How friendship saves the world

Apr 1, 2014 by

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When you try to make friendships at the margins you can quickly become overwhelmed by the needs and brokenness of others.

I don’t know how I can solve the problems of many of my friends. The issues are daunting. Chronic poverty. Drug addiction. Mental illness. Physical disability. Cognitive disability.

I can’t fix it or make it go away. But I can be a sacrament. I can be sign of love, a sign of life. I can be a friend. In a cruel and inhumane world I can be a location of kindness.

Before various church audiences I’ve described this as “sacramental friendship,” calling them to form friendships across the socioeconomic spectrum. The focus of this call is upon relationality — walking alongside others in friendship — rather than starting up “a program” to “address” poverty.

And to be clear, such programs are needed, but what I find lacking in many churches is friendship, a face-to-face, first-name-basis relationality between rich and poor. In many churches, programs abound but there is too little friendship.

This call for friendship is easier than starting up a poverty program at the church in that you don’t have to save the world. You don’t have to eradicate world poverty. You just have to be a friend.

To be sure, you’ll be faced with issues regarding material want. But the needs of your friends will be expressed within a relational context. And because of the friendship you’ll be able to discern the legitimacy of the requests and, given your knowledge of your friend, how best to respond. And most importantly, the situation will be reciprocal. Your friend will be giving to you as well. Perhaps not materially, but there will be life-giving exchanges flowing back and forth.

But being a friend can also be very hard. Your life will get messier. You’ll have to struggle with how best to help your friend and those decisions can be heart breaking at times. Volunteering a few hours at the food pantry or sponsoring a child in Africa is a whole lot easier and cleaner than making friends and opening up your life to the needs, demands and sin of others. To say nothing of how your needs, wants and sins will affect them.

You can’t alleviate poverty but you can be friends with the poor. But, some wonder, doesn’t that just leave the status quo intact? Should we not do more than be friends?

Yes. So let’s not set up a false dichotomy. In speaking about sacramental friendships I’m not asking people to choose one thing over another. We must do both.

And yet, I do think sacramental friendships can lift people out of poverty. It might seem that you are “just being friends” but that friendship can, in many ways, be a ladder out of poverty.

And it has to do with the strength of weak ties.

Recent studies about chronic poverty have revealed one of the biggest factors related to poverty is concentrated poverty. When people live in concentrated poverty, where the poor are living only amongst the poor, they have a much harder time escaping the poverty trap.

Why is that? Many things come to mind. We might talk about the role of culture, norms, mentors and role models. But another key part to this has to do with the erosion of social support. In generations past the community was your insurance policy should anything traumatic happen to you. From a family death to the loss of a crop to a barn burning down. People and family would rally around you, supporting you through a difficult time.

But these cultural supports have largely vanished. For both rich and poor. The only difference is that the rich can purchase a safety net. They can buy homes and insurance. They can have investments and savings accounts. They can move to another city and another job.

So to be clear, I don’t want to lament a decline in cultural and family values and then put that decline solely on the poor. The decline cuts across socioeconomic status. It’s just that the rich have been able to insulate themselves from the historic erosion of familial and social mutuality. The rich can be self-sufficient. Thus, the social decline in America has fallen hardest on the poor.

But it’s not just that the poor have lost the “social safety net.” The poor, especially in locations of concentrated poverty, also lack a diverse web of friendships that can support them and help lift them out of poverty. In areas of concentrated poverty the poor lack what has been called the strength of weak ties.

The strength of weak ties goes back to a seminal article written by Mark Granovetter in 1973 entitled “The Strength of Weak Ties”.

One of the things Granovetter looked at in his article was how college graduates found jobs after graduation. Granovetter noticed that graduates did not find jobs through their close friendships (strong ties). Rather, jobs were located more through acquaintances or distant family relationships (weak ties). The reason for this, Granovetter noted, is that our close friendships (our strong ties) are often tightly connected bundles of sameness. Thus, trying to rely upon your close friends for help in finding a job is ineffective as close friends tend to already know all the same people. Strong ties don’t help you break out of your social niche and location. To be sure strong ties are vital in getting through life. We all need a close group of friends to lean on. But close groups of friends can also be limiting in their insularity.

According to Granovetter, what helps us escape the insularity of the close friendship group is the weak tie, the acquaintance or distant relative. These ties are weak but they help you escape your social world and cover a lot of social territory very, very quickly. Which is just what you need during a job search. You need lots of leads in lots of different places. Friends often can’t help you with that, but their weak ties can.

I hope you can see how in areas of concentrated poverty there would be a scarcity of weak ties. Even if the poor in a neighborhood did rally to each other in times of need — and they do do this in ways the rich do not — they lack the rich and diverse social relationships–the weak ties–that can help each other escape poverty.

And this brings us back to sacramental friendships.

On the surface we might think that “just being friends” isn’t doing anything to help lift a person out of poverty. But what we fail to notice, particularly in locations of concentrated poverty, is that the sacramental friendship is enriching the social web. The number of weak ties has been increased. And these weak ties may be the very resource the person most needs.

To be concrete about it, you bring more than yourself into the friendship. You bring everyone else you know. Bluntly, you might not be able to help this person in a particular situation but you might know someone else who can.

Jana and I have lots of friendships at the margins because of a church plant we worship with. And by and large these friendships are sacramental. We’ve not eradicated poverty or homelessness, but we walk alongside those who are homeless and poor. And while this has been an amazing and life-giving blessing, this situation can feel fairly static and futile at times.

But we have a friend who doesn’t have any teeth. And this poses a suite of issues for our friend. Specifically, it can affect employment prospects.

Because of our friendship we’ve heard the prayers of this friend for some new teeth. Trouble is, Jana and I aren’t dentists. And a set of new teeth is thousands and thousands of dollars.

But Jana has a weak tie with our dentist. Our dentist was a former high school student of Jana’s many, many years ago. That’s not a huge connection, but it’s enough of a weak tie that at her next dental appointment Jana shared the plight of our friend. And our dentist responded, offering to do the work at cost, getting us down to hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.

And so we are getting our friend some new teeth. Jana couldn’t help directly, but Jana had a weak tie to a person who could.

Again, the gift you bring isn’t yourself, the gift you bring is who you know.

Lifelines and connections that are lacking in locations of concentrated poverty.

We tend to think that it’s our job to save the world. But maybe it’s not you or I who saves the world but the people we know. Or the people those people know.

Maybe what saves the world isn’t lone rangers of social justice. Maybe what saves the world is relationships, rich webs of social connections.

Maybe friendship saves the world.

Our friendship, and the friendship of our friends.

Richard Beck is professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality. Richard’s area of interest — be it research, writing or blogging — is on the interface of Christian theology and psychology, with a particular focus on how existential issues affect Christian belief and practice. Richard’s published research covers topics as diverse as the psychology of profanity to why Christian bookstore art is so bad. He blogs at Experimental Theology, where this post originally appeared. 

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