Abbey Church at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota.
I’m just back from three days at the monastery with a working group on community-pastors, scholars, monastics and new monastics trying to understand what it is we mean when we say we want “community” and how this desire is cultivated and directed toward the common good in our society. One of my great heroes in the American pursuit of beloved community is Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement with Dorothy Day. He was a street teacher who distilled his message into “easy essays.” I’m not sure this is yet 100 proof (as we say in NC moonshine country), but I tried to do a little distilling of what we discussed in our time together.
Toward a Definition of Community
Community is not the crowd where we are together without being known (though a crowd is fine-unless it becomes a mob).
It’s not the club where we commit without encumbrance (though a club is fine-unless it becomes a clique).
Neither is it the clan where we find safety in shared history (though one’s clan is fine, too-unless it becomes a gang… or a military superpower).
Beloved community is, instead, that fellowship in which we know ourselves as we are known in mutual dependence.
It is the membership in which we learn to take responsibility for our future in mutual accountability.
It is the circle of trust in which we know our flourishing depends upon mutual welcome.
When a scribe asks Jesus which commandment is the first of all, think what he is after. Not in this story is he testing Jesus; that was Matthew’s theme when telling this story, because Matthew wanted to show how the religious officials feared and hated Jesus. Mark’s story is simpler. This scribe admires Jesus. He wants to learn from Jesus how all truth is organized. What is the first good? What is the purpose of reality?
This scribe is engaged in the quest that has animated all our forebears. We want to understand the cause and the meaning of our existence. The philosophers of science in ancient Greece peeled back the multitude of sensations trying to comprehend physics through the four elements earth, air, fire, and water. They invented the word “atom” to refer to the smallest indivisible component of any object. Aristotle put the pursuit of happiness at the pinnacle of human motivation. According to Luke, the Greeks in Athens were daily in the quest for unified meaning. We can hardly credit Luke with an open mind as he dismisses all the Athenians and the foreigners there as “spending their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” Perhaps Paul too thought them ignorant, but nevertheless he praised them for their hungering after an “unknown God.” Astrologers of ancient times sought one truth through the stars. In medieval times, the search for the Holy Grail captured the imagination of Europeans seeking that one thing above all. In our day, and for a century now, quantum physicists look for a “unified field theory,” a single, elegant explanation for all the forces at work in the physical universe. Every love song, sad or glad, is searching for the true one.
A long long time ago, I stayed two months with a commune in Copenhagen whose members aspired to hold all things in common and to decide all matters together, much like the practice in the earliest church, according to Acts 4. At the commune, holding things in common meant that one morning, my belt and jeans showed up on someone else’s body. That was nothing important. After a while, however, I noticed that access to the best clothes and money and critical decisions was retained by the three members who had the greatest personal appeal and energy. Political intentions notwithstanding, only these three had real power, yet no one was bold to disturb the communitarian experiment with serious political reflection. Being one did not work there and the commune soon broke up.
A few years later, I served as communications coordinator for a liberal non-profit organization whose membership aimed to decide everything by consensus. Far from strengthening the voice of the people, however, the pretense of arriving at consensus actually shut speech down. Emotionally needy members sucked all the time and oxygen out of a meeting, but no means existed for the body to hold them to account. No vote could say “Stop!” More-balanced members ceased discussing things altogether, hoping to get the meetings over with. The principle of majority rule would have better served the value of free speech; as it was, unity eluded them. “One” did not work.
As I prepared to enter the NC Legislature last Monday with hundreds of fellow citizens who are deeply concerned about how policies coming out of our General Assembly are harming our most vulnerable neighbors, I was glad to see Leigh Bordley, a member of our school board in Durham. I’m grateful for the work she’s doing for all kids in Durham (including mine). But I was moved by her testimony about why she, as a Christian, knew she had to go to Raleigh for Moral Monday.
