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A Review of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s FREE TO BE BOUND

Written by Chris Smith : May 26, 2008

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has two books that are being released this spring. The first of these books to hit the market is Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line. One wouldn’t know it by catching a glimpse of the title, but this is no “how to” guide to racial reconciliation. Rather, it is the story of Jonathan’s own wrestling with issues of race and faith, from his roots in rural North Carolina through his time at Eastern University in Philadelphia to the place today where he lives in Walltown – a mostly black section of Durham, NC – and worships and serves with a historically black church there. To quote John Perkins’s foreword, this book is indeed a “testimony,” in the finest sense of the word.

Jonathan guides us through the journey he has taken, which begins with the confession that he, as a child, was oblivious to the racism of his North Carolina hometown. It is only as an adult that he discovers that the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in his home county was estimated by some to be as bad as that of Mississippi or Alabama. Through his youthful political aspirations, Jonathan meets the eloquent Rev. Barber, a black preacher from another rural town in North Carolina. Their friendship sparks a relationship between their two churches, and starts the long process of opening Jonathan’s eyes to the depths of the racial divide. Jonathan continued to ponder and explore racial reconciliation, but ultimately it was the experience of a profound gift of hospitality extended to he, his wife and a few others while on a peacemaking mission to Iraq in which the Wilson-Hartgroves discerned a call to learn from “those who were supposed to be our enemies” (73-74). Jonathan and Leah followed this call to the predominantly black Walltown neighborhood of Durham, settling first just outside the neighborhood and later moving into the heart of the neighborhood.

The narrative that unfolds over the pages of Free to be Bound, suggests a direction toward the goal of racial reconciliation that is strikingly familiar. The Apostle Paul in writing to the Philippian church, encourages his readers to follow in the way of Jesus:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (2:5-8 NASB)

In a similar way, one can read the Wilson-Hartgroves’ story as one of emptying themselves of the comforts of white privilege and immersing themselves in the black church. Although Jonathan is quick to admit that they have a long way to go on this journey toward seeing the reconciliation of all people, the course that they have taken is particularly poignant because of its resemblance to the way of Jesus and because of its honesty in confronting the depths of our own racial sin (as well of that of those who have gone before us). It seems that other possible trajectories – e.g., inviting blacks into a white church or trying to engineer a multi-racial church – are prone to what Jonathan calls the “tragedy of our public life in America” : i.e., “that we have tried to move beyond a history of racial injustice without accounting for how race made us who we are” (180).

Although Jonathan’s narrative provides a solid backbone for the book, Free to be Bound should not be dismissed as merely memoir. Jonathan fleshes out his own story by reflecting on writings from black history, black theology and black literature. His honesty about the difficulties of crossing the racial divide is refreshing, and his examinations of his own experiences in light of the Scriptures raise perhaps more questions that they answer. For instance, near the end of the book, Jonathan ponders the implications of churches’ adoption of the American, melting-pot variety of multiculturalism, in which diversity can be maintained by uniting under the prevailing narratives of patriotism and capitalism. When churches embrace this sort of multiculturalism, Jonathan wonders, are they selling out to “the powers that would unite us in middle-class rationality against the global poor” (182)?

Overall, Free to be Bound is a very readable and very challenging story of racial reconciliation in the church. From his experiences, as recorded here, Jonathan knows the pains and struggles of pursuing God’s call to be ambassadors of racial reconciliation, and yet he hopes unwaveringly in God’s promise of reconciliation. He concludes the book:

We do not have a blue print for what a new world of peaceful and just relationships with one another will look like. We do not know for sure how we will survive in a world yet conditioned by the logic of race. But we know that the only place where we will have the power to figure these things out is in the resurrected body of Jesus. And He is going ahead of us into Galilee. So, we follow the lead of the women – Mary, Mary and Salome – and chase after God’s new world, assured that our identity as disciples offers us a better hope than the cultural identities that we are leaving behind (192).

May we truly hear the words of Jonathan’s story, and may God transform our hearts!

Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Paperback. NavPress. 2008.

Author Bio:: Chris Smith is a part of the Englewood Christian Church community in Indianapolis and an editor for Doulos Christou Press. He is the author of WATER, FAITH AND WOOD: STORIES OF THE EARLY CHURCH’S WITNESS FOR TODAY has compiled the INTRODUCTORY BIBLIOGRAPHY OF THE NEW MONASTICISM.




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    This book is waiting on my bedside table (unfortunately, under quite a stack of others who were first in line...). I bought it the week it came out, because I had heard Jonathan speak on this topic last fall at the Christian Community Development Association conference and I wanted to play my part in boosting his first week sales (Yes, I wanted to contribute to the consumerist hoopla... albeit, for a worthy cause). Thank you for the review ~ I am looking forward to a good read.

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