Ladies and gentlemen, a blast from the past
A while ago I wrote about the theology of friendship, or rather the lack thereof in the contemporary church. Recently a conversation with a dear Korean brother sparked some additional thoughts about friendship.
He mentioned that he thought, until he came to the U.S. very recently, that the idea of friendship was universal, and that in Korea to say that you are someone’s friend is to be entirely devoted to them. A friend would share the last piece of bread or even underwear (his words not mine) if need be. As we talked about this over dinner, my American born Korean friends and I shared with him a bit about how friendship works in the U.S. and I compared the type of friendship he described as being closer to what we say about family – about our brothers and sisters. He responded with disdainful amazement. Family, he said, is not your choice, and therefore does not carry the same weight as friendship.
This interaction could be easily chalked up to cultural differences, and indeed it is. Many Africans are surprised by the American idea of setting an appointment with a friend, and would think nothing of walking hand in hand with a friend of the same sex down the street. There is, however, more to it than just difference in cultures and there is perhaps something that can be learned theologically from the way different groups conceptualize friendship.
In Jesus’ last address to his disciples before his crucifixion he says pointedly, “I no longer call you friends, because I have told you everything.” Before this however he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” To my western American ears, this sounds absolutely antithetical to my understanding of what a friend is. To place friendship and obedience in the same sentence seems almost heretical. In fact friends are usually those people who pointedly DON’T tell us what to do and to whom we have no obligation to obey. The greatest love, Jesus says, is demonstrated when a man lays down his life for his friends. I would venture to say that this goes far beyond sharing underwear.
The question that naturally arises is whether Jesus’ words apply only to the unique nature of his relationship to the disciples or if they are more broadly applicable to friendship. Indeed I believe this is the presupposition most of us bring to the text. Yet there is nothing in the text that directly states that this is his assumption, and throughout scripture we find friendship elevated to a high position as in the case of David and Jonathan.
What are we to do with this? It seems to me that friendship is one place where American culture has departed far from the way it is understood in scripture. This is itself is not inherently problematic, because scripture was written in a certain cultural context with assumptions that are not immediately transferable to the American situation. However, by demoting friendship, or rather elevating other relationships, like marriage, we have placed more burden on the institution of marriage than it was intended to support. Single people are thereby consigned to the margins of church life and either pitied for their status (women) or held in suspicion (men). Is there a way in which non-marital emotionally intimate relationship, i.e. friendship, can be restored to a proper place in Christian understanding and practice? If such a understanding of friendship could be restored it might provide an option for those persons that are commanded by scripture to live in abstinence, and yet who yearn for emotional intimacy which is denied them by the current ways relationships are handled within the church.