This is a review I wrote for Missiology: An International Review, which will be published sometime next year.
Barber, Leroy. Embrace: God’s Radical Shalom for a Divided World. IVP Books, 2016. 140 pp. $16.00, paperback.
For many years one of my favorite images of Jesus, and of Jesus-followers, is that of him/us standing with open, welcoming arms. After reading Leroy Barber’s new book, I realized that I needed a more dynamic image. Not only does Jesus stand with open arms, he also moves to embrace all who come to him. We followers of Jesus should be willing to do the same.
Barber, an African-American man who grew up in Philadelphia but who now, after several years in Atlanta, lives in Portland, Oregon, has long served as a pastor and as a leader in several organizations ministering to people in need. He has spent his adult life of more than 30 years pursuing reconciliation and justice between diverse people and groups who have often been separated by fear and prejudice.
The tone of Barber’s book is set in the Introduction: “This is a call to create good ground for justice to take root. We must continue to call out injustice and stand unapologetically against systems that dishonor people” (12). Throughout the nine chapters of the book, and by use of key Bible passages and the sharing of his own experiences, Barber seeks to cultivate the “good ground for justice” that he calls for.
Verses from Jeremiah 29 are the biblical words Barber uses most in his book, and verses 4-7 stand at the head of the first chapter, “Embracing the Place.” In that chapter, which is also partly about Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh, Barber writes about the difficulty and the necessity of embracing God’s “call to go to hard places” (25).
Barber’s second chapter, “The Ones We Avoid,” is about the need for Jesus’ followers to develop “the perspective of embrace” and to overcome “tribal prejudice” (30, 32).
Referring to a personal experience when he was in high school, the third chapter is titled “God Likes Pumpkin Pie.” In that chapter he makes one of the main points of the book: “Christ came to earth to heal and redeem the four relationships broken at the fall—between us and God, between us and ourselves, between us and other people, and between us and the rest of creation” (52).
In the next chapter, “Looking at Change the Right Way,” Barber writes, “Honoring is usually better than analyzing. And moving toward healthier relationships will only occur as we let go of our barriers and preconceptions and are willing to let our own hearts, minds, and souls be changed to fully embrace others” ( 66).
The fifth chapter, “Going the Distance,” reiterates the theme of the book, and the repeated reference to Jeremiah 29: “Embrace your community, settle in for the long haul, and see how the Lord uses you to help your neighborhood flourish” (83).
The call to “embrace the diversity of those who God has called us to love” (99) is Barber’s main point in the sixth chapter, and in the following chapter, “Natural Justice,” he avers, “Justice means simply correcting the things that are wrong” ( 106).
Barber concludes the eighth chapter, “Loving Even Our Enemies,” with these words: “We must imagine how we would want to be treated . . . and treat our enemy in the same way—this is what it means to embrace even those that we might say we hate. This is the heart of the gospel” (120).
Perhaps the most helpful chapter in Barber’s book, and certainly the most relevant to what is going on in society today, is “Yes, Black Lives Matter.” A significant part of that final chapter is “Debunking the Myths of #BlackLivesMatter.” One of the ten myths considered is “The movement hates white people.” In response, Barber writes,
The Black Lives Matter movement demands that the country affirm the value of black life in practical and pragmatic ways, including addressing an increasing racial wealth gap, fixing public schools that are failing, combating issues of housing inequality and gentrification that continue to push people of color out of communities where they have lived in for generations, and dismantling the prison industrial complex. None of this is about hatred for white life. It is about acknowledging that the system already treats white lives as if they have more value, as if they are more worthy of protection, safety, education, and a good quality of life than black lives are. This must change (128).
Another helpful part of the final chapter is titled “For Those Who Are Not Black.” “Read books written by blacks and discuss them” (131) is one of the suggestions he makes. As a white man I am glad I was able to read this book, and I have certainly profited from it; I highly recommend it to you who read this review, whether black or white.
Embrace is not a “scholarly” book. There are a couple of website links introduced, but the only book included in the endnotes is a 1998 book which includes a quote made by Abraham Kuyper in 1880. Barber’s writes not from academic study but from his engagement in action on the front lines, seeking by what he does to spread “God’s radical shalom for a divided world.”
Barber is currently chair of the Christian Community Development Association, founded in 1989 by Dr. John Perkins. The CCDA is said to be “a network of Christians committed to engaging with people and communities in the process of transformation.” This is one of the many ways that Barber is seeking to live out his vision of embracing others.
So, yes, let’s us take the challenge of Barber seriously. Let’s not only stretch our arms to indicate that we welcome other people, but let’s close our arms around them in a warm embrace. Barber’s book helps us to understand what such embracing means, and reading it motivates us to move in that way.
Such embracing, though, depends on having the spiritual strength for such an undertaking. Thus, Barber’s closing words are, “Let’s embrace the Spirit of God that rests in us all” (136).