This post comes on the Sunday after racially-charged protests and counter-protests in Charlottesville, VA turned violent. In lieu of my normal Sunday round-up of articles, I want to draw attention to one book that fits both this cultural moment, in which racial dialogue between individuals seems so important yet so difficult, and this blog, which combines historical and religious analysis.
Though the book I review below concerns primarily dialogue between black and white individuals, the themes of personal connection and reconciliation are crucial to harmony between all kinds of groups. How can people come together when perhaps both their personal inclinations and the weight of history are pulling them apart?
Open Friendship in a Closed Society by Peter Slade is an ambitious combination of historical and theological analysis. These two subjects, often an unstable compound, Slade handles with equipoise. Open Friendship uses concepts drawn from Christian theologians to examine, articulate, and critique the organization Mission Mississippi in its quest for racial reconciliation in Mississippi.
Mission Mississippi is an interdenominational initiative that “strives to facilitate [interracial] relationships between individuals and partnerships between churches. These new friendships, Mission Mississippi declares, are ‘changing Mississippi one relationship at a time'” (3). Its has pursued this vision largely by organizing prayer breakfasts and setting up informal meetings among clergy, as well as occasionally hosting larger rally-type events.
Slade’s narratives are rich. Keeping with Mission Mississippi’s emphasis, Slade illuminates his story with concrete personal histories and first-hand testimonies. The characters speak with their own voices, challenging us with their stories. Slade does not cast a script of heroes and villains, but rather of people united in overcoming their own inherited prejudices.
Two theologians provide the substance of Slade’s theological construct. From Jürgen Moltmann Slade appropriates the idea of “open friendship,” modeled after his understanding of Christ’s significance. Christ taught us the meaning of friendship by becoming our friends. Abandoning his own status and privileges, he identifies with our humiliation, our suffering, our burdens. He partakes in them and overcomes them. When Christians become God’s friends, they extend this open friendship to others. Friendship is open when it is intentional, when it crosses barriers, and when it refuses to be privatized. A closed friendship, which remains confined among natural peer relations, would never have resulted in incarnation. One consequence of open friendship is that friend seeks public justice for friend, discontent to let generous personal feelings be the extent of involvement.
To open friendship Slade adds Miroslav Volf’s “will to embrace.” The will to embrace is an indiscriminate desire for reconciliation, but the embrace itself is conditional upon justice. That is, there can be no cheap justice, in which an offended party simply forgets about the wrongs done. However, Volf also stresses the need for “double vision,” which is “the process whereby an individual must seek to hear and understand the other’s truth and then seek to see themselves and their claims to justice and truth from this new perspective” (128). If this is achieved, then the embrace will include real justice, not vengeance or dismissal.
Armed with these theological categories, plus a dollop of the quotable Bonhoeffer, Slade scrutinizes Mission Mississippi’s contribution to racial reconciliation. At first glance, the strategy seems to suffer from naive individualism, seeking to correct systemic and institutional problems simply through individual action. Slade responds that even though the critique has some merit, Mission Mississippi’s efforts provide a Reconciliation 101, a realistic starting point from which more mature efforts at reconciliation can arise. It does in fact serve as a vehicle for developing open friendship and double vision.
Superbly written and uncommonly perceptive, I highly recommend Open Friendship in a Closed Society. As a former member of the Presbyterian Church in America, I was particularly interested in the central roles that First Presbyterian in Jackson and Reformed Theological Seminary played in the pages. Having one branch of my theological heritage analyzed was an uncomfortable but liberating experience. Since the situation in Mississippi is replayed in miniature all across the United States, most Americans will find themselves reflected somewhere in this work.