Parables of Embrace

A few weeks ago I got an email from Jordan letting me know he was starting a discussion group built around the topics I discuss in Unclean. Jordan wanted to know if I had any supplemental readings/resources not listed in the bibliography of the book. I didn't. The book contains all the references that I would have mentioned as a "next step" in exploring the topics in Unclean.

But I did tell Jordan that I was fond of various "media parables" that could be shown and discussed in a small group settings. I pointed Jordan to three videos that I think illustrate some of the theology of Unclean. Each could be described as a parable of embrace:

You've likely seen all three videos before. As of this writing the three videos have, combined, generated over 135,000,000 hits on YouTube.

Played back to back the cheesiness factor can get to be a bit much. So let me make a few comments about why I suggested these to Jordan, how each is a parable of embrace that relates to the message of Unclean.

Given that Unclean was my first book I told Jana I was going to dedicate the book to her. She was excited. But then we had the following exchange:

Me: "Sweetie, I'm going to dedicate my first book to you."
Jana: "Oh, that's so nice. What's the title of the book?"
Me: "Unclean."
Jana: "Unclean?"
Me: "Yes, Unclean."
Jana: "You're dedicating a book to me with the title Unclean? I'm not sure I like that idea...."
It was a pretty funny conversation. But truth be told, the dedication was, despite appearances, very fitting. Because Unclean is really a book about love. About how rare, fleeting, precious and fragile love is in this world. So many things threaten to erode what Miroslav Volf calls "the will to embrace." Negatively, Unclean is sort of an inventory of the reasons about why love fails so often, the reasons love is so precious and rare--purity psychology, scapegoating, infrahumanization, the fear of death. But positively, Unclean is simply a call to love, a call to dismantle and overcome all those things that get in the way of a life devoted to radical welcome, hospitality, and embrace.

Which is why I like these three video parables. Let me start with free hugs.

Is free hugs cheesy? A bit. But here's what I like about it. At root, love is about contact. Physical contact is the basic grammar of love. The words we use to describe love--warmth and closeness--all go back to our primal experience of love: being held by our parents. Skin on skin. And that physical touch--what psychologists call contact comfort--frames, physically, psychologically and metaphorically, all subsequent human understandings of love. Love is warm. Love is being close. Love is being held. So it's no accident that Volf describes the heart of the Christian ethic as one of "embrace."

And let's be clear. Hugs are subversive. There are Christians who cannot stand being close to a gay person. Let alone giving a gay person a hug. The point being, let's not let Volf's "will to embrace" become too Gnostic and super-spiritualized. Let's begin with something concrete: Non-anxious physical proximity coupled with warm human contact.
Large crowds followed Jesus as he came down the mountainside. Suddenly, a man with leprosy approached him and knelt before him. “Lord,” the man said, “if you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean.”

Jesus reached out and touched him...
Finally, you can have a lot of fun with the notion of "free." Unmerited. Unconditional. Grace. A "free hug" as unconditional embrace. As Volf describes it:
[The will to embrace is] the will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, [it] is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil.”
The other two videos use artistic expressions--song and dance--to communicate much the same idea. Everyone, from every walk of life, joins together in the dance. Voices from around the world blend their voices into the lyrics:
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we'll see
No I won't be afraid, no I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
And the mountains should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry, no I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

Whenever you're in trouble won't you stand by me...
I find both these videos to be wonderful metaphorical (and literal!) expressions of embrace and solidarity, of overcoming difference and Otherness in the Kingdom of God. These are poetical expressions of what Jesus did in standing in solidarity with others, his eating with tax collectors and sinners. And you could make a strong case that Jesus' ministry of table fellowship was the most radical, revolutionary, and subversive aspect of his ministry. Like a hugging, singing or dancing, the revolutionary character of Jesus' ministry was built around something rather simple and mundane. He simply ate meals with people. That's it. What made this simple act revolutionary was its radical expression of welcome and embrace. Jesus welcomed everyone to table. None were excluded. And it was this aspect of Jesus' ministry--his welcoming everyone to his table--that led me to pick this poem from Walt Whitman as a theme for Unclean:
This is the meal pleasantly set...this is the meal and drink for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as for the righteous...I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited...the heavy-lipped slave is invited...the venerealee is invited,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.

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8 thoughts on “Parables of Embrace”

  1. Physical touch is so vital for our mental and spiritual wellbeing. I remember that being one thing that people loved about Princess Diana - since we're being cheesy - that she touched people with AIDS.
    With regard to crossing boundaries between people, I realized recently that we often mention that Jesus hung out and talked with prostitutes, tax collectors and sick people and so on, but he also crossed boundaries to talk to the religious crackpots, and I fear we have to do the same.

  2. It always bothered me when my Sunday school teachers would warn to stay away from certain types of people. We weren't to associate with anyone whose beliefs were too different than our own either because they might be a negative influence on us. Even worse, other people (i.e., other church members) might see us in the company of non-believers and think badly of us (guilt by association). Looking back now, I see it as a manifestation of a holier-than-thou attitude. We obviously belonged to the "right" Christian denomination and since we had made the "right" choice, we were obviously superior to those who had made the "wrong" choice. To use your metaphor, they considered these people "unclean" and feared that if they got too close, they might become "unclean" themselves.

    As you mentioned, Jesus had no problem associating with those others judged as "unclean". It was his willingness to do this that made him so radically different. Yet so many of his followers refuse to do the same.

  3. The reading group was delayed by a month, it'll be starting in July, but I'm very excited to see it begin. Thank you for the additional resources, and yes, I've been using the bibliography as well.

  4. I come from the same kind of church background, and I think this is a very hard (impossible?) lesson to grasp for those who equate Christianity with Doctrinal Correctness, claiming Jesus as their savior while practicing snobbery, exclusion, correctionism and reclusion. My question is how to deal with such, since condescension and self-righteousness keeps them from a willingness to hear anything contrary to what they want to hear (ie how wonderful they are, how very 'Christian' they are, etc).

  5. the "dancing" series of videos is one of my favorites.  there's an interesting back story about how it came to be, which i wrote about here:

    also, somewhat similar to the "playing for change":

    In a moving and madly viral video last year, composer Eric Whitacre led a virtual choir of singers from around the world. He talks through the creative challenges of making music powered by YouTube, and unveils  the first 2 minutes of his new work, "Sleep," with a video choir of 2,052.
    it's not as inclusive as it doesn't use street musicians, but still collects a large group of people together using classical music, so some may enjoy it.


  6. My church has a tradition of having "5th Sunday Night Singing" (a capella).  Tonight song leaders were a 4 year old girl (assisted by her PHD/university professor father), an aged Hispanic man, an African American woman who cares for an elderly widower, an African American man who lives in a residential facility for the homeless, a young man in his residential training of medical school (South Korean wife) and two of our servant hearted elders.  Communion was served by an elder and young woman who is regularly unemployed.  We ended our time by enjoying ice cream together.

  7. Yes I loved that virtual choir - the whole song is available here:

  8. I began weeping as the three parables progressed. Sadness? Longing? Perhaps....just overwhelming emotion at seeing and hearing all the barriers broken down....celebrating life together, embracing life together, standing together in life no matter what. The barriers came down....the tears came down. What can I say?

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