Welcoming Embrace

Week of Monday, May 14, 2001

In his wonderful book What's So Amazing About Grace, Phil Yancey recounts an experiment in which he asked people for words they associated with evangelical Christians. Not once, he says, did anyone mention the word “grace.” Yancey's experiment tells us something important, that when it comes to matters of grace, toleration, exclusion and the like, we evangelicals have a serious problem. It is a problem of appearance (how people see us) but also of reality (how we really act and live).

In the recent movie Chocolat, director Lasse Hallstrom portrays the little French village of Lansquenet and its people as a moralistic bunch of repressed and repressive Christians. Set in the late 1950s, the film begins on Ash Wednesday when the local village church begins its season of morbid, Lenten self-denial. It ends when the drifter Vianne Rocher and her illegitimate daughter Anouk liberate the entire village on Easter Sunday with their Grand Festival Du Chocolat to which, unlike the church, “everyone is welcome.” In between, Vianne's chocolate shop, which she has opened on the town square across from the church, becomes the meeting place where her chocolate confections evoke deeply human confessions and—this is the only word—eucharistic powers. The local outcasts, shunned by the church, find welcome and healing at Chocolaterie Maya: the elderly Guillaume, the battered wife and petty thief Josephine, the vagrant river gypsy Roux, embittered Armand who is dying of diabetes, and her teenage grandson Luc.1

Beyond the popular caricatures of a whimsical film there are more sinister realities. Miroslav Volf explores these matters in his book Exclusion and Embrace. Far more than we would ever like to admit, Christians have legitimated various hatreds; instead of being a conscience of our culture we have sometimes been “but a sophisticated echo of its base prejudices.”2 Our Christian heritage bears its share of complicity in the evils of Jewish genocide, American slavery, the conquests of native Americans, and missiological imperialisms exported around the world.

How should we respond to these charges? Beyond my knee jerk reactions of denial, protest and defensiveness, my thinking moves along several tracks.

First, although many of the world's vicious hatreds contain elements of religious complicity, they are generally larger and more complex problems that cannot be reduced to simple religious bigotry. For example, technology and economics loom large in Benjamin Barber's Jihad Vs. McWorld or Thomas Friedmann's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, where global, capitalist consumerism is shown to have caused enormous cultural and social dislocations. Population explosion, environmental degradation, the replacement of national boundaries with ethno-linguistic boundaries, and so forth all play important roles.

Within the religious sphere itself, Christianity clearly has no monopoly on fomenting hate. Jews bulldoze Palestinian homes, Hindus and Muslims war in Pakistan and India, Buddhists in Sri Lanka demand that their government pass laws to make religious conversion illegal, and in Africa ancient tribalisms can loom large. And let us never forget the Soviet and Maoist religions of secular atheism that exterminated about 100 million people in the last century.

If you read Robert Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth (1996) you get a good sense for both of these points, that intolerance, exclusion and toxic hatreds are not necessarily or exclusively religious problems, nor are they the private preserve of Christians. There is also a third point to be made, and that has to do with all the good that Christianity has done in the world, from a Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King, to the unknown and unsung saint who serves her family and community with sacrificial service. Rene Girard has even argued in his most recent book that our western culture's obsession with the victim has a clear and single origin: the Christian Gospel. “You will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims.”3

Will any of this cut any ice with our detractors? No, probably not. But they can be important points when, as a Christian, I feel like I no longer enjoy a level playing field in a discussion, or I am being caricatured with tedious generalities.

But there are two caveats to these initial observations. First, this is hardly good news for Christians that gets us off the hook; it is decidedly bad news because these non-Christian and non-religious examples reinforce how broadly and deeply entrenched, how utterly characteristic of our human condition, bigotry and hatred are. Original sin plays no favorites. And second, note how when appealing to these counter-examples, there is the insidious risk that “rightful moral outrage mutates into self-deceiving moral smugness.” It is all too easy to portray “those people” in ways that we think “our people” would never act.4

What to do? I am trying to own up to Christian complicity in these matters and to avoid denial. I might not like how Hallstrom portrays the church, but I can't deny that Christians like those in Chocolat constitute part of my community. Or again, I used to feel that complaints about Native American genocide were contrived and just a little too politically correct—until I read The Conquest of America (1982) by Tzvetan Todorov. Similarly, I am thinking more about my near total lack of engagement with the gay community—what drives that?!

I also pray more to experience Jesus's kingdom ethic: to “welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7), to be “kind, compassionate, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32). Other parts of the Biblical narrative speak even more forcibly to these matters of exclusion and intolerance, as, for example, Galatians 3:28 about the church transcending categories of race, gender and socioeconomic divisions, or Ephesians 2:11–18, that Christ has torn down the “dividing wall of hostility” between peoples.

I pray to move to the place that Volf explores: “the theme of divine self-donation for the enemies and their reception into the eternal communion of God...as God does not abandon the godless to their evil but gives the divine self for them in order to receive them into divine communion through atonement, so also should we—whoever our enemies and whoever we may be.” The embrace beyond exclusion that Volf seeks to express is this, that “the will to give ourselves to others and to ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.”5

  1. The film is based on the book by Joanne Harris, Chocolat (New York: Penguin, 1999).
  2. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abbingdon, 1996), pp. 35, 37.
  3. Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001), pp. 161-169.
  4. Volf, p. 58.
  5. Volf, pp. 23, 29.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.