Tag Archives: miroslav volf

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.

Just Stop

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The classic Christian hymn, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, contains the line, Drop Thy still dews of quietness / Till all our strivings cease.  That last part just sounds terrible.  You see, I’m a striver.  Striving’s my thing.  I like accomplishment.  Give me a problem to solve, yours or mine, and I will strive all day and night to solve it.  One of my latest projects is striving to learn how to take a break from striving, which it turns out is just as complicated as it sounds.

Last week Pepperdine hosted theologian, Miroslav Volf, who in his final lecture extolled the Jewish practice of Sabbath as a weekly event where one stops striving.  I have long agreed with that concept but am just terrible at it.  Since my new preaching gig sees Sunday as work day, I approach Friday-Saturday as weekend and Friday in particular as a personal sabbath.  Well, that’s the idea at least.  It hasn’t gone well so far.

For starters, I don’t want to stop striving for a day.  I prefer catching up on unfinished striving and go a little bonkers ignoring things that need attention when I actually have time set aside to do them!  But even when I try, presumably non-striving activities morph into things to accomplish.  A nature walk becomes the quest of the perfect picture or story.  A novel becomes a mission that needs to be completed in a certain time frame.  A sport becomes a personal competition.

I am more than a little nutty.  How exactly do I not strive?  I could say that I will work on it, but that is exactly the problem.

John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that 19th century poem-turned-hymn that imagined the cessation of strivings.  Ironically, he hated the very idea of singing in church and wrote the poem to promote silent meditation in contrast to musical worship, but his poem became a tool of the thing he despised.  Life is funny.  He was also an abolitionist, who in his lifetime saw the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing the practice of slavery in the United States.  So he was a striver, too! 

Well, obviously striving and Sabbath are teammates, not opponents.

Breaks are important for any endeavor, which obviously includes life itself.  This may not come naturally to me, but the secret just may be when it no longer feels like something to accomplish.  Stopping is the opposite of accomplishment.  It is a gift.