As a religious leader in Memphis, what do you want to say to the community about the subject of race?
In his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam writes about two kinds of relationships: bonding and bridging.[i] Bonding refers to relationships built between people who are similar to each other. Bridging refers to relationships built between people who are dissimilar to one another. Putnam argues that both bonding and bridging are necessary for a healthy society.
For many of us, bonding comes easily. Bridging, however, does not: “The problem is that bridging social capital is harder to create than bonding social capital—after all, birds of a feather flock together. So the kind of social capital that is most essential for healthy public life in an increasingly diverse society like ours is precisely the kind that is hardest to build.”[ii] The kind of relationship essential for vigorous public life is precisely the kind hardest to build. Bridging is what we seem to fail at most quickly. That’s partly why our public and private schools, neighborhoods and congregations remain segregated and why racial tension remains prevalent in places like Memphis. We can bond. But we can’t seem to bridge.
The solution, according to authors Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren is a “contrast society.”[iii] A contrast society is a community which gives the watching world a vision for something different. If people experience racism, intolerance, and division in the world, the contrast society offers acceptance, tolerance, and unity. If bridging is rare in the world, in the contrast society it’s common. And like leaven in yeast, the tiny contrast community begins to affect the larger society.
What Memphis needs more of are these contrast communities.
But how do we build them? What gives life to them?
As unexciting and “unproductive” as it may sound, they begin with prayer. Facing the hour of his death at the hands of an intolerant and hate-filled world, Jesus prays for the birth of a contrast society: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (Jn. 17:20-23 ESV emphasis added)
Jesus says there’s one thing that’ll convince a watching world that God exists—a community in which people experience the kind of intimacy with each other that the Son experiences with the Father. In a world characterized by bigotry and prejudice, the existence of a community where acceptance and charity reign is the ultimate apologetic. Why? Because only God could bring such a society about.
Thus, Jesus prays. He prays for what seems humanly impossible but what remains divinely possible. He prays against the qualities that dominate far too many hearts across the globe. He begs for the creation of a society where bonding and bridging flow like the mighty Mississippi.
It begins in prayer.
Marc Cohn reminded us this when he sang, “Walking in Memphis.” At one point Cohn remarked, “They’ve got catfish on the table/ They’ve got gospel in the air/ And Reverend Green be glad to see you/ When you haven’t got a prayer.” The image of someone who is glad to see you when you haven’t got a prayer. That’s a contrast community. Cohn imagined Memphis as a contrast community. And he ended with this line: “But boy you’ve got a prayer in Memphis.”
At times, especially in Memphis, it can seem like unity and love don’t have a prayer. But they do. Boy do they have a prayer! They’ve got the prayers of Jesus.
But let’s not let it stop there. Let’s give them our prayers as well. Let’s pray for Memphis to be peppered with little groups and gatherings in which bonding and bridging are as common as breathing and eating.
And while we’re at it, let’s also ask that we might become the answer to those prayers. It only takes two to make a contrast community. Let’s pray for it to begin with us
Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone
(Touchstone Books, 2001), 22-23.
[ii] Robert Putnam, Lewis Feldstein and Donald J. Cohen, Better Together (Simon & Schuster, 2004), 3.
[iii] Alan Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren , Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (Allelon Missional Series) (Baker Books, 2009).