Fearless Dialogues

A New Movement for Justice

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Gregory C. Ellison II
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , October
     2017.
     186 pages.
     $17.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664260651.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Gregory C. Ellison II brings Fearless Dialogues to life by inviting readers to encounter it as an alternative approach to social change. He outlines the core features of its practice, unveils its roots, and tells stories about how it has impacted people and communities it has served. Fear + Less Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice challenges readers to see and hear the world differently, such that they may be changed internally, and thereby change the world, three feet at a time. 

Fearless Dialogues is a grassroots initiative “committed to creating unique spaces for unlikely partners to engage in hard heartfelt conversations that see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and other” (6). The language of “unlikely partners” is crucial, for the dialogues do not focus merely on bringing together likeminded peoples around shared agreements. Rather, its purpose is to gather those who “share common space with us daily that may still occupy the role of Familiar Strangers” (8).

 By bringing unlikely partners into spaces of radical hospitality, imaginative seeing, and mutually transforming modes of connection, Fearless Dialogues prepares participants to receive the gifts of Familiar Strangers (11-12). It “places primacy on seeing and hearing as gateways to change” (12), and in this way envisions an alternative approach to social change that does “not fit expected parameters,” of “flattened” protest or “insurgent resistance” (130), instead offering a mode of resistance to systems of oppression based on the power of transforming relationships through radical practices of unlikely human connection. 

Ellison tells how the design of Fearless Dialogues is meant to acknowledge and tend to the profound impact of fear on human relations. Rather than ignore or abandon that reality of fear, Ellison seeks to “consider the possibility of ‘less-ness’ that may free unlikely partners to have hard heartfelt conversations” (7). To this end, Ellison structures the book by contending with five primary fears that stifle conversation and relations among unlikely partners, and articulates how the Fearless Dialogues are designed to lessen to those fears. The fear of the unknown, for instance, is challenged by the exercise of what Ellison calls the “Laboratory of Discovery,” an experiential practice of embracing the unknown and awakening the imagination towards the transformation of seeing, hearing, and knowing (21-23). The fear of strangers is challenged by the practices of radical hospitality in the formation of “holding environments” as spaces of welcome for various kinds of strangers to feel safe and welcome (46). 

Fearless Dialogues in this way is an artistic, mystical, and relational vocation of resistance and fear-interrupting hope. Its “facilitators”—who Ellison fittingly calls “animators”— are about the work of creating spaces capable of authentic and unlikely connection among strangers that encourages a creative and imaginative unleashing of the “living energy of God, to destabilize the foundations of evil resting in the hearts and minds of others” (148), in resistance to the paralyzing fears that so often prevent such connection. 

The challenge with descriptive texts such as this often relate to the difficulty of bringing solitary readers into living practical spaces. But Ellison’s unique rhetorical style draws readers in to an experience of Fearless Dialogues, as readers are invited to pause and reflect, experience through story, and attend to themselves as participant-readers. By the end of the book, one may likely feel a strong sense of the heart and soul of Fearless Dialogues, and may even imagine the sights and smells and experiences of it, even as one is still peering in from outside. 

Ellison likewise labors to display what I see as an enduring value of Fearless Dialogues, specifically as an approach that recognizes and affirms the wholeness of human embodiment. By recognizing ways that our fears, hopes, and relations are crucial parts of our embodied lives– meaning that the whole of our senses, emotions, and neuro-physiological registers are involved—Fearless Dialogues is uniquely important in how it intentionally prepares spaces for these aspects of human nature and thereby enables us to see and hear anew, and receive the gifts of strangers in our embodied selves. 

Ellison also makes a profound statement on the nature of social change by articulating Fearless Dialogues as a mode of resistance. Connection between unlikely partners is not merely prep work or throat-clearing before the real work of activism begins. Making unlikely connections is itself a form of resistance to the principalities that divide and conquer through despair, apathy, and shame. Ellison helpfully describes how fear + less enables the kinds of change and resistance that we so desperately need, even as the focus remains on the three feet around us. 

I did have questions as I read: Is three feet a wide enough scope to attend to the kind of violence that is inflicted by the powers of violence and oppression? Ellison’s response seems to be “look and see.” What I saw was that even though Fearless Dialogues is freshly developed, Ellison unveils its roots as deep within historical ways of resistance. Whether by the radical hospitality of a grandmother’s porch, the historical practices of empathic Quakerism, or the mystical resistance of Howard Thurman, Fearless Dialogues relates an old way of radical resistance to the principalities to a fresh and unlikely path.

Ellison provides us with a gift of remembering old ways and cultivating them anew in the practice of Fearless Dialogues that is as hopeful as it is timely. He challenges readers to consider our labor as scholars and activists: are we in need of revisiting the gifts the unlikely strangers bring to the transformation of both ourselves and our worlds? In Fearless Dialogues, we may find such spaces of authentic connection, by which our struggles for justice may also make us more human. To this end, Ellison has provided great service to both the church and the academy towards a more hope-filled future, three feet at a time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew C. Wright is the Director of Programs for Mennonite Central Committee, Central States, and is a doctoral student in Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gregory C. Ellison II is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Candler School of Theology. He is the author of Cut Dead but Still Alive and the cofounder of Fearless Dialogues, a grassroots community initiative that draws unlikely partners together to create positive change in self and others.

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