When a friend of mine told me about her experience of being arrested on May 13th, it was the push I needed to do the same thing. I had read about the Moral Monday protests and intended to go – but in a general, amorphous way. Once I talked to my friend, I made a plan to go the following Monday. I was eager to go express my disappointment and outrage about the bills being proposed and passed in the General Assembly. I am blessed to have representatives there who represent my views; the only downside to this is that I have no one to complain to or try to sway when legislation I don’t agree with is being considered. Participating in the demonstration was one way to have my voice heard and at least be a warm body that could be put in jail.
Have you ever had to reinvent yourself? I have. I am sure that many of you have. The phrase has a peculiarly American flavor, as if oneself were the hero of the whole project – designer, director, and finished product. But re-invention is just a phrase; the experience to which it refers has always belonged to the human predicament. Of such is the story of Arjuna – Odysseus – Jacob – Job – Jesus in the wilderness – Jesus before the Cross. Re-invention comes to this. Your hopes and values, your skills and habits prove inadequate to the present situation. Something’s got to give. As we have said here before, when facing great loss, the options before us are two: either misery, or spiritual growth; either despair, or a possibility.
An identity crisis so absolute has faced me in the aftermath of a divorce; in having career plans dashed; and more. On Memorial Day, countless wives and mothers and fathers, and now husbands too, remember the rupture in oneself brought by the news of a beloved soldier’s death. If the term “re-inventing yourself” is not altogether wrong, that is because we do not passively undergo an automatic transformation to new skills, new commitments, new values and hopes. These do not comes as butterfly wings come upon a caterpillar, or birth to a baby. No, one who commits herself to herself when all seems blocked, one who then swears loyalty to her own being, come what may, change what must, that one chooses to stand somehow on God’s side of life, where there comes into view a door not seen before, and a key.
Memorial Day is a day of gratitude, memory, and faith.
The first Memorial Day was a day when freed slaves in South Carolina exhumed bodies of Union soldiers from a mass grave to bury them individually. It was an act of respect and thanks. Black hands executed an ancient African spiritual imperative to honor the dead, to decorate their graves, to remember their names and deeds. Theirs was a cosmology and a definition of community that survived the unspeakable horror of the Middle Passage and the dehumanizing intent of slavery, an understanding that the community is composed of the not-yet-born, the living, and the dead remembered. When the work of reburial was done, the occasion was made sacred with sermons, singing, and a picnic.
Today Memorial Day is one of the high holy days of the American civil religion. We pause to honor, with gratitude and with memory, those who have given their lives in service to their country. And, along with the solemn ceremonies, we fire-up our family grills, making offering of worship and devotion to the gods. Lady Liberty, Blind Justice, the Goddess Columbia, Nature and Nature’s God enjoy the sweet savor of meat and fish and a variety of vegetables cooking over smoke and flame. We gather with friends and family to eat and drink, to tell tall tales, to enjoy each other’s company and to celebrate the de-facto beginning of summer. Some of us who live near the ocean will go “down the shore” to keep traditions of summer fun alive.
The gods of the nation are pleased. Their favor, however, is a dangerous idolatrous thing because they require blood sacrifice, or at least they live because women and men are willing to sacrifice themselves and their children for the sake of the nation. Idols require blood and tears because they have none of their own. Warriors die for love of country, but the country cannot love them back. Only human beings can love other human beings in return. Only a God that is Divine Love itself can love in return.
Since Easter, we have worked with the great challenge of our times, the news that climate change will bring no more normal now – that everything will change, and we must change. Our species has no experience with demands so implacable. Our whole world view – religious, philosophical and political – along with all other world views, evolved on a hospitable planet and presumes such. But that simple presumption of earth’s hospitality has been shattered by our own actions, however unwittingly. Therefore, our religion faces a test unlike any previous: Is our faith able to help us adapt and adopt a world view and habits adequate to a world waiting to be born? Why, just yesterday, Columbia Univ. professor James Hanson, retired head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, was speaking to lawmakers in London. He told them that if the tar sands in Canada and other lands are exploited “to a significant extent,” then the problem of climate change will be “unsolvable.” Yet like an alcoholic, the nations belly up to the barrel and tell the baron of oil, “Break open another!” If in this crisis, our religion is not part of the solution, then what we do each Sunday is part of the addiction.
