Hope’s Embrace

“Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”

Jürgen Moltmann in A Theology of Hope, 1963

“Open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in, and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other”

Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace, 1998

The Catholic Church of St Philip and St James is nestled down by the river, next to the Ivan Goran Kovačić elementary school in the bustling town Mrkonjic Grad, central Bosnia – Herzegovina. The colour photograph is how I remember it in late 1996, still bearing the scars of war; the roof missing, doors broken. The statue of St Philip and St James pockmarked by bullet holes; derelict. Upon my return twenty three years later, there is little outward sign of change; the new roof sitting uncomfortably upon the battered skeleton of what must have been such a beautiful building when first constructed in 1883. It is the same with the two mosques in the town; both blown up in 1993, work is only just beginning on one of them. It’s easy to feel hopeless when reflecting upon any divided community, especially one whose division is a product of generational hatred, difference and the resultant mutual exclusion. How can we ever see our way to believing that true progress is possible?

I’ve always been struck by Moltmann’s view, crafted in the concentration camps of the second world war. For Moltmann, and so many others who have endured such a seemingly hopeless plight, hope becomes a far greater reality than perhaps for those of us who have led such relatively peaceful lives. For like the church of St Phillip and St James, whose outward appearance is actually a mask of what is taking place inside (beautiful and pain-staking reconstruction), so it is with the way that hope burns in the lives of those living with exclusion and conflict. The greatest signs of hope are not always found in the bright and sometimes garish signs of progress that are often offered as trophies of success in post-conflict contexts. More likely, they are found in the small, gradual and almost imperceivable signs of re-birth in the lives of those that have found the inner strength to simply keep going. Those that have found peace with God, leading them to suffer under it [Moltmann], as this inner peace contradicts the reality of their situation, hour by hour, day by day. Perhaps the fact that the outward scars are still visible on this beautiful nineteenth century church finds a fresh significance, for Christ still bears his scars too, and yet it is in those scars, and what they represent that we often find our greatest understanding of hope.

Much of my time in Bosnia Herzegovina in the mid nineties was spent working for reconciliation, attempting to foster an environment that would allow the different ethnicities to find, once again, a common place of belonging together. Sadly, certainly in Mrkonjic Grad, I think this has found limited success. What has gone wrong? It is important to ask these questions, especially in a world that is increasingly seeing so much divisiveness and polarisation in its politics and views of otherness. For when the dust eventually clears (which it will), the church will no doubt take its long established place in bringing unity where there is currently such bitter division. We need to be ready.

I found some of the answers in the pages of Volf’s classic Exclusion and Embrace. In order to truly move from a culture of exclusion (as still exists in all sorts of places in our own contexts if we are willing to look for long enough), to one of true embrace we firstly have to learn to forgive. For as Volf writes, forgiveness marks the boundary between the two. We cannot truly move from a place of exclusion to embrace without forgiveness, recognising that forgiveness is so often a two way street. I think my own experiences of ministering in Armenia amongst the backdrop of the early twentieth century genocide, and working with women who had been victims of the most horrific sexual abuse in South Sudan, both domestically and as part of the long tribal and religious conflicts, brought this into sharp resolution. Volf asks the difficult question; can forgiveness take us so far into the character of Christ that we too can ‘remember their sins no more’?

And then there is the question of space. So many attempts at reconciling communities, views, difference (like the one that I was involved with in B-H), however well meaning, produce merely the uneasy peace of a strained co-existence, and go no further; I can think of examples closer to home. Anywhere that specifically focuses upon bringing together sometimes radically polarised and historically entrenched positions, views of otherness and divergence from our perceptions of ‘the norm’ without masking the beauty and distinctiveness of diversity, will bring similar challenges. Whilst sat in a smoky cafe, looking out across such a sadly familiar landscape, Volf brought three distinctive constructs to these questions.

When seeking to truly embrace the ‘other’, are we in fact simply inviting them into ‘our’ space, a space that eventually we will be requiring them to conform to? For if we are, that is not the embrace of Christ. For if the definition of embrace is found in Christ’s self emptying on the cross, so ours too must be the same. Truly making space in my own life for the ‘other’ means offering a space that I no longer now occupy. It has to become a neutral space that I truly want to be filled by the other. That willingness is rooted in a recognition that I want the difference and distinctiveness of their identity to enrich, even become part of my own. This is truly incarnational, for Christ gave up himself up to death so that he could become alive in and through each one of us. The image of Christlikeness was no longer limited to a first century Jewish context, but could now be found across the whole spectrum of humanity.

I also need to move my feet. For embrace to be without any element of control, it has to be a mutually submissive act. By being willing to enter an others’ offered space, we are leaving ‘home’. By crossing and entering the space that has been made for us by their submissions, we are recognising a need in our own lives to inhabit a different space, and for this to happen we must have allowed our roots to be well and truly shaken!

And finally, at the end of each embrace is the place of letting go [Volf]. Looking to allow the fruits of embrace to grow and develop without the temptation to control is not easy! For secretly, our own pride will probably hope that the ‘new order’ will look very much like we imagined or hoped it would. We need to be prepared for a further period of death, enabling us to navigate the ‘new country’ that emerges from the transformation that is available from joining in a truly Christlike embrace with our neighbours; for we know who they are, don’t we.

Categories: Bosnia - Herzegovina 2019

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