Tag Archives: forgiveness

Warm (-ing up to) Embrace

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“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.

On Exploiting Hopelessness

In addition to the steep learning curve associated with a new position at work, I have been preparing to teach a course titled, “Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation,” for the Master of Dispute Resolution program at our West Los Angeles campus.  It is a fascinating and ever-timely topic in this world of ours with no shortage of moving literature, including the book I saved for last, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, by Simon Weisenthal.

Weisenthal survived the Holocaust and gained fame as a “Nazi hunter.”  The Sunflower tells of his being summoned to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier while a prisoner in a concentration camp where the soldier confessed his deeds and asked for forgiveness.  Weisenthal offered only silence.  Soon afterward, he questioned his response, and in fact, ends his section of the book by placing the reader in his place and posing the heart-wrenching question, “What would I have done?”  The rest of the book shares answers to the penetrating question from fifty-three people around the world, from the Dalai Lama to Desmond Tutu.

Two days after finishing the book, I finally visited the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. and didn’t know whether to be amazed or embarrassed to notice that it was described as “A Simon Weisenthal Center Museum.”  Um, perfect timing?  Although it addresses a variety of topics, the heart of the Museum is the Holocaust Exhibit that guides visitors through the development of Nazi Germany and the terrible atrocities that followed.  It was sadly fascinating to learn that the Nazis began as a few guys sharing burgers in a beer joint, but what struck me most was the statement that this humble beginning grew to such perplexing power to influence fellow citizens to carry out unspeakable acts because they “exploited hopelessness.”

Well, my first inclination was far too easy: Write a blog lamenting how terrible it is to exploit hopelessness and title it, Exude Hopefulness.  But there’s a problem.  Exuding hopefulness is exactly how you exploit hopelessness.  Promise hopeless folks better days ahead.  That’s exactly what the Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, and lots of other folks are doing at this very moment.

Hopeless people have to be wary, I guess, but I suspect that wariness is not high on the to-do list of hopeless people.

So, for the sake of the world, I have two thoughts to offer instead.

First, remain hopeful.  You.  Don’t tell others to be hopeful.  You remain hopeful yourself.  Losing hope is too dangerous, and we are susceptible to such terrible things.

Second, remove the reasons others are hopeless.  Actions over words.  Hopelessness is not to be used.  It is to be subverted.  Love people.  Seek justice.  Feed hungry folks.  Give someone a job.  Volunteer your time and your money.

Humanity is both capable of and susceptible to terrible things.  But wow, the possibilities for good are limitless.

The Problem with Judgment

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Norman Rockwell’s historic 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With, serves as an important-yet-disturbing reminder of the enduring legacy of Ruby Bridges.  At age six, Ruby integrated an elementary school in New Orleans, although calling it integration is a little misleading since white parents pulled their children from class and white teachers refused to teach little Ruby.  Thankfully, one brave teacher from Boston agreed to step up, and for a full year Ruby experienced the ultimate in student-teacher ratio.

She also experienced pure hatred.  Rockwell captures the hatred in his painting, but Ruby experienced it firsthand.  The screams, threats, and nastiness came hot and heavy, directed at a sweet little girl simply trying to go to school.

At her mother’s suggestion, Ruby did something special as federal marshals escorted her to and from school each day: little Ruby prayed for forgiveness for the people screaming at her.

Remind me, what is it that I have to be upset about today?

I can think of two things that I have in common with Ruby Bridges: first, both she and I lost our homes in Hurricane Katrina; and second, we were both at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures on Wednesday evening this week, although I was a bald head in a vast crowd while she shared her captivating story from center stage.

Ms. Bridges said that she loved the first grade because of her wonderful teacher.  She said that her teacher looked like the screaming crowd—but she was different—and that the lesson she learned that historic first-grade year is that you cannot simply look at a person and make a right judgment.

Embracing that lesson is the third thing I want to have in common with Ruby Bridges.

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