Radical Friendship

by Donna Whitney

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. (Matthew 11:19)

Very often, a friend is someone who eats with you. Even if you aren’t dressed – or even washed – for the occasion, a friend will eat with you. A friend doesn’t have to look, speak, think, love, vote, pray, or even smell like you, but a friend will eat with you. John Swinton says, “The form of friendship here is radical in that it transcends the relational boundaries that are constructed by contemporary tendencies to associate with others on the basis of likeness, utility, or social exchange.”[1] Swinton’s claim is worth considering in light of our increasing polarization and our deepening isolation from people unlike ourselves as we retreat into “silos.” These “silos” or “bubbles” are maintained not only by our own preferences and tastes, but also by social media, by the forces that shape and divide neighborhoods, and by those who would exploit our conscious and unconscious prejudices for political gain.

Swinton places friendship at the core of the church as “the continuation of the incarnation.”[2] The friendship Swinton is talking about is radical in that it is not based on shared interests, utility (what you can do for me), or “chemistry.” It is the sometimes risky reaching out of person to person, recognizing and honoring the fundamental dignity and humanity of each. Enacting this radical friendship makes the church the church. It is “doing Jesus.”

The radical friendship that Jesus practiced and that Swinton recommends to the church today is both an individual and a communal practice. It can be a challenge to extend friendship to persons who are marginalized, stigmatized, or just so seemingly different from us that we don’t know where or how to begin. When the gulf between persons appears overwhelmingly large, communities often have resources that individuals alone may lack. Swinton writes primarily about congregational welcome, inclusion, support, and friendship for people living with mental illness, dementia, and other cognitive challenges, but his model is relevant for churches that want to deeply welcome any marginalized people and their families, such as people re-entering society after incarceration, refugees, people living with HIV, and other chronic conditions. Swinton isn’t recommending expensive or comprehensive new ministries. Any such outreach (which may include inreach) can start small and can stay small. In his book, Swinton describes congregations that offer radical friendship to a single person or to a single family and documents their experiences of challenge, growth, disappointment and reward along the way.

When extending friendship to people who are marginalized by conditions such as dementia or mental illness, Swinton emphasizes how important it is to prioritize the person – the very human person – over the diagnosis. People with dementia forget, but more to the point, they can also be forgotten. It is liberating to be remembered. It is not just people with dementia who forget and not just people with dementia and chronic mental illness who are forgotten. In a society that values us primarily as interchangeable units of production, we are all forgotten and all in need of remembering and being remembered. In a society that is fragmented and in which we as individuals are broken, we are in need not only of remembering, but also in need of re-membering.

Not only individuals, but also – maybe especially – communities need to be re-membered. Communities are re-membered when persons at their margins are re-membered into the community in their full humanity. Ultimately, friendship is a communal practice, and when friendship is at the heart of Christian praxis, it is the body of Christ that is remembered and re-membered.

Recommended reading: Swinton, John. Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People With Mental Health Problems. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

[1] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 39.

[2] Ibid.,  51.

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