|A Review of
By Mark Labberton
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Reviewed by Laretta Benjamin.
“What seems most pertinent, however, is the overriding confidence that even all of what is now so tragically and horribly wrong in the world, including all of the darkest and most pernicious forms of injustice, will in the providence and purpose of God come to their right end, namely, to be remade to mirror the reality, the glory, of God’s own life and character. The greatest hope for the human heart is the heart of God” (216)
I had the wonderful privilege of meeting Mark Labberton at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley in Berkeley, California, where he was, at the time, senior pastor. A friend and I attended a conference on AIDS the church was holding there and then the following year, I attended a conference on Human Trafficking that was also held there in Berkeley. I have read his book The Dangerous Act of Worship (which I greatly appreciated) and was delighted for the opportunity to read and review this new writing. From what I have seen, heard and read of Mark Labberton, his passion for justice, mercy, grace and for God’s people to live the reality of the kingdom of God is true and sincere. I find him to be an encouragement and an inspiration.
This book, however, is not one of those books you can just sit down and read through in an afternoon, or an evening or a day. That’s not because the book is hard to read or difficult to understand but because it calls for evaluation and response. I made the mistake of trying to read it that way, and about half-way through, found myself needing to go back and start again. I think it is best read in small chunks with some thought and reflection as you go. (The author himself says that – I should have listened!) He has added some questions and thoughts for reflection throughout the book as well as at the end of the text to help with that. It would make a good group study. I know readers sometimes skip the preface and introductions to books because they are anxious to get to the meat of it, but Labberton’s introduction is crucial to his writing. He lays a great foundation for where he takes us and why. I believe his evaluation of the human heart in his introduction is right on target. I think we sometimes expect God to just zap us with new attitudes but I’ve not found that it works that way. This book sets forth some of the reality and the work of developing new attitudes. We struggle with loving our neighbor. The author tackles three very real obstacles we face with that and how transformation can take place within us: how we perceive (see and assess one another); how we name (frame and position one another); and how we act (engage or distance one another). He explores each of these areas very deeply and extensively.
In his chapters on the ways we see and assess one another, the book does a great job in exploring the things that shape the ways we perceive each other. The word “we” carries lots of baggage, from our culture, from our experiences and from many other aspects of life. The very word “we”, the author says, is limited and biased. Many times the “we” speaking is from “life here” and knows nothing about “life from there” – certainly not just speaking geographically. I really appreciated the thoughts he presents and believe they hit the mark.
In addressing the issue of how we “name” each other, the author reminds us that we use language (verbal and nonverbal) to manage the world around us. Naming follows seeing. “We name what we see in terms that reflect value, meaning, position, relationship…the problem is that you and I name without caution, justification or reason – let alone justice – as we move through life every day. Most naming occurs in ordinary moments, It happens as we respond to fellow drivers, as we stand in line, as we meet people, as we watch tv, as we read the newspaper, as we look at our peers…it is the most ordinary stuff of daily human interaction. In our name for one another for better and for worse, lies the evidence of what is in our hearts. Our distorted sight of God, ourselves and our neighbors leads us to name wrongly…when a human being is mis-seen and then mis-named, the soil of injustice reveals its destructive fertility.” (111-112). Names, the author says, are given in the heart and then bring responses of words and actions.
In his chapter on how we act toward each other, the author reminds us of the freedom that God has given in this area. He reminds us that the way we see others and the way we “name” them affects the way we ultimately act towards them. If we can begin to see others as God sees them, and name them as God names, then we can begin to act in love as God does. “It is one thing to acknowledge injustice, and quite another to be gripped by it. What is still more unusual is to take steps to change it…how we see and name paralyzes or promotes the chances that we will respond.” (184).
Labberton ends his book with a wonderful chapter on worship – waking up to life in God in Christ for the world – and a short writing about hope. I challenge all of us who struggle with loving our neighbor to get a copy and work our way through this book with an open heart and see if we might find some encouragement and help.
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