Faithful Friendships (Dana L. Robert) -- Review

FAITHFUL FRIENDSHIPS: Embracing Diversity in Christian Community. By Dana L. Robert. Foreword by Christine D. Pohl. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2019. Xv + 210 pages.

                Over the years, as I've encountered more and more people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds, my view of the world and its people has evolved. Once my friendship circle was rather small, with most of my friends looking much like me: white/Euro-American. I did have a chance to travel to Brazil in my teens, which opened my eyes a bit, but by and large, my community remained fairly narrowly confined. As time went on, especially after I moved on to seminary, my circles expanded, at least in terms of ethnicity/race. Religiously, it remained Christian in orientation. In the past two decades that circle has broadened considerably because I've lived in religiously diverse communities. Over these past two decades, my friendship circle has expanded to include Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and more. I count myself blessed to have had this expanded friendship circle.

It is from this context that I took up to read Dana Robert’s book Faithful Friendships, which focuses on diversifying the Christian community. Robert is Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission and Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology.  In this book, she invites the reader to envision friendships that cross cultures and embrace diversity, with a focus on diversity in the Christian community. She does refer occasionally to interfaith relationships but that is not the focus of the book. In this context, diversity exists in ethnic, gender, and socio-economic terms, with a concentration on ethnic differences.  Christine Pohl, in her foreword, writes that while books on friendship are often seen as lightweight, that is not true here. She suggests that Robert offers a vision that is “bold in its recognition of the value of risky, truth-filled friendships, especially today when we have so many opportunities to use friendships to reinforce our own prejudices and assumptions” (p. x).

As Robert reveals in her introduction, "friendship forms Christian identity" (p. 4). With that as a premise, she suggests that Jesus and his disciples serve as the primary model of friendship. Therefore, with Jesus as the model of friendship, then friendship is the means by which Christian community is created. With that in mind, she reports hearing Gustavo Gutierrez speak of the preferential option for the poor as friendship with the poor. As to what he meant by friendship, she records that Gutierrez "meant shared discipleship—faithful obedience to the God of love, walking together in equality with and respect for specific persons whom God loves, and caring for the world God shares" (p. 6). Such friendships aren't easy, but they point toward the realm of God.

Robert explores friendship through narrative, introducing us to persons who lived in diverse settings, often cross-cultural and mission contexts. The first chapter focuses on a biblical foundation as seen in the life of Jesus. Then she moves to a broader conversation focusing on practices of friendship in modern history. This leads to four chapters in which she offers biographies of exemplary Christians who lived in the past century and engaged in cross-cultural friendships as central to their Christian identity. Regarding the biblical foundations, Robert lifts up three spiritual dimensions. First, friendship is rooted in a concrete relationship with Jesus. Secondly, this relationship requires listening and mutuality. Finally, it involves empathy and suffering with others. We will see all three exhibited in what follows. In regard to the historical setting, she emphasizes enculturation and involved a commitment to Jesus' message of love.

Chapter 3 begins a series of biographical stories that illustrate elements of friendship. These don’t always have happy endings. Some of the persons lifted up suffered greatly in their efforts to live in diverse friendships. She starts in chapter 3 with a discussion of friendship in relation to "remaining." Here we have three stories from missional contexts in which people stayed in friendship in difficult situations, and in doing so embodied God's presence. Chapter 4 speaks of Exile and offers stories of those who remained behind in cross-cultural contexts, being separated from family and friends. Thus, one story is that of Eric Liddell, who remained in China and died in a Japanese prison camp and that of a cross-cultural marriage that required an American to remain in Japan during World War II, become a Japanese citizen because he couldn't bring his Japanese wife to the United States. She writes that the "hard lesson of exile teaches that Christian fellowship can transcend challenging political and social differences." (p. 111). In chapter 5, titled "Testimony," Robert declares that "friendship is a struggle." It is such both externally (such as when "political, social, and ethnic divisions run high"), and internally (including misunderstanding, betrayal, other internal challenges). The stories here include a friendship between a white Rhodesian pastor and a black pastor during the civil war following the declaration of independence. The second is the story of friendships in the midst of resistance to a Korean dictator, and finally the friendship of white and black men in the American South. She writes that "the great lesson of struggle in friendship is that despite trauma, new discovery of God's love appears possible in the light of shared community." (p. 139). Then in chapter six, the theme is celebration and joy. The point is that no matter the situation, "friendship is a cause for celebration." (p. 141). Among the friendships explored here are that of Henri Nouwen with Adam at L'Arche and that of Frank Laubach's friendship with the Muslim Moro people in the Philippines, which gave birth to a literacy movement.

In chapter seven, Dana Robert she suggests that cross-cultural Christian friendships are the "mustard seeds of hope." They are biblical and "essential to the mission of the church.” Thus, "as believers reach across cultural, political, and social boundaries in the name of Christ, they forge relationships of equality and care that are signposts of the kingdom of God" (p. 165). There are limits and challenges to be dealt with, but the promise is there. She offers in the stories told in the book evidence of this fact. To truly understand what this means, we need to recognize that friendship is "a bottom-up spiritual practice, not a top-down strategy" (p. 169). There are not five easy steps to friendship!

Friendship. It is at the heart of the Christian faith, though too often it is neglected. Robert offers us an opportunity to consider what this relational dimension of our faith, one rooted in the person of Jesus, can provide if we are willing to embrace it. Because the church remains largely ethnically segregated, finding ways of building relationships that cross these boundaries is essential to the future of the church. This is an important book because it draws on narrative to communicate the complexity and difficulty and blessings the come as we reach across these boundaries. While the focus here is on friendships within the Christian community, I believe the principles here translate to relationships that cross religious boundaries. Since we live in an age of polarization, embracing diversity within the Christian community will be the beginning point in healing the divides. Robert helps us move toward that healing point.

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