These words form the title of a remarkable book by Miroslav Volf, a Croat whose family and people were among the victims of the Serbian atrocities in Srebrenica, and written when the traumas were still raw. After a lecture that he gave, he was asked whether, as a follower of Jesus, he could embrace one of his enemies. The question haunted him, and his book is the story of how he wrestled with it.
The plot thickened for me when I was re-telling the story of “The Prodigal Son” (actually the story of the loving father and his two sons) a few days ago in a school assembly, and realised that this was the story that Professor Volf saw as the trigger for his theology of embrace. And then in a flash that his analysis of the nature of embrace might be what therapeutic interventions, relationships and communities are all about. It has certainly thrown new light on my life at Mill Grove.
You may find it helpful to have the picture by Rembrandt beside you as you read this anatomy of embrace (it’s called The Return of the Prodigal). It’s a fascinating feature of the story as recorded by Luke (15: 11-32), that there is no record of the father saying anything directly to his younger son: everything is communicated by body language and actions. This may be something well worth pondering in itself in the field of therapeutic care, when so often words seem blunt or inadequate.
Embrace stripped to its essentials is a drama in four acts.
Opening the Arms
I care about you and you matter to me more than you may know. I am not content with being merely myself, without you. You are already in my heart, though you have been away from me. So I am making space for you. There is room for you in my heart and life. I am not so cluttered, or so full of myself that every part of me is already occupied. I am not here to do something to you or for you. And so I open myself to you and invite you to respond. You could imagine the open arms as a symbol of an open door: there is no need to knock; you are welcome. And it doesn’t need me to point out that this is all very risky, not least if the other has a machine gun in his hands. But therapeutic interventions are always risky.
Embrace is not a taking hold, arresting, pinning down, invasive or a one-way initiative. It’s not even a caress. Before the embrace can proceed, it needs the arms of the other to open. By opening our arms we have conveyed a message: you are welcome, and I am here for you. But another part of the message is that we will not force our way. It is the very opposite of insistence or violence. If embrace starts with the initiative of one person, it can never reach its fulfilment without reciprocity. Of its essence is the movement and response of the other. And there are all sorts of reasons, experiences, traumas, fears, that require patient, hopeful waiting. And in the waiting messages will be conveyed and decoded by each person.
Closing the Arms
We have reached the heart of the drama of embrace. This is where, althouhg there will not be equality, there is complete reciprocity. Each is holding the other; and each is held by the other. They are both active and both passive. It takes two pairs of arms for one embrace. In an embrace the host is a guest, and the guest is a host. And this means a soft touch is necessary. Rembrandt gets this perfectly (worth looking at the picture again!). Not a bear-hug either way. An attuned response to each other, so that both feels comfortable, and understands that the other is comfortable too. And this requires the recognition that neither understands the other fully. There is an otherness about the person we close our arms around, a mystery. This is the beginning of a process of understanding and knowing that starts with the realisation that I do not fully know the other. In fact I have much I don’t know and much more to learn. This may be my enemy, but do I know her story?
Opening the Arms Again
We cannot live in permanent embrace. We have not become one entity. This is not about the welding two others, so that they have become indissolubly one, and can never be free of each other. Each is still “I” and “You” in relationship. Neither has ceased to be as a person, and so each retains their own agency. This is where the real dance is in the relationship: we are not the same person, we are different, but we have begun to be open to each other. And the truth is that none of us is an island entire of itself: our identity is actually made up of our experiences and relationships with others. If I am to have an indentity then others will be part of that, sometimes for painful reasons.
I have been deliberately concise in order to stay as close to the insights of Volf as possible, but also to avoid filling in with extraneous material or examples.
My intuition suggests that embrace, understood in this way, is instructive for those of us engaged in therapeutic relationships and communities. If we (that is self and others) are to be, and to develop, we need to be open to others, to realise we are strangers among our family and community, at home with “others” who we thought were our enemies. In embracing an other, outside can become part of our inside. Hospitality may not be something one offers to the other, but something shared and mutually enriching. Home and away are re-imagined. This is a journey of adventure, and who knows the outcome? If broken relationships are to be restored, then the identitites of each must be rethought and reshaped.
No insightful parent or teacher wants the child or pupil to remain forever tied to her apron strings, or sitting in the classroom. There is always the desire to see the other explore in her own way. We know that this is risky, and safety or success are never assured.
All this is in the story, and much more. Not least the chilling self-exclusion of the older son, who misses out on the whole embrace. A total stranger though he has never left home. The silence of his response is perhaps the most deafening in recorded history. “All I have is yours…Come and celebrate the return of your brother, who was lost and is found, who was dead, but is alive again.” These tender and loving words of his father echo in the stony silence which forms the end of the story.
Which is a sobre reminder that our proffered welcome may not be accepted by all. The waiting may be long and the offer refused in any variety of ways. So why do we keep our arms open? Isn’t it because we have discovered that ultimately there is is no other way to discover self and others than through some form of embrace, however tentative and reluctant?
 Miroslave Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)