Friend has become a spongy concept in the span of my lifetime. Supposedly, I become a “friend” of public radio, the library, or the animal shelter by making a donation. “Friend” me on social media and you gain access to a carefully curated (hence mostly phony) account of my life, all in exchange for becoming a potential target for my next book launch or multilevel marketing effort. My kids are encouraged to refer to every other student at school as their “friend,” including the ones they never meet.
But I had never considered that “friend” could refer to a co-conspirator in a subversive act of faith that defies racial, cultural, and political powers to testify to the kingdom of God. Not, at least, until I read Dana Robert’s Faithful Friendships: Embracing Diversity in Christian Community.
Robert, an expert on global Christianity, makes a more measured claim. “Christians,” she argues, “have the responsibility to make friends across divisions that can separate us from one another.” She insists that cultivating these friendships is “an ethical and spiritual imperative.” These risk-taking “faithful friendships” are mustard seeds of hope that may have generational, regional, and even global impact. But whether they change the world or not is beside the point. The point is, boundary-crossing friendships are part of the Christian calling. “When followers of Jesus Christ retreat from the personal responsibility to create diverse and loving communities,” Robert claims, “they betray the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Robert begins by showing how Jesus “befriends those who follow him” in the Gospel of John. Jesus invited his disciples into friendship and sent them into the world to befriend others. Jesus modeled faithful friendship in his life and death, and his resurrection empowered his disciples to do the same. “As the disciples remained fixed on the resurrected Jesus, their Lord and Savior,” writes Roberts, “their faithfulness to one another deepened.”
Most of the book relates stories from the annals of 20th-century world missions that illustrate various aspects of faithful friendship in practice. We learn, for instance, about Indian national Savarirayan Jesudason and Scottish missionary Ernest Forrester-Paton, who together built an intentional Christian community that served the poor because they “saw their cross-cultural, transnational friendship as a deliberate Christian witness against colonialism and racism, and a statement of hope in building the kingdom of God.” We see the multinational legacy of friendship between American and Chinese Christians during the Cold War, which “illustrates how faithful friendship enlarges the meaning of family to an inclusive vision of the multiethnic family of Christ, joined together in life, death, and life beyond death.” And we encounter stories of friendships between people who should be political enemies in Zimbabwe, North Korea, and the Philippines—examples of how, “[e]specially in cross-cultural relationships, to live in mutuality as Christian friends means opening oneself to being misunderstood and criticized by both sides.”
In all these stories, Robert demonstrates how Christians have instinctively formed friendships with people unlike themselves because of their “desire to be faithful to Jesus’ message of love.” This has been true throughout history and in a variety of cultural and political contexts. In other words, forming costly cross-cultural relationships is more than a Christian imperative. It’s a uniquely Christian reflex.
Readers interested in missions, cross-cultural studies, and racial reconciliation can find many subtle lessons if they read between the lines. For instance, Robert’s accounts challenge the accepted narrative that Christian missions were always and everywhere a tool of cultural imperialism. Likewise, they illustrate how Christians with social and racial privilege can link their fortunes with those on the margins.
By design, Faithful Friendships offers few practical takeaways. Robert reminds us that friendship is not a strategy or a program. It is a Christian practice, not a means to an end.
A friend of mine who models “faithful friendship” in her personal life and ministry recently observed, “We need more courage to take more risks of outrageous love for the sake of the gospel.” This won’t come easy in an age that presses us to divide ourselves politically, geographically, ethnically, and otherwise. But Faithful Friendships, with its many helpful examples and exhortations, offers a clear vision for courageous, countercultural relationships.
Brandon J. O’Brien is director of content development and distribution for Redeemer City to City in Manhattan. His forthcoming book is Not From Around Here: What Unites Us, What Divides Us, and How We Can Move Forward (Moody).