Article

Robert Elder


Open Friendship in a Closed Society

A new perspective on racial reconciliation in Mississippi.

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Where Michael Emerson and Christian Smith blamed a generalized evangelical individualism for the reticence of organizations like Mission Mississippi to address issues of systemic racial injustice, Slade delves deep into the racial past of southern Presbyterianism to find what he considers the historical taproot of this restraint. He finds its origins in the doctrine of the "spirituality of the church" elaborated by South Carolina Presbyterian James Henley Thornwell during his denomination's conflict over slavery in the mid-19th century. Thornwell argued that the church was an essentially spiritual institution that had no business making pronouncements on temporal issues such as slavery, which should be left to the judicial and legislative branches of society. Thornwell's neutrality doctrine was, of course, designed to blunt the anti-slavery arguments being made by many in the northern wings of the church.

Slade traces the doctrine's continuing influence in southern Presbyterianism into the Civil Rights era, when it was used to condemn denominational involvement in social issues, especially civil rights. Slade calls the doctrine "a sophisticated theological resistance to systemic change; it is not an innocent doctrine misused." (Slade fails to mention, though, that a version of the doctrine also underlies the ongoing reaction in many conservative churches against the perceived political excesses of the Religious Right.) Today, First Presbyterian members like Lee Paris are devoted to Mission Mississippi and its cause, but they continue to maintain the church's exclusively spiritual mission. As Paris told Slade, "For me justice is God's job and the laws of our land's job."

In order to ease the participation of churches like First Presbyterian and white Mississippians in general, Mission Mississippi employs what Slade calls a "pragmatic strategy" of not engaging in social or political issues. For whites in the organization, Slade writes, this position reflects a desire to "keep their personal religion free from the taint of the social gospel," while for blacks it reflects a "theological statement of hope" that a relational approach will "mobilize the economic and social capital of the white church" and precipitate broader change. Mission Mississippi, as its director Dolphus Weary says, is "Reconciliation 101."

But can this approach change Mississippi? What role does justice play in the process of reconciliation? Here at last we get to the heart of the book and of Slade's response to the sociologists. In a remarkable couple of chapters, Slade evaluates the biweekly prayer breakfasts held by Mission Mississippi using the model of reconciliation developed by theologian Miroslav Volf. True Christian forgiveness, argued Volf, cannot happen either outside justice (by ignoring past sins) or only after justice (by demanding justice before forgiveness). Instead, Volf, whose theology was shaped by living through the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s, argued that Christian forgiveness begins with the "will to embrace" the other. Through a series of interviews with participants, Slade argues persuasively that the personal sharing and intercessory prayer of black and white Christians at these breakfasts fits this description and leads to what Volf called "double vision," or the ability to see with another's eyes—a crucial first step on the path to both reconciliation and justice. Slade quotes one white participant:

I was with a couple of black men and maybe a white man. And we all shared something we would like the group to pray about. And the black man next to me, the way he prayed—it was about my daughter—was so powerful …. To have someone like that just pray like they really cared, just intensely. Like praying the wallpaper off the walls for someone they didn't know, my daughter. For me it was just … you can't help but when you have had someone pray for you like that, there is a bond.

Slade concludes that participants in Mission Mississippi practice a genuine version of the open friendship of Christ that represents an important, if still inchoate, step on the path to reconciliation and justice in Mississippi. He argues for this model of reconciliation on pragmatic grounds, dismissing the ideal of interracial congregations advocated by Smith and Emerson as "not a realistic starting point for transforming the Church in America today" and citing their own research to prove his point. Nevertheless, Slade is frank in his evaluation of what he considers serious shortcomings, and at the end of the book he enjoins Mission Mississippi's leadership to "relax its dogmatic insistence on the separation between spiritual and social spheres."

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