Miroslav Volf, in his magisterial book Exclusion and Embrace, suggests that the problem of our time is one of Otherness. More, the great sin we struggle with is one of exclusion. At root, exclusion denies the humanity of the Other. Salvation, then, according to Volf, is reconciliation and embrace.
Although much of Volf's book deals with the most dark and difficult facets of exclusion and embrace, most of us deal with exclusion and embrace in more workaday venues, at home, at work, in our churches, and in our neighborhoods.
In its most passive form exclusion is manifested as indifference. More active forms of exclusion are banishment and violence. Again, Volf's interests are more catastrophic. But indifference, banishment, and violence are, we must admit, ubiquitous features of human life. As children we can be the ostracized as the "weird kid," passed over in kickball games, or plagued by bullies. These forms of exclusion scale up into adulthood, but the forms are more "polite" and subtle.
Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books
vi. the drama of embrace
In contrast to exclusion Volf discusses the "drama of embrace." For Volf this drama moves through four scenes. First, there is the opening of arms which signals a willingness and desire to welcome the Other. Second, we wait. The embrace is extended as an invitation. It allows for the agency of the Other to exert itself. Embrace is patient and non-coercive. The third movement is the closing of the arms in the act of embrace. Volf emphasizes that this involves a "soft touch." We do not crush. Finally, there is release. The independence of the Other is recognized as autonomy and scope are again granted.
If Peanuts is anything it is a mediation on exclusion and social alienation. I've mentioned Volf's "drama of embrace" to note that it is almost wholly lacking in Peanuts (Snoopy is the lone exception here). Embrace is longed for but rarely granted. If we take exclusion to be the "sin" of humanity then Peanuts is a dark epic of human sinfulness. As Michaelis has noted, "In [Schulz's] work, indifference would be the dominant response to love. When his characters attempt to love, they are met not just by rejection but by ongoing cold, even brutal, indifference, manifested either as insensitivity or as deeply fatalistic acceptance." (1) Umberto Eco calls Peanuts a "tragedy of non-integration," it paints the failure of humans to find love, friendship and community.
Christians have long fought over the notion of the Trinity, the mutual indwelling of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What is at stake in these debates is the fundamental nature of God. For proponents of the Trinity the doctrine suggests that God should not be viewed as either "person" or as "relation/community." The Trinity mystically hovers between Personhood and Community, keeping the two notions fluid and in a dialectic.
The practical issue is that the church is to embody trinitarian living: Persons in communion. To become like God--the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis--is not to trade in one substance (body) for another (spirit). To become "like God" isn't to become more "spiritual." It is, rather, to become more relational.
Trinitarian notions are important for a theology of Peanuts in that Peanuts starkly portrays failures of relatonality. In this, God, as Trinity, is absent. The world of Peanuts is relationally broken and fallen. The relational God is absent or, at the very least, struggling to gain a foothold.
In portraying the "tragedy of non-integration" Peanuts aids us in two ways. First, although we should praise Volf's work in confronting the most heinous forms of exclusion (e.g., genocide), we can often forget the pains of "mundane exclusion." Workplace or playground slights seem benign up against Volf's project. But if you have ever been excluded in this way the pain can run deep. Many people are still haunted by memories of shaming comments, humiliations, and bullying (verbal or physical). Peanut's supplements Volf's epic project by taking the time to look at workaday forms of exclusion.
Secondly, Peanut's helps us see the failures of Christianity in the domain of relationality. The Dali Lama has said, "my religion is kindness." Unfortunately, few Christians so prioritize acts of kindness. Yet, Peanuts reveals to us just how vital kindness can be. But tragically fews Christians see themselves as ministers of kindness. Christians tend to speak in grander terms. Their vision of "love" is often too heroic to be of any practical value. Very rarely do you hear a Christian community emphasizing simple kindness as their distinguishing trait. Consequently, Christians unwittingly participate in the "tragedy of non-integration." Christians fail, regularly, to offer an extra smile, larger tip, or helping hand. These acts of kindness are just not often touted as "being like Jesus." Again, Christians think too heroically. Their vision of love is too grand. And, thus, they regularly fail in treating the check-out boy in a humane manner.
This is not to say that the heroic vision of agape should be traded in for a lesser vision. It is just to say that kindness should be given greater prominence in the Christian moral identity. Kindness should dominate the Christian consciousness and should be a distinguishing trait. But this is not to be some bland practicing of "random acts of kindness." It is, rather, an intentional and consistent practice of kindness. Kindness isn't to be "random" and "occasional." It is to be Volf's stance of embrace played out in every human encounter.
Images from The Complete Peanuts by Fantagraphics Books
(1) p. 7. Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis