Open Friendship in a Closed Society by Peter Slade is an ambitious combination of historical and theological analysis. These two subjects, often unstable in combination, Slade handles with equipoise. Open Friendship is an examination of race relations among Mississippi Christians, focusing on the efforts of the organization Mission Mississippi.
Mission Mississippi is an interdenominational initiative that “strives to facilitate [interracial] relationships between individuals and partnerships between churches. These new friendships, Mission Mississippi declares, are ‘changing Mississippi one relationship at a time'” (3). Mississippi is known for significant racial tension, so Mission Mississippi’s aim is more counter-cultural than outsiders might suppose.
Slade’s narratives are rich. Keeping with Mission Mississippi’s emphasis, Slade illuminates his story with concrete personal histories and first-hand testimonies. The characters speak with their own voices, challenging us with their stories. Slade does not cast a script of heroes and villains, but rather of people united in overcoming their own inherited prejudices.
Two theologians provide the substance of Slade’s theological critique. From Jürgen Moltmann Slade appropriates the idea of “open friendship.” Christ taught us the meaning of friendship by becoming our friends. Abandoning his own status and privileges, he identifies with our humiliation, our suffering, our burdens. He partakes in them and overcomes them. When Christians become God’s friends, they extend this open friendship to others. Friendship is open when it is intentional, when it crosses barriers, and when it refuses to be privatized. A closed friendship, which remains confined among natural peer relations, would never have resulted in incarnation. One consequence of open friendship is that friend seeks public justice for friend, discontent to let generous personal feelings be the extent of involvement.
Following Miroslav Volf, Slade explains the “will to embrace.” The will to embrace is an indiscriminate desire for reconciliation, but the embrace itself is conditional upon justice. That is, there can be no cheap justice, in which an offended party simply forgets about the wrongs done. However, Volf also stresses the need for “double vision,” which is “the process whereby an individual must seek to hear and understand the other’s truth and then seek to see themselves and their claims to justice and truth from this new perspective” (128). If this is achieved, then the embrace will include real justice, not vengeance or dismissal.
Armed with these theological categories, plus a dollop of the quotable Bonhoeffer, Slade scrutinizes Mission Mississippi’s contribution to racial reconciliation. At first glance, the strategy seems to suffer from typically naive evangelical individualism, seeking to correct systemic and institutional problems simply through individual action. Some sociologists employ this critique. Slade responds that even though the critique has some merit, Mission Mississippi’s actions provide a Reconciliation 101, a realistic starting point from which more mature efforts at reconciliation can arise. It does in fact serve as a vehicle for developing open friendship and double vision.
Superbly written and uncommonly perceptive, I highly recommend Open Friendship in a Closed Society. As a member of the Presbyterian Church in America, I was particularly interested in the central roles that First Presbyterian in Jackson and Reformed Theological Seminary played in the pages. Having one branch of my theological heritage analyzed was an uncomfortable but liberating experience. Since the situation in Mississippi is replayed in miniature all across the United States, most Americans will find themselves reflected somewhere in this work.