Following · Frienemies

Reciprocity: The Foundation of Dialogical Friendships

This story is excerpted from my 2016 book Of Strangers & Enemies, pp. 165–170.

A dialogical friendship is a reciprocal relationship that is mutually life changing and life giving.

Let me unpack that sentence a little further.

A dialogical friendship gives and receives; that’s what we call reciprocity or a reciprocal relationship. This is unnatural for most of us. We are used to monological relationships in which we give but we are often not open to receiving from the other. I am always willing to tell you what I believe, but I am less often willing to hear what you believe. That’s why it’s called monological; it consists of a monologue and being willing to talk to anyone who will listen.

“A Piece of Monologue” by Jesse Cogswell Design

Monologues are a part of the fabric of our divisions: I’ll tell you what I believe. If you agree, then you’re in. If you don’t, then you’re out. We do this with so many of our beliefs that it becomes hard to imagine another way of relating when it comes to the most important things. A dialogical friendship, on the contrary, follows this model: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). Rather than seeking first to be understood, the goal of a dialogical friendship is to understand the other.

“The question [is] how to have a vertical relationship with one’s own understanding of the divine, and a horizontal relationship with the diversity of the world — in Cantwell Smith’s words, to arrive at a point where one ‘can appreciate other men’s values without losing allegiance to our own’” (Eboo Patel, Sacred Ground, 136).

So, reciprocal relationships require each person to be able to empathize with the other. Empathy is our way of getting into the shoes of other people to see things from their perspective or to seek to understand where they are and where they have come from. The key to empathy, however, is not simply the ability to get into the shoes of other people but also to sit with them where they are without trying to help them or change them.

Empathy in relationships across lines of difference means fostering the ability to see the other person as equally convinced and equally faithful to his or her way of seeing or believing. This sort of reciprocal relational empathy requires us to be with the other person in his or her beliefs and experiences without necessarily questioning or challenging him or her. Brian McLaren has cleverly called this “with-ness”. Questions may come, but the first step is to simply understand. In a reciprocal relationship, each person must be open to what the other person has to offer, while still remaining committed to the belief that informs his or her faith.

In order to be mutually life changing and mutually life giving, the friendship needs to be based upon this idea of reciprocity. We are not only giving, but we are receiving. We are not only sharing the ideas and beliefs that we feel have revolutionized our way of seeing the world, but we are also hearing those unique beliefs of our friends…A dialogical friendship will ultimately leave both friends fundamentally changed as a result and more capable of truly loving their own neighbors, strangers, and enemies.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that the fundamental prerequisite for interfaith relationships is faith (Heschel, No Religion is an Island, 125). In order to have something to offer in a dialogical relationship, each person has to come to the proverbial table with his or her own stories that inform his or her reason for believing. If we hope to understand one another, we have to first understand why it is we believe what we do, both about God and humans. If we don’t know what we believe, we don’t have much to offer. If we are focused primarily on finding common ground, we give up so much of what makes us who we are in the process.

“Moreover, at a time of paucity of faith, interfaith may become a substitute for faith, suppressing authenticity for the sake of compromise. In a world of conformity, religions can easily be leveled down to the lowest common denominator” (Heschel, No Religion is an Island, 126).

Dialogical friendships don’t deny the uniqueness of belief. Rather, they push us to be able to articulate why we believe what we do. Dialogical friendships also require us to have a theological framework for why we think the relationship is important in the first place.

So, from a Christian perspective, I believe that God desires to reconcile all human beings to himself because he has created each human being in his own image. God is not content to be estranged from his creation. In Jesus, God gave us the means to be reconciled to him, as well as the way to be reconciled with one another.

I have been given a calling to love my neighbors as I love myself.

I have been given a calling to love strangers as I love myself.

And I have been given a calling to love my enemies in the same way that God does — unconditionally and without favoritism.

I see this example played out in the life of Jesus, in his relationships with people from all sorts of religious backgrounds — the Samaritans, the Pharisees, the Gentiles, the Essenes, the Roman collaborators, and the terrorists. As the ultimate representation of what it means to be a human being, Jesus chose to love, to party, and to forgive impartially. As a Jew, Jesus brought his understanding of God and humans to each individual interaction. As I follow his example, I do the same.

Many Muslims I have interacted with share with me their belief that God created all of the various nations, even though he could have created just one nation, so that we might get to know one another (Qur’an 49:13). My friend Sara says that this is a gift from God to us, to be created in such diversity that we must learn from one another. She told me that this is precisely why she thinks that engaging in dialogical friendships is incumbent upon her as a Muslim. Coupled with this foundational belief is the example of the Prophet Muhammad.

“There is a story of the Prophet hosting a Christian delegation in Medina. The Muslims and Christians had a heated debate on the differences between their respective traditions. At one point, the Christians asked for the Prophet’s protection so they could leave the city and perform their prayers. The Prophet surprised them by inviting them into his mosque to pray, saying that just because their traditions had differences did not mean that they should not respect and show hospitality to the others’ practices (Patel, Sacred Ground, 149).”

This tradition is vitally important to helping Muslims create a theological framework for engaging in dialogical friendships across lines of difference. It seems that there is a robust framework within Islam that gives purpose to the act of being friends with both Christians and Jews.

From a Jewish perspective, there is again a scriptural precedent for reciprocal friendships to be found in the understanding that all humans are the bearers of the divine image.

“When engaged in a conversation with a person of different religious commitment I discover we disagree in matters sacred to us, does the image of God I face disappear (Heschel, No Religion, 123)?” This is a fantastic question that deserves some reflection. How often are we quick to demonize the other because of a disagreement about theology? This question, posed by a rabbi, has an implied answer in the negative. The image of God in everyone is part of the framework for Jews when it comes to engaging in relationships with religious others.

In the Talmud, the Jewish book of civil and ceremonial law, we find this: “For this reason was man created single (whereas of every other species many were created)…that there should be peace among human beings: one cannot say to his neighbor, my ancestor was nobler than thine (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 37a)”. It is easy to see the echo of this teaching in the Muslim belief that God created us so that we would get to know one another. Coupled with these concepts, there are the stories of Elisha and Naaman; Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz; Rahab the prostitute; and Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, among others, to demonstrate that the very preservation of the Jewish people relied heavily upon a theology of reciprocal relationships across lines of difference.


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