Certainly, religious life has been key in crises before. We could tell the stories for hours, but let Moses speak for them all. “I call hot heaven and a warming earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” But before the faithful get to work on themselves and their situation, the people must first confront the basic predicament of society. We just don’t agree. Unlike the animals, we come to our crises with separate consciences and separate aims, which cannot be coerced; with separate fears and separate gifts for living with our fears.
Ten years ago, when we were starting a little community in Durham, NC, that wanted to take Jesus and justice seriously, we went every year to the annual conference of the Christian Community Development Association. Back then, a long weekend with two thousand people who were walking the same journey felt like an oasis. We never missed it.
About that time, Charles Marsh, a great theologian and historian at the University of Virginia, published his book The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. With good research and compelling story-telling, Marsh connected the dots between Martin Luther King, Koinonia Farm, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and CCDA. What happened to the civil rights movement after 1968, Marsh asked? It didn’t die. It went underground, off the radar, and continued doing the long hard work that thousands of faithful souls had been doing before 1955.
A film from 2010 by Danish director Lars von Trier received little notice then, but I hear of it more and more now. It is called Melancholia. A heavenly body – far bigger than an asteroid – has appeared in the night sky. It seems more beautiful than the moon – but is it moving? How? Will it fly by Earth? Will it . . . ? Can people deny the evidence of its approach? The film’s sole subject is a wealthy family living on an elegant country estate, reacting to this approaching orb, one in this way, another in that.
It would be too small to say the film is about global warming. Rather, the film evokes silence for a question of absolute urgency: How do we meet the news that there is no more normal now – that everything will change, that we must change; not just our person, but our civilization must change; and with it every connection, every living system? How to meet that news?
When the subject is climate change, some of us wonder, Why worry about a far-off threat that doesn’t affect us where we live? Has the preacher already forgotten about mass incarceration and stop+frisk? About immigration abuses and the need for education and health care delivery right here in this community? Others of us feel overwhelmed. Climate change is just too big – like that planet coming in the skies of Melancholia. It is news we can’t use in the pews! What can we do? These responses are normal.
Nothing is as beautiful as union and unity of mind. Nothing compares with being one – provided each individual is honored and respected. Each individual! Inside that little word, you can hear the matchless value it declares – undividable, must-not-be-broken, I am somebody, an individual. Yet individuals long to be not set apart. We seek unity, community, love, peace – a new heaven and a new earth. The matchless value in the hearts of all peoples in all times is that we may be one. E pluribus unum, reads the Great Seal of the USA: “Out of many, one.” To preserve the integrity of each and the unity of the one – this is hard. It is what makes life hard in our very imperfect nation. It is what makes life hard in our very imperfect church – hard for the one deep reason, that we long to be our self, and we long to be together. And we want both now, because time is short. Every love song, every national anthem, every hymn to God, every I have a dream! is woven from the wondrous deep wish that each one be one, and that all may be one. All the promises of God revealed to us through our faith aim for peace along this path. Christians call it the way of the Cross.
But we cannot get to unity through our longings. We are too disordered by our own worries. Therefore, profound experiences of joined humanity usually come only in the face of mortal danger. We have seen it in Boston these last days, both in the vast cooperation of the citizenry to apprehend the bombers and in the sudden joy spilling into the streets to thank the authorities after the manhunt was over. When the murderous mayhem at Newtown still stunned our spirits, we experienced a depth of unity – but last week, disunity and party spirit ruled in Washington as the power of the people to join in unified action against gun violence was shattered. In the aftermath of natural disasters like Sandy, the beauty of community builds up. If a terrible war ends, the victors, though not the vanquished, join in joy. Thus danger and release from danger unify those who see the same danger.