Someone commented recently that hugs have replaced handshakes. That might be largely true, depending on where and how the hugs are given, and understood. I often joke about the Christian “side-hug”, that most decorous way of showing affection. But I admit I am a hugger. Of course, we usually prefer some level of previous engagement with someone before we embrace them. Handshakes are still useful in that regard. Personally, during flu season, I kind of like the fist-bump. But there is a serious side to social convention. Just as an open handshake was the traditional sign that one did not carry a weapon, so the act of embrace carries deeper resonance. I learned that from one of our best contemporary theologians, Miroslav Volf. In his now classic book, Exclusion and Embrace, Volf described the four-part dramatic act of a simple human embrace:
Act one: open arms. When someone opens their arms to another they are saying they want connection, not isolation. Open arms demonstrate that a space has been created close to the heart. Open arms are a powerful gesture of invitation.
Act two: waiting. Having opened their arms, the embracer waits. How will the invitation be answered? Will the other respond? There is vulnerability here, even weakness. Coercion and force are renounced. Instead, the embracer waits in an undefended position.
Act three: the embrace. If the invited responds, the hope and joy of the embracer is completed. The embraced returns an embrace of their own. Distance becomes connection, and the threat of isolation is turned back. But there is one more act in the drama.
Act four: arms re-open. There is a letting go. When I read Volf on this point, I actually laughed. But then I saw it: this is the proper end! For an embrace to remain what it is meant to be, as an act of loving-kindness and not some kind of claustrophobic trap, there has to be a letting go. And the end of an embrace is the possibility of another.
You might think that this is one of the more sentimental (mushy) of my recent blog posts. But then again, perhaps there is something quite strong here, something audacious, something very Jesus-like.
Volf’s description of the embrace turns out to be nothing like sentiment. It carries, rather, the boldness of the gospel itself. Like the father who ran up the road to embrace the returning prodigal, God ran towards us in the person of his Son. Into our many wars and exclusions, big and small, where swords (whether guns or words) are drawn to protect our lines, God chose to act, and act boldly. God too drew his sword, planted it into the earth in the image of the cross, and died upon it. Can you see it now? The cross as God’s sword? As power turned to mercy? Jesus died there, in the everlasting sign of open arms. The gospel is the good news of his willing embrace despite our attempt to push him away.
But how about us? How about our most basic at-hand relationships, the challenge of not only embracing friends and loved ones, but those we have issues with? Is it possible to embrace an enemy? That seems like an impossible question.
Here we are helped by hearing Volf’s story. As a Croatian, he comes to the question of whether or not embrace is possible through the tragic past of his country. Although it might now be fading from our memories, the Balkan conflict of the 1990’s was a truly horrible and tragic thing. For Volf, to muse on the embrace of God through the gospel, and the implications for the way we relate to others, meant he had to come to terms with his own particular experience:
[Once], after I finished my lecture, [someone] asked: “but can you embrace a cetnik?” It was the winter of 1993. For months now, the notorious Serbian fighters called cetnik had been sowing desolation in my native country, herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities. I had just argued that we ought to embrace our enemies as God has embraced us in Christ. Can I embrace a cetnik – the ultimate other, so to speak, the evil other? [Exclusion and Embrace, p. 9]
Indeed, that is the question. If the act of embracing is the act of healing the world, who am I willing to embrace? Jesus taught us to love our enemies, to open our arms to those who hurt us. We can choose the first act in the drama. Was he crazy? He certainly wasn’t mushy.
This Sunday, we look forward to a moment of embrace in the Jacob story, the moment when Jacob reconciles with his long-estranged brother Esau. Jacob can’t quite believe what is happening. Its nothing short of a God-moment.
I am always happy to hear your thoughts and comments: email@example.com
- is there someone in your life you long to embrace, but don’t know how?
- is there someone you consider it impossible to ever embrace? why?
- consider the four dramatic acts of an embrace: which of the four acts might be the most challenging for you?
- in your imagination, what might it mean for God to embrace you, just as you are?