A Feature Review of
Create Belonging in an Age of Judgment, Isolation, and Fear
Reviewed by Ashley Hales
After America’s recent election, we’ve discovered (again) how divided we are. It is not simply that one-half of the nation disagrees with the other, but that each half is afraid of the other, as noted by ABC News. In a climate of fear, Scott Sauls’ Befriend is a timely book. Its subtitle, “create belonging in an age of judgment, isolation, and fear,” speaks to a human desire for community that transcends divisions based on race, class, socio-economics, politics, and sexual orientation. It plots a way forward for the church.
But to move towards friendship, Sauls isn’t about to wallpaper over potential differences. Described as both humble and orthodox in his previous book, Jesus Outside the Lines, Sauls maintains here, too, a typically conservative ethic. Always pastoral and winsome, Sauls always seeks to build bridges across our many divides. In twenty-one short chapters, Befriend not only posits but also illustrates how “real friendship happens when we move toward the people we are most tempted to avoid.” He doesn’t sugarcoat deep divides, systemic injustice, or fear. Sauls’ vision for the book is that it would be read in community — with others who act like sandpaper on us — so that both become smoother because of the friction.
Befriend asks the question: Is real friendship is too risky? When the world feels like it’s spinning out of control, is our only way forward to hide in bunkers, engage in trench warfare (online, in person, and even in the church), and only befriend those who hold our same convictions and persuasions? Scott Sauls thinks not. His book Befriend is a way forward for the church.
If you know your early church history, you’ve likely heard how new converts to Christianity climbed over walls that were meant to ghettoize ethnicities in order to meet together. Today, our churches often build walls to keep people out. Scott Sauls’ Befriend seeks to get at the heart of that wall-climbing ethos. Can the church be an organization that supersedes divisive mud-slinging and learns to love both the marginalized and the affluent, both the right and the left?
This seems idealistic now. Yet, our church history tells a grander story, a story Sauls’ book helps us recover in today’s language and stories. Of course we cannot move forward when we are rooted in fear, when we give way to caricature and gossip. The prerequisite to ethics is friendship, Sauls notes. We cannot begin to have ethical or moral conversations until we actually befriend those who are different from us. We must humble ourselves and realize they have something vital to teach us. No single group has the corner on the market on grace and truth. So we start by taking small steps towards the “other;” like Mother Teresa, we move toward what others run from.
In tumultuous times, I pray the church learns how to be this covenant community Sauls writes of — not one that is based on transactional friendship where we only befriend those who look like us. That option is no different than the spirit of the age. Jesus said it best, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5: 46-47).
May it be true of the church that we ask more questions, we learn and practice empathy, and we fight for justice for the oppressed. May it be true that we seek to grow in compassion for those who voted against us. May we seek to love not only the marginalized but also not vilify the rich and powerful, the bullies and perpetrators (who are also subjects of Sauls’ essays). How else could a watching world see that we are Christians, except by our love?
Scott Sauls tells a powerful story of his friend and mentor, Pastor Ronnie, an African American preacher who has helped Sauls see his own privilege and how Jesus’ Kingdom . When he opened up his pulpit to Scott Sauls, the author recounts how Ronnie treated him as a friend: he “elevated [his] dignity,” he did not belittle or “caricature [him] as one of them; instead he welcomed [him] as part of us.” That is what a transformed heart can do: it can move toward instead of away. May our church learn how to befriend others, it’s what our nation needs more than anything.