Rhett Smith Podcast 70: The Priority of Relationship and Embracing the ‘Other’
This has been an incredibly difficult political season, in that it highlights the deep divisions among one another along racial, sexual, economical, and political lines….just to name a few.
And one thing I have been struggling with the most is to try and remind myself of how I talk about people that believe different than me. Because how I talk about them or their beliefs (if I do at all), will determine whether or not we can be in relationship with one another…and hopefully learn and grow from the mutual relationship.
But what happens most often is that we end up using exclusionary language (they, them, those people) that actually create more division and destroy the possibility of any relationship, rather than using inclusionary and embracing language (I, you, we, us) that pulls us closer to one another. And without the relationship, no progress can be made. It’s the relationship that makes it safe for us to work through our ideas with one another, and to be challenged, and to grow. When it is unsafe, we are not able to do this, but instead withdraw and fight and name call.
I see this played out daily at a microlevel in my counseling office with couples and familes and individuals, but at the marcrolevel I am sometimes left feeling hopeless and inadequate that we can do the same.
So this is something that I need to work on myself, and I wanted to process this out loud with you in this episode.
Fair warning though, Martin Buber and Miroslav Volf were hard enough for me to read at a slow pace, so I hope I didn’t totally do them injustice by drawing on their ideas and talking about them with you in this episode.
In this episode I also read two lengthy quotes form Volf’s wonderful book, Exclusion and Embrace. Those are posted below so that you can read on your own as well.
Check out this episode and walk with me on this journey so that we all contribute to more positive change in our homes, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states and world…you get the idea…start with where you can directly affect change, and then go from there.
Episode 70, quote #1:
In all wars, whether large or small, whether carried out on battlefields, city streets, living rooms, or faculty lounges, we come across the same basic exclusionary polarity: “us against them,” “their gain–our loss, ” “either us or them.” The stronger the conflict, the more the rich texture of the social world disappears and the stark exclusionary polarity emerges around which all thought and practice aligns itself. No other choice seems available, no neutrality possible, and therefore no innocence sustainable. If one does not exit that whole social world, one gets sucked into its horrid polarity. Tragically enough, over time the polarity has a macabre way of mutating into its very opposite–into “both us and them” that unites the divided parties in a perverse communion of mutual hate and mourning over the dead.
……….There may indeed be situations in which “there is no choice,” though we should not forget that to destroy the other rather than to be destroyed oneself is itself a choice. In most cases, however, the choice is not constrained by an inescapable “either us or them.” If there is will, courage and imagination the stark polarity can be overcome. Those caught in the vortex of mutual exclusion can resist its pull, rediscover their common belonging, even fall into each other’s arms. People with conflicting interests, clashing perspectives, and differing cultures can avoid sliding into the cycle of escalating violence and instead maintain bonds, even make their life together flourish. (pp. 99-100) — Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf
Episode 70, quote #2:
What is so profoundly different about the “new order” of the father is that it is not built around the alternatives as defined by the older brother: either strict adherence to the rules or disorder and disintegration; either you are “in” or you are “out,” depending on whether you have or have not broken a rule. He rejected this alternative because his behavior was governed by the one fundamental “rule”: relationship has priority over all rules. Before any rule can apply, he is a father to his sons and his sons are brothers to one another. The reason for celebration is that “this son of mine” (v.24) and “this brother of yours” (v.32) has been found and has come alive again. Notice the categorical difference between how the father and how the older brother interpret the prodigal’s life in the “distant country.” The older brother employs moral categories and constructs his brother’s departure along the axis of “bad/good” behavior: the brother has “devoured your property with prostitutes” (v.30). The father, though keenly aware of the moral import of his younger son’s behavior, employs relational categories and constructs his son’s departure along the axis of “lost/found” and “alive (to him)/dead (to him).” Relationship is prior to moral rules; moral performances may do something to the relationship, but relationship is not grounded in moral performance. Hence the will to embrace is independent of the quality of behavior, though at the same time “repentance,” “confession,” and the “consequences of one’s actions” all have their own proper place. The profound wisdom about the priority of the relationship, and not some sentimental insanity, explains the father’s kind of “prodigality” to both of his sons.
For the father, the priority of the relationship means not only a refusal to let moral rules be the final authority regulating “exclusion” and “embrace” but also a refusal to construct his own identity in isolation from his sons. He readjusts his identity along with the changing identities of his sons and thereby reconstructs their broken identities and relationships. He suffers being “un-fathered” by both, so that through this suffering he may regain both as his sons (if the older brother was persuaded) and help them rediscover each other as brothers. Refusing the alternatives of “self-constructed” vs. “imposed” identities, difference vs. domestication, he allows himself to be taken on the journey of their shifting identities so that he can continue to be their father and they, each other’s brothers. Why does he not lose himself on the journey? Because he is guided by indestructible love and supported by a flexible order.
Flexible order? Changing identities? The world of fixed rules and stable identities is the world of the older brother. The father destabilizes this world–and draws his older son’s anger upon himself. The father’s most basic commitment is not to rules and given identities but to his sons whose lives are too complex to be regulated by fixed rules and whose identitites are too dynamic to be defined once for all. Yet he does not give up the rules and the order. Guided by the indestructible love which makes space in the self for others in their alterity, which invites the others who have trangressed to return, which creates hospitable conditions for their confession, and rejoices over their presence, the father keeps re-configuring the order without destroying it so as to maintain it as an order of embrace rather than exclusion. (pp.164-165)
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Resources Mentioned in the Episode
I am a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist practicing in Plano, Texas. I work with individuals, couples, and families regarding a number of issues from marriage therapy, anxiety, depression, infidelity, faith, relationship strengthening, and a whole lot more. If you are interested in scheduling a session with me, or having me out to speak, please contact us via email or phone (469-304-9022).