Manaakitanga: I and Thou

A life that seeks to participate in the way of manaakitanga is about much more than trying to do nice things from time-to-time. When manaakitanga bumps into me, it asks me about who I am and how I want to respond to moments and opportunities for kindness and generosity?

This is a question that shapes much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching too - what kind of person are you becoming? In the scriptures we find this double layered approach to transformation. There is a radical grace that says that you are welcome and invited as you are; a beautiful, profound and total acceptance. And yet there is also this question that is posed to us - who are you becoming? Rather than saying ‘do this’’ but ‘don’t do this’, Jesus challenges us to think about the trajectory of our lives.

If we were to put this in the language of manaakitanga, we might say that in a world in which it can be difficult to feel at home, to feel settled, to feel a sense of belonging, God extends radical and beautiful hospitality toward us. No matter what journey has brought us to this point, God is like the father in the prodigal son story, always waiting with open arms. 

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”

This is not just about welcoming back those who have wandered away from the church; it is a continual posture of God toward us, so that as we go about our days - facing challenges and joy and all that comes with everyday life - we are reminded that God continues to move toward us with open arms. And as those who have experienced this beautiful manaakitanga of God, we are invited to participate in it; to learn what it means to be a person and a community who can embody this hospitality, generosity and kindness as they are directed toward others.

And for me this gets at the heart of the matter. What does it mean to become an open person? Not just through practical acts of service and care, but to be a person around whom others begin to feel at ease and at home. The image of the father of the prodigal offers us a symbol of embrace as the divine manaakitanga of life.

Miroslav Volf

"An embrace involves always a double movement of opening and closing. I open my arms to create space in myself for the other. The open arms are a sign of discontent at being myself only and of desire to include the other. They are an invitation to the others to come in and feel at home with me, to belong to me. 

In an embrace I also close my arms around the others-not tightly, so as to crush and assimilate then forcefully into myself, for that would not be an embrace but a concealed power-act of exclusion; but gently, so as to tell them that I do not want to be without them in their otherness. I want them to remain independent and true to their genuine selves, to maintain their identity and as such become part of me so that they can enrich me with what they have and I do not".

Our generous, hospitable and inclusive acts flow out of the kinds of people we are becoming. And we face the twin challenges of either imposing ourselves on the reality and experience of others, or withdrawing from the reality and experience of others. And both can be inhospitable ways of being.

But if we come to see that God is a God of love and of manaakitanga toward us, then this has the potential to transform the way that we live in the world. It gets to the question of what sits at the heart of things? What is fundamental reality? Who is ‘God’? Anger, violence, isolation... ? THe answer that our sacred texts offer us is that it is love that sits at the heart of all things. For God is love. And that love is made known to us in Jesus.

Martin Buber talks about two ways of viewing the world: ‘I-Thou’ or ‘I-It’. When we encounter another, do we encounter one who we see only as an object or as a true and human person? Buber states that “The basic word I-Thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.”

There are many ways we can be tempted to treat others as objects rather than as true subjects. And many of us will have known what it is like to be treated as object; to be dehumanised, to be objectified, to be reduced down to something less then the glorious mystery of what it means to be a human person. Sometimes these reductions can be trivial, and sometimes they can be deeply wounding. And it is sometimes because of these experiences that to survive in the world we begin to treat others in an I-It capacity too; it is our way to maintain safety. 

Yet to enter into a world of wholeness and openness requires us to learn how to see one another in the context of I-Thou, for to see others in the context of I-Thou is the ground of manaakitanga. It comes from the great I-Thou that sits at the heart of reality, and that is our relationship to God; the one who is love. God is not an object about whom we can have only theories and ideas from afar; God is one who asks to be known as “Thou”.

As the writer of 1 John says, “we love because he first loved us”. Creation is the first loving and beautiful act of God’s manaakitanga – and it becomes our invitation to tune in to the pulsing rhythm of grace and generosity that sits just beneath the surface of things, calling us into a living embrace.

ManaakitangaClint Gibson