Embracing the Other:
Engaging across the divides
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Closing the arms is the goal of the embrace. It takes two pairs of arms for one embrace.
- 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.