistence. Our ability to embrace the other is based on God’s embrace of us. We can embrace because God first embraced us. We can love because God first loved us.

A longer version of this post was published in Leader magazine, Fall 2016.

Photo: By Dhiriart – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46459574

Have mercy (continued)

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Gracious God, Merciful God‑

This Sunday is Pentecost and we praise you for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We praise and bless you for the gift of Easter which had to precede Pentecost.

We also praise and bless you as the creator of our world.  We thank you for the beauty and mystery of nature.  We thank you that in the midst of storms, you are with us.

We praise and bless you as the merciful one. We thank you that your mercies are new every morning.  We thank you that you love to extend mercy to us.

***

Because of your mercy we are encouraged to confess and to receive mercy.  We confess our distractions from you‑‑that our lives are so filled with other things, duties and responsibilities that we forget you. Forgive us for our absorption of social media, of politics, of our anger rather than focusing on you.  Have mercy on us God and help us to turn our minds and hearts to you.

***

We confess our meanspiritedness toward others. We confess that our hearts are too small.  And having small hearts limits our abilities to see and to hear others with attentive love.  We cannot see the good in others, we cannot hear their voices longing for love.  Have mercy on us God and enlarge our hearts so that we may have eyes to see and ears to hear.

***

Gracious God, Merciful God, we thank you for your forgiveness.  We thank you for your gracious and merciful heart.  Because we are forgiven we are now bold to bring others to you.

***

God we bring before you the families grieving across the nation.  God have mercy on us as our world creates young men who hate others because of their race, their religion, their sexuality. We pray for wisdom and boldness to reach out to these young men and offer them mercy, healing, and love. We watch and listen in disbelief to the stories of violence‑‑we cannot believe that humans can do these things to one another.  We grieve because our country is being torn apart. Oh God, we ask‑‑in fact, we plead and implore you‑‑to breathe peace into the world. We ask for wisdom and courage for those working for justice and peace.  We ask for wisdom for us in how we are to respond to these painful situations as well as how we should talk to those in power.  We don’t know how to pray for our leaders but we offer them to you, trusting that you will move and act in their lives.

***

Holy Spirit, wind of love, we praise and bless your Merciful, Gracious name.  Let us proclaim that you are our God and we are your children.  We praise your holy Name.  Amen.

 

(My earlier prayer, “Lord, have mercy” can be found here.)

 

Unidentified. Wonders by Their Hands, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55766

The Wisdom of Peace Pilgrim (Part 2)

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“My friends, the world situation is grave. Humanity with fearful faltering steps, walks a knife-edge between complete chaos and a golden age, while strong forces push toward chaos. Unless we, the people of the world, awake from our lethargy and push firmly and quickly away from, all that we cherish will be destroyed in the holocaust which will descend.

This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.

The Golden Rule would do as well. Please don’t say lightly that these are just religious concepts and not practical. These are laws governing human conduct, which apply as rigidly as the law of gravity. When we disregard these laws in any walk of life, chaos results. Through obedience to these laws this frightened, war-weary world of ours could enter into a period of peace and richness of life beyond our fondest dreams.”

Steps Toward Inner Peace

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Peace Pilgrim lived 1908-1981 and walked more than 25,000 miles from 1953-1981 spreading her message: “This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.”