Review of Leroy Barber’s “Embrace”

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).

Amen.

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Honoring Teachers

Although it is not widely observed in the United States, today is World Teachers’ Day. Since 1994 this has been an annual October 5 observance sponsored by the United Nations to commemorate the work of teachers and their contributions to society. Please join me in honoring teachers around the world. In particularly let’s honor our own teachers and the teachers among us now.

world-teachers-day

I am grateful for the teachers I had through the years—and I was a full-time student for a very long time, from 1944 until 1966. Even though it was 65 years ago, in 1951, that I graduated from the eighth grade, I remember well all of my grade school teachers.

What teachers do you remember best and with the most admiration?

Even though it is a small rural town, I am grateful for the education I received in Grant City, Missouri. I was not disadvantaged when I got to college and in classrooms with students who had gone to larger and prominent suburban schools.

And even though I attended two small Missouri colleges, I also appreciate the teachers I had there. Again, I was no way disadvantaged when I got to seminary and in classrooms with students who had graduated from more prestigious colleges or universities.

I wish World Teachers’ Day was observed more widely, partly because three of my children are teachers—and my oldest son, Keith, has taught courses several times as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. I am also proud of my daughter Karen who is a professor at the University of Arizona.

But it is especially teachers such as my daughter Kathy, who teaches middle school students in the public schools here in Liberty, Missouri, and my son Ken, who teaches at Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, who need special recognition on this day.

Teachers in public primary and secondary schools have challenges different, and perhaps greater, than those who teach on the college and graduate school level. College education is optional, but, with a few exceptions, everyone in this country is required to go to school until they are 15 years old or older, depending on the state.

Most of my teachers have passed on by now, although I do still have regular contact with one of my seminary professors. But for those of you who are younger, let me suggest that today would be a good time to sit down and write a thank you note, or to send a nice email message, to one or more of the teachers who meant a lot to you.

Even more, perhaps you can join me in advocating for better pay for teachers—although it’s much better than it used to be. Recently, I ran across an old record of Dry School, the one-room country school southeast of Allendale, Mo., that my father attended for eight years. In the early 1880s the teachers there had from 58 to 60 pupils and were paid $30 a month.

Still, according to a fairly recently article by the National Educational Association, “Throughout the nation the average earnings of workers with at least four years of college are now over 50 percent higher than the average earnings of a teacher.”

So, in additional to thanking our own teachers of the past, let’s seek to do more to support teachers now.

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50 years ago

September 2, 2016:

It was appropriate that I woke up this morning dreaming I was in Japan and speaking Japanese, for it was 50 years ago today that June and I, along with Keith and Kathy, woke up for the first time on Japanese soil.

We arrived in Yokohama Harbor early on the morning of September 1 after our delightful 13-day trip across the Pacific Ocean aboard the President Cleveland steamship.

That first day and the first week was an exciting and enjoyable time, and it is hard to believe that it was 50 years ago.

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711th mensiversary!

Today [August 26, 2016] is our 711th mensiversary!

Our 111th mensiversary occurred while we were on board the President Cleveland steamship headed for Japan.

Six hundred months is fifty years, of course, so this year we are remembering those significant, life-changing events of 50 years ago: our appointment as missionaries, the enjoyable 13-day journey to Japan across the Pacific Ocean, the excitement of those first weeks of living in Tokyo, the challenge of language school, etc.

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Agreeing with Malcolm X

This morning [June 21, 2016]I saw this on Sojo.net’s “Voice of the Day”:

“I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda. I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” (Malcolm X)

I think I’ve got to agree with Mr. X — although I would say that it is because I am both a human being and a follower of Jesus Christ.

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Finished reading “Peace Is the Way”

April 21, 2016

Finished reading Peace Is the Way: Writings on Nonviolence from the Fellowship of Reconciliation (2000), edited by Walter Wink. The 55th, and last, chapter is “The Global Spread of Active Nonviolence” by Richard Deats, who was the editor of  at the time of the book’s publication. He writes for the very last sentenceFellowship of the article and of the book, “. . . as Joan of Arc muses in Shaw’s ‘St. Joan,’ ‘Some people see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘Why not’” (p. 295).

Those closing words are generally remembered now as spoken by Robert Kennedy, but he got them from George Bernard Shaw. Kennedy’s (and Deats’s) words are slightly paraphrased from what Shaw wrote in his play “Back to Methuselah” (1922) rather than his play “Saint Joan” (1923). I have long thought Shaw’s/Kennedy’s words were very good and important—but I don’t know how to interpret the fact that in Shaw’s play they were words spoken by the serpent to Eve.

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“God is not in a hurry”

April 20, 2016

Have been reading The Meaning of Faith (1917) by Harry Emerson Fosdick. In the section I read this morning, Fosdick remarked that “the eternal purpose is not timed by our small clocks” so “we have to confess with Theodore Parker, ‘The trouble seems to be that God is not in a hurry and I am'” (p. 86).

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