A Review of
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
For many years now, I have been reflecting on the significance of Jesus’ calling his disciples “friends” (John 15). John McKnight’s book The Careless Society (and his work on Asset-Based Community Development) and Paul Wadell’s excellent book Becoming Friends, among others, have served as guides in thinking about this Gospel passage and the significance of friendship. The new book, Friendship at the Margins, by Chris Heuertz and Christine Pohl – the latest volume in the wonderful “Resources for Reconciliation” Series from Intervarsity Press and the Center for Reconciliation at Duke University – is another superb volume that parallels the above books on friendship and likewise engages the importance of friendship for Christian discipleship, and particularly the aspect of mutuality. Friendship at the Margins is based largely on Heuertz’s experiences as international co-director (with his wife Phileena) of Word Made Flesh in some of the poorest and most oppressive areas of the world. Pohl, a noted theologian and author of one of the finest books on Christian hospitality, offers some brief theological reflections as well as a few stories from her own experiences working with marginalized people.
The book is framed nicely by its first chapter in which the authors emphasize that our primary vocation is one of relationship – to God and to others, particularly the marginalized. Not surprisingly the authors focus on the Gospel passage mentioned above in which Jesus calls his disciples friends. They make the pointed observation:
Learning to see the so-called other as a friend increases our sensitivity to the reductionism, commodification and manipulation that plague some versions of mission and ministry. Human beings who are not Christians are far more than potential converts. In our concern for reaching out with the gospel, we can unwittingly reduce the person to less than the whole being that God formed. When we shrink our interest in people to the possibilities of where their souls may spend eternity, it is easy to miss how God might already be working in and through a particular person [30-31].
The stories told throughout the book reinforce this central theme of the mutuality of friendship. The book’s most striking story perhaps is not one that unfolds in a third world slum, but rather that of Chris’ friendship with the manager of a grant-making foundation. There is much for us to learn here from Chris’ insistence on friendship and not becoming a pawn of this well-resourced manager. At one point, he explains to this new friend: “In the same way that we tried to resist the reduction of our friends on the street to targets or potential converts, we wanted to resist reducing our wealthy friends and acquaintances to potential donors.” As this story develops, we see the struggle through trust was eventually forged. There is much for us to consider here about the nature of relationships that involve the exchange of money.
Not only is Friendship at the Margins a delightful and challenging meditation on the nature of friendship as followers of Christ, but it also serves as a fine introduction not only to Word Made Flesh’s work, but also to their new and refreshing philosophy of ministry, which refuses at every turn to reduce and commodify relationships.