Faithful Friendships

Embracing Diversity in Christian Community

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Dana L. Robert
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , September
     2019.
     176 pages.
     $19.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802825711.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Faithful Friendships: Embracing Diversity in Christian Community, Dana L. Robert places cross-cultural friendships in Christian communities at the heart of a practice that embodies the hope of God’s vision for a diverse and united humanity. Without absolving Western mission’s complicity in the creation of today’s ideologically and racially polarized world, Robert presents a number of narratives to foreground both the “ordinary and revolutionary” nature of faithful friendships, which she insists are “difficult but not impossible” to cultivate (6) and offer alternative behaviors to the racism, paternalism, and violence that usually accompany Western missions. As indicated in Jesus’s parable of the mustard seed, although seemingly ordinary and inconsequential, faithful friendships anticipate the revolutionary in-breaking of God’s kingdom.

To develop her argument, Robert employs a historical and narrative theological approach—a method suited to the task of bearing witness to the power of friendship in a broken world—rather than a systematic and philosophical study of friendship and diversity. Indeed, Robert does not offer an authoritative definition of friendship, using instead a self-definitional sense of friendship intrinsic to the men and women she describes. She is also careful to underline the fact that the cultivation of faithful friendships is not a “silver bullet” for addressing complex systemic issues such as racism and poverty, for “life stories do not have to resolve anything. They just are. . . . Their very existence witnesses to hope for humanity” (179).

Reflecting initially on Jesus’ humanity in John’s Gospel, Robert teases out three spiritual dimensions important for faithful friendships: (1) a concrete relationship with Jesus that is accountable to other persons and places, (2) mutuality and reciprocity, and (3) empathy and solidarity with the suffering (15–26). She then explores the Christian language of friendship in history as bound up with the practices of building bridges across cultures, caring for the poor, and challenging racial stereotypes, and illustrates her points by drawing on the relationship between Matteo Ricci and the autochthonous Xu family, the work of the Strangers’ Friend Societies on behalf of the British and Irish poor, and the World Friendship Movement of the 1920s.

In chapters 3 to 6 Robert presents four interrelated spiritual practices common to cross-cultural friendships: “those of remaining or being present, of exile, of testimony, and finally of friendship as joy” (7), which she again supports with case studies. Consequently, to illustrate the spiritual practice of remaining or presence, Robert recounts the transformative friendship of Caroline MacDonald, a Canadian Presbyterian, and Tokichi Ishii, a Japanese convicted felon, the friendship of Savarirayan Jesudason, a native Indian, and Ernest Forrester-Paton, a Scottish Presbyterian, and the enduring friendship of Yu Enmei, a Chinese doctor, and her American missionary friends. These stories demonstrate that “ultimately it is God’s presence that anchors friendship as remaining: the gift of Emmanuel, ‘God with us’” (83).

Next, to support the theme of exile and the practice of leaving behind one’s kin and nation to befriend others, Robert explores the example of Eric Liddell, the Chinese-born Scottish Olympian who crossed cultural and national boundaries to serve as a missionary among the Chinese, as well as William Merrell Vories, an American missionary who married Makiko Hitotsuyanagi, a woman from the Japanese imperial family. The sociopolitical alienation Hitotsuyanagi and Vories suffered on account of their marriage underscores the relativization of national loyalties in boundary crossing friendships.

Friendships are hard to maintain when sociopolitical forces exert their pressure, but Robert insists unity, justice, and reconciliation through shared suffering (113) is possible, as shown by the “Monday night group” made up of American missionaries and the American wives of Korean theologians that stood in solidarity with Korean victims of political repression in the 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, friendships can lead to the joyous—and cross-cultural—celebrations of life as exemplified by the American Christian missionary, Frank Laubach, and the Muslim Moros in the Philippines. The friendship of Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, and Adam Arnett, a disabled Canadian, also underscores the possibility of friendship among two “unequal” parties. Beyond physical care, their friendship was predicated on their shared humanity, which allowed them to revel in gratitude for each other’s gifts.    

Since Robert assumes an American audience, she counsels American Christians to be conscious of their power and privilege and to develop cultural respect and humility—key attributes for fostering mutually enriching relationships with people from other cultures.

The book’s appendix gives an insight into the challenges Robert faced in narrating friendship; however, it can also be read as her guide to a critical reading of her book. She concedes one of the weaknesses of Faithful Friendships is the lack of the subaltern’s perspective. Although about cross-boundary friendships, the narratives were written in English, and the stories of friendship were largely told through the lens of white Westerners with access to privilege and power (189). As such, we do not hear the views of those on the margins and the silence of the subaltern is sensed, for example, in the fact that only a handful of the cross-cultural friendship narratives are between women. Robert attributes this significant omission to scant historical data on the subject.

Nevertheless, a key strength of the book lies in its practicality for lay readers. The historical and narrative theological approach Robert employs contributes to an embodied treatment of friendship that avoids cerebral abstractions. Grounded in the example of Jesus and the testimony of individual Christians, the book tacitly encourages readers to hold in tension the work of cultivating faithful friendships with the cultural, racial, and ideological other while working to dismantle unjust sociopolitical and economic structures. Furthermore, that each narrative offers a unique outlook on what defines friendship and its fruits, the book serves as an invitation for readers to discern the contextually sensitive ways God is calling them to cultivate faithful friendships in a world that is increasingly populated by people with hybrid cultural and ethnic identities.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jackson Nii Sabaah Adamah is a ThD student in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina.

Date of Review: 
August 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dana L. Robert is Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission at the Boston University School of Theology. She has published widely on mission history, world Christianity, and African Christianity, including Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion.

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