“Loving your enemies . . . Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this demand is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes it is love that will save our world and civilization; love even for our enemies.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
I war privileged to hear Yale professor and prominent theologian, Miroslav Volf, speak in March, and although late to the party I just finished his most famous book, Exclusion & Embrace. It was in a sense required reading since I teach a course in the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law titled, Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation—topics that are at the heart of his book.
Full disclosure: I am not an idiot—unless you are simply comparing me and Mirsolav Volf that is. I understood a good number of the words he used in the book but most of the time was intellectually flailing and gasping for air. He is brilliant. Which is why I was particularly intrigued to read such a brilliant mind analyze the components of a hug.
Exclusion & Embrace addresses our fractured “us vs. them” world where exclusion is coin of the realm and presents the image of embrace as a theological counter—almost literally. Volf properly discloses that an embrace is too intimate for some cultures and not intimate enough for others but that he is interested in the metaphor more than the actual practice. And then he breaks a hug down into four distinct parts that led me to imagine a Sesame Street song: First, you open your arms; then, you wait; then, you close your arms; then, you open your arms again.
You may not have analyzed the components of a hug before, but stick with me here…
To open the arms indicates a desire for the other and an invitation to come into personal space that I have created for you. To wait is an act of vulnerability that refuses the path of force and respects the autonomy of the other. To close the arms—the actual embrace—is a tender and reciprocal act of shared space. And to open the arms again is a sign of release and respect that provides both the freedom and independence to leave—and to return again.
Okay, this is great for your spouse or kids or friends. For them, I’m a hugger. But what about the people you despise (unfairly assuming that the latter isn’t your spouse or kids or friends)?
To put down the weapon and open-armed invite those you despise into your intimate space is almost unthinkable.
To go one further and silently, vulnerably, allow your enemy the choice to either accept or attack—both choices are hard to stomach.
To then actually and tenderly embrace the despicable is a simply nauseating thought.
And then to release the enemy as friend?
I’m glad that Volf is super smart because he would be up a creek if he needed to raise a following or lead a team or run for office. Nobody is going to want to do this. Being right and feeling proud and getting even are going to be way more popular than seeking reconciliation.
But being right and feeling proud and getting even sure produce an enormous supply of ugly. I, for one, am interested in any alternative that leads to a true and lasting peace—even if it does sound like awfully hard work and more than a little loony tunes.