It’s a fascinating topic because it is so easy to apply to our personal situations.
His model for reconciliation as embrace is very clever. It is a means of thinking of reconciliation as being much like a hug. With open arms we invite the other party into communication, we do so of our own accord and show that we are willing to reach for the other. Then we wait. We wait for the other party to return the embrace, not invading their space but inviting them too to open their arms. Then both parties close their arms, conveying the need for reciprocity but not assimilation: boundaries are maintained. Finally, we open our arms again: the two do not become one, we must let the other be other and ourselves be ourselves.
Of course, if you know a particularly violent hugger or you’re someone who doesn’t really appreciate hugs, the weight of the model might be a little lost on you but I’m sure you get the idea. And Volf says that when we look to the open arms of Jesus on the cross we can see the reconciliation of God and humanity at work through embrace.
I’m sure we can all think of a time, probably many, when we have felt excluded. An element of exclusion is inevitable within any gathering of people because as each inclusion takes place, an exclusion must also occur. It’s becoming ever more apparent that to create an “inclusive” society, you must exclude as well. Volf calls this the modern “barbarity”. Sometimes this exclusion is obvious: we eliminate those whom we don’t want to have to include. At other times it can be more subtle: assimilation (you must become like us), abandonment (we keep you at a safe distance) or symbolic exclusion (through language, media etc).
An very interesting exercise that we as the church should regularly be doing is considering how our meetings might exclude people. Think about your church’s entrance. What in that foyer/ doorway/noticeboard could someone interpret as exclusive? Is it open and inviting or does it suggest already that you have to be “one of us” to belong here? And when someone sits in your sanctuary/auditorium, are they invited in to all that is happening or do they only see many backs turned to them? What about the way the service is presented: the use of language, media, technology, even how people are dressed and the gadgets that they are using give an impression of who is welcome in our congregations and who is not.
I’m not suggesting we go to the length of removing the crosses from our churches, as some have done to make their buildings “seeker sensitive”, or that we make everything as bland and basic as possible. We should still be open about who we are and what we stand for and how we do what we do. But we have to mindful that Christian circles are hard ones to crack. That not everyone can see or read the projection screens. That someone struggling to pay the bills might not appreciate being surrounded by iPods/iPads or having the offering basket stuffed under their nose. What provision do we make for families, or, perhaps more pressing, for single people? What are we doing to welcome those with disabilities? How are we welcoming people from every class and background?
When you walk in to church on Sunday look at it as though for the first time, as someone who has never been to church before, and look for the points of exclusion. Then find someone you’ve never spoken to or maybe even seen before and ensure that they are included.