Aggressive friendship. Almost as an aside, New York Times columnist David Brooks dropped this phrase during a recent webinar on the subject of rebuilding trust in a divided society.
I’ve already forgotten everything else (much of it good) that was said during that two-plus-hour webinar, but that little phrase ignited a flame that keeps growing brighter the more I feed it.
Allow me to explain. In its intended meaning, the word aggressive does not connote being overbearing, boorish, insensitive, invasive, awkward, or inappropriate. Instead, it means acting out of positive regard, from a desire for unity and harmony, taking the initiative, making the first move, risking rejection for the sake of a good purpose.
In the context of Brooks’ talk, aggressive friendship is one of the things that each of us can do to re-weave our torn social fabric. Don’t wait for that neighbor or that person outside your natural affinity group to reach out to you; take the first step by reaching out across the divide. Then be willing to initiate the next step, and the next.
That’s very good advice, but since our calling at Mosaix lies at the intersection of making disciples and overcoming historic divides in the church, let’s consider aggressive friendship in this context.
There must be a sense of purpose behind aggressive friendship. We do not seek friends out of vague goodwill or obligation to be neighborly. As people of the Book, we see people as having incalculable value, created in God’s image but tragically deformed by sin. We envision them as future family members, redeemed and restored to God’s intention for them. And perhaps the most natural way that these people come to faith, and grow in that faith, is through friendship. Jesus’ relationship with his disciples is our model case study.
So our first purpose is that we want to see more people reconciled to God, and on a human level that most often happens through the medium of relationships.
But second, our purpose in aggressive friendship is to actualize the unity among believers that Jesus accomplished through his cross:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both [Jews and Gentiles] one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. Ephesians 2:14-16
While the Jew-Gentile divide is the case in point here, I believe we can extend the principle to say that by first reconciling us to God, Jesus has cut the root of the hostility that has existed between women and men, Black and White, slave and free, rich and poor, and so on. We are now free to genuinely love one another across these previous battle lines, but it will require initiating, persevering, patient, persistent, aggressive friendship.
In July 2020, during our first of many “Learning from Black Pastors” conversations, one of our pastor panelists made this provocative statement: “Black people are convinced that White people do not love them; in general, Black Christians do not know that White Christians love them.” Referring to John 13:35, he commented that the world will continue to be uninterested in Jesus until we deal with this conspicuous failure of Christians to love one another.
I also want to make the case that those on the plus side of the power differential (e.g., White or male or wealthy or educated) bear the greater responsibility for aggressive friendship. “Aggressive” does not mean that you lead by setting the terms of the friendship or in other ways wielding your power. It does mean that you take the initiative to reach out in humility – honoring, listening, deferring, and serving.
Aggressive friendship, whether directed toward disciple-making or bridging divides, will require that we build margin into our lives. If your days are already fully booked, regardless of the importance of the activities on your schedule, you won’t have the margin or the freedom to invest in friendships, which can’t be microwaved. For the Jesus-follower, maintaining this kind of flexibility is one way of obeying his command to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Aggressive friends must cultivate the discipline of availability.
Is aggressive friendship the answer to the church’s racial problem? No. Personal friendships are not the end point of racial healing, but they can be an excellent starting point. Well-intentioned efforts at reconciliation in the past have failed to produce institutional change because they focused only on friendship, while leaving untouched power differentials, cultural insensitivity, unconscious bias, and other factors in both mainstream and multiethnic churches. Real love will work to empower the weak, give voice to the voiceless, elevate the disenfranchised – in short, to build a community where all members are honored, valued, and encouraged to flourish in their God-given design.
I’m a 71-year-old introvert, yet most of the conversations and meetings I’m involved in are initiated by me. Of course, one could explain that by saying that others are too embarrassed to turn me down, or that they feel sorry for me. Maybe. But I know lots of other people who are aggressive friends, and many of them are much better at it than I am. But for me, aggressive friendship is uniquely valuable because of the two-fold purpose that drives it: inviting people into apprenticeship to Jesus, and building genuine multiethnic friendships that show the world that Jesus’ family is the real thing.
Put another way, aggressive friendship is urgently needed to break down barriers we’ve constructed in the church. It should be driven by purpose and priorities, and not limited by personality type or available free time.