“A Journey Toward
God’s new creation in Christ”
A review of
Living Without Enemies:
Being Present in the Midst of Violence.
by Sam Wells and Marcia Owen.
Review by Seth Forwood.
Living Without Enemies:
Being Present in the Midst of Violence
(Resources for Reconciliation Series)
Samuel Wells and Marcia Owen.
Paperback: IVP Books, 2011.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Despite your thoughts on gun control or Christian pacifism, when you read, “…there were strikingly visible bloodstains remaining on the driveway beneath our feet, and those stains made visible the wounding of an entire neighborhood,” a sense of the weight and importance of work like Marcia Owens’ should settle heavy in your heart .
Living Without Enemies is the latest volume in the Resources for Reconciliation Series from Duke Divinity School and InterVarsity Press. Each book in the series connects an author from the academy with a person involved in the grassroots practice of reconciliation. This volume details Marcia Owen’s work with the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham (RCND) and is co-written by Samuel Wells, dean of the Duke University Chapel and research professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School.
The story of Marcia Owen is framed by Samuel Wells’s theological narration of the broader themes, symbols and stories. In the first chapter, titled “Nazareth,” he draws out four methods of addressing the needs of the disadvantaged: working for, working with, being for and being with. With a generous hand he weighs the limitations and benefits of each mode. He acknowledges that some may begin engaging through the more limited being for mode by studying, thinking, discussing and generally posturing one’s life around the issue at hand, but having very little direct engagement with those on the ground level. Or some might begin with the working for model which desires to effect change them through outside intervention, advocating or political maneuvering.
While Wells presents these in as much of a favorable light as possible, he does not soften the need to move into the deeper personal investment or mask that some may avoid personal contact with the disadvantaged and assuage their conscience through these means. Gently, Wells challenges us to consider the more respectful working with mode which recognizes the empowered person in need as one who ultimately has the best resources for addressing the faults of their community. The final way of approaching issues of oppression and disadvantage is being with which frustrates our desire to make things change, but builds a unique and crucial trust as we rest in simply sitting with the suffering like Job’s comforters when they sat in the ashes and “no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
Wells is not content to rest his laurels on an efficient quadrant model describing charity work that would fall in line with Steven Covey’s “7 Habits” Series or Jim Collins’ Good to Great, but anchors it firmly in God’s story through the life of Christ. Not only are his descriptions wise, practical and accessible, he takes each method of engagement and roots it in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a common experience in Christian publishing to have books that present clear, wise counsel with a bit of prooftexting to legitimate it to a Christian audience. The assumption is that if the author makes common sense, Christians will take what is obviously good advice. Sure, Wells’ models of engagement could “make sense” to some degree outside of the biblical narrative, but for the unique people God is making the Church, the same ones he calls to such common sense as “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you,” making sense is a matter of if it is at all appropriate to describe the person God called Truth with our language. It is in this task that Wells is careful and compelling as he weaves the logic of his four modes of engagement from the fabric that is the life and person of Christ with some supportive theological flourishes from Irenaeus and Augustine.
With the theological reasoning rooted in place, the text loosens to allow both a more subjective and practical voice. The chapters entitled “Silence,” “Touch” and “Words” cover a lot of ground: solidarity, patience, grief, lament. After describing how Marcia herself progressed through the four modes of engagement in response to gun violence in Durham, this section of the book is largely reflective and almost meditative in its tone as it relies heavily on Marcia’s quoted thoughts, feelings, actions and sayings. That is not to say there is a lack of practical knowledge throughout Marcia’s time with grieving families. Rather, it provides a helpful guide for those who want to get a vision for the gritty aspects of actually beginning such a ministry as the one RCND has been doing for years.
The final chapter, “Kingdom,” gathers everything before it into a single profound narrative, “a story of many harmonies and many agonies.” Through the story of Tony, the focus moves from the work of vigils to the re-entry program and the themes transform from lament and solidarity to reconciliation and resurrection. I don’t think it is too far off to describe it as apocalyptic how the culmination of the themes present themselves in the final chapter. Marcia becomes very close friends with a re-entry team member, Tony, who is then slain. Suddenly, everything is reversed. The comforter is broken with grief, the strong becomes weak, the fruition of Marcia’s work comes about through her participation in receiving instead of leading.
Tony’s funeral, continues to show the tumultuous Kingdom breaking into the world as a rich panoply of people, a prostitute, a former prisoner and “a man of enormous stature in Durham’s culture of violence” testify to grace, fidelity and breaking the cycle of violence and retribution. Class, status and background are blended at Tony’s funeral at Duke Chapel. The authors summarized it better than I could,
This is fittingly called resurrection because it takes not just the power of sin and death but also the effects of sin and death in the poisoning of relationships and communities and in the withering of the social imagination, and transforms them in to means of grace and forms of abundant life…It wasn’t happy, but it was beautiful.
Though Marcia’s life is a compelling testament and the authors provide some disturbing statistics on gun violence in the United States, there is never an argument for nonviolence or the type of pacifism represented in the title, that God has no enemies and that, as children of God, we must avoid seeing anyone as our enemy. This might be too much of an assumption without much backing for some readers. But for those looking for arguments for nonviolence and pacifism, there are many other books solely dedicated to that topic, John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus or Stanley Hauerwas’s Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence to name two. Living Without Enemies seems to be directed to those who do not question nonviolence as a part of the Christian life and want to learn better ways to live that out.
I would recommend Living Without Enemies for the first and last chapters in themselves. Sam Wells’s broadly applicable and theologically coherent writing in the first chapter is a gift to the Church for expanding our imaginations while also clarifying the focus for already socially engaged congregations. The final chapter is also an inspirational piece of interpreting the world with the re-orienting gospel of Christ in one multi-faceted event of grief, reconciliation and transformation. For those interested in starting a vigil ministry, this book has even more value throughout the middle chapters which provide much in the way of pastoral care advice and tangible suggestions for practise. Taken as a whole, both parts compliment each other making it a solid addition in what the series sets out to provide, “a fresh and distinctive vision for reconciliation as God’s mission and a journey toward God’s new creation in Christ.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com