The Risk of Embrace

Finally, there is the risk of embrace. . . . I open my arms, make a movement of the self towards the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated, or whether my action will be appreciated, understood, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim—possibly both. Embrace is grace, and ‘grace is a gamble, always.

–Miraslov Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation

Much has been written about the classic prisoner’s dilemma scenario. To put the matter succinctly, a prisoner’s dilemma is created when two parties are faced with the choice of cooperating or not cooperating with each other in a situation with the following components:

  1. If they both choose to cooperate, they will both be rewarded.
  2. If they both choose not to cooperate, they will both be punished.
  3. If they make different choices, then cooperator will be punished more–and the non-cooperator will be rewarded more–than would be the case if both made the same choice.

There have been so many experiments and simulations based on the prisoner’s dilemma that we have a pretty good idea how rational actors respond. In a single instance of the game–a single encounter–the only rational choice is to refuse to cooperate. The risk of the greater punishment compels us to forego the benefit of the lesser reward and accept the lesser punishment. Fear is a greater motivator than hope, and since we cannot control the other party, we assume the worst.

The logic is brutal, but inevitable: even when both parties stand to gain by cooperating with each other, the disincentive of severe punishment causes us to act in ways contrary to our own best interest. But this logic changes when we think about the long game. In several prisoner’s dilemma simulation tournaments in the 1980s, the game theorist Anatol Rappoport demonstrated that, in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma game–one in which the same players face each other multiple times–the logic shifts to favor cooperation.

This is an academic exercise with real implications for how we see the world. And each other. It suggests that the world really isn’t a zero-sum game. Nice people finish first–as long as the game goes on long enough for everybody else to understand the practical benefits of niceness. But, in order for this strategy to work–in prisoner’s dilemmas or in actual life–somebody has to go first. Somebody has to take a risk–lay down their bow, tell the truth, offer to show up, or say “I love you” without knowning what the other person will do. Only this initial risk can turn a zero-sum competition into a game where all of the players can win.

“Who goes first?” is always the most important question when it comes to disarming and de-escalating conflict. Even when everybody agrees in theory that it needs to happen, nobody wants to be the first to put down his or her weapons—the one who takes the greatest risk and experiences the most vulnerability. This is the classic prisoner’s dilemma situation: both parties would benefit from mutual cooperation, but both end up defecting because neither wants to risk being the only one to cooperate.

The Croatian Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf has spent much of his career studying the question, “who goes first?” Volf calls this the “risk of embrace.” Having lived through the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Volf speaks with more authority than most about the consequences of division and civic enmity:

“Finally, there is the risk of embrace. . . . I open my arms, make a movement of the self towards the other, the enemy, and do not know whether I will be misunderstood, despised, even violated, or whether my action will be appreciated, understood, and reciprocated. I can become a savior or a victim—possibly both. Embrace is grace, and ‘grace is a gamble, always.’”

Somebody has to go first, and it might not work, and we might get laughed at, insulted, made fun of, or mischaracterized. We might try to forgive somebody who doesn’t want to be forgiven, and we might end up offering our hand in friendship to somebody who slaps it away in anger or disgust. We might lose control of the situation. We might lose a friend by taking a position, and we might offend our allies by insufficiently hating the common enemy.

But sometimes it will work. Sometimes people will see our embrace as the invitation that it is. Sometimes we will have good conversations that end without anybody changing his or her mind but with all participants understanding a little bit more about a position they disagree with. Sometimes we will persuade people not, perhaps, to change their lives and join our team but maybe to soften their position on an issue or temper their hostility to a group. Sometimes we will be the ones who get softened and tempered and who change just a little bit.

I have never despaired for my country as much as I have during the last few weeks, as I have watched a nation grapple with both a global pandemic and a tragic murder. We are now seeing tensions and divisions that stem from elements of our culture that we have often tried to suppress–racism, systemic injustice, and brutality. And we are also seeing the consequence of a political structure that has been carefully designed to produce, and exploit, precisely the resentment and division that we are now experiencing. 

I do not know what it will take to move forward, but I am pretty sure that we are locked in the sort of prisoner’s dilemma standoff that can only end one of two ways: either we go on tormenting each other until the Republic fragments and decays into something that we no longer recognize. Or somebody with enough stature to influence the rest of us risks the embrace and invites us to let our better angels out of the deep hole where we keep them buried.

Somebody has to go first. Lord, is it I?


  1. thank You Michael. I love the especially that this risk of first embrace implicitly carries with it the need to offer grace. We all know how much we need grace for any type of reconcilliation – of our selves to God, and of our selves to each other apparently. Christ went first: “Here am I send me.” Maybe this is why we can love each other because he first loved us? I have hope for our nation when I read words like what you have posted here today. It might seem to be a calm in a small corner of the tempest, but I think it contains more substantive truth than the storm. Love Wins. Thank you for this my friend. Lona.

  2. Geoff-Aus says:

    Was this written before Pres Trump declared war (sending troops to deal with them) on parts of the nation? As far as I am aware he has not tried to make peace with anyone, or even consult to see if there is a negotiated solution possible. The leader of North Korea, gets more respect than black americans, and the political left that support them.

    The answer to your question of who would make the first move to create peace; a leader.

  3. Aussie Mormon says:

    That’s where Michael’s second last sentence comes into things Geoff.
    Unfortunately the people who are most suited trait wise to being that leader, are rarely in a position where they can be that needed influence.
    The ones that can influence are often either ignored by the people that need the influencing, or are more interested in maintaining their image or influencing in different areas.

  4. Geoff and Aussie, you are both zactly right

  5. I very much appreciate this post, thank you Michael. Emphasizing grace and love resonates with me. Both certainly take courage – to extend and sometimes to accept. When I read the Savior’s teachings on these topics, I feel my heart soften and my spine strengthen a bit.

  6. Mark Olmstead says:

    It’s interesting that the Savior’s solution to breaking down walls and changing hearts was through love. Yet it’s written that when He comes again, it will be with the sword and with fire, purging the earth of those who were wicked, and made no attempt, or flat out refused, to change. From this perspective, is there really anything that is going warm the cold hearts or open the closed minds on a national (or even local) level?

  7. Don’t have anything to add except that I always read your work on here because I know it will move my heart and make me think. Thank you for your generosity of mind and spirit.

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