We expect a theophany of which we know nothing but the place, and the place is called community
Those words by Martin Buber, from Between Man and Men, serve as the epigraph for an essay titled A Place Called Community, the fourth chapter of the recently revised new edition of Parker Palmer's 1980 book The Promise of Paradox
Recently I have been thinking lot about community, especially about this community, as once again we have people offering angry explanations about why they are leaving it. Once again - we went through that in each of the two recent primary seasons.
At the same time we see examples of things which bring this community together - the various quilt diaries, offerings of thanks from members well known and until then barely known. We have parts of this community that come together for common tasks - IGTNT, Feeding America, and the other diary series that are a key part of the larger community for many.
The subtitle of Palmer's books is "A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life" but the words he offers on community are more broadly applicable. Today I would like to invite you to keep reading as I share some of them.
On page 74, Palmer begins a section labeled The Politics of Community like this:
The finest form of personal therapy is to build community, and building community is the finest form of politics So community is a place where therapy and politics meet, a place where the health of the individual and the health of the group are recognized as the reciprocal realities they are.
At the time Palmer wrote those words, he and his family were living in an intentional community, Pendle Hill in Wallingford PA, which is a Quaker study and retreat center It is named after the place in Lancashire where in 1652 George Fox claim to have a vision which greatly influenced him and the new Religious Society of Friends which he led. Palmer was a trained Ph.D. sociologist who had also worked as a community organizer.
I read those words and immediately recognize myself. This community has been a place where I have healed parts of my soul by my engaging with other people. We do so for political purposes, but those political purposes would not be as possible were this merely a website.
The loneliness of people in a mass society is a measure of their political impotence, and given that impotence, that inability to act together, the step from mass society to totalitarianism is a short one. . . As true community begins to wither in a democracy, so does the quality of democracy itself. (p. 75)
For some here, in whose geographical communities they find few of like minds, the existence of this largely virtual community is part of what keeps them from feeling totally alone and isolated. It empowers them to work on behalf of values that may seem scorned where they are, and in the process discover others of like minds, some nearby, some with whom the connection will only be through electronic means. They cease to feel impotent and are able to resist the move towards totalitarianism within their immediate surroundings and together within the larger society of which we are all apart. It is one reason we tolerate a great deal of disagreement - sometimes heated - among our members, because we know that in a democracy we will NOT always agree, even on things of great importance.
Community is a precondition of a democratic politics, and the building and maintaining of community is an essential prepolitical task. (p. 76)
prepolitical - before we can act effectively politically we must find a way of working with and among others who share our beliefs, or who can be persuaded thereto. Our First Amendment guarantees us not only the right to free expression through press and speech, but also the right to assemble together for common purpose, then to petition to change our society and our government. We have those rights, and so do those against whom we content in the marketplace of ideas.
Some of our political opponents wish to exclude those who think or express differently, who adhere to different or no religious beliefs, whose skin color or sexual orientation is different than theirs. We should not, because ultimately the community we seek is broad-based, or we would not be in this virtual sub-community. But we still have much to learn about community, as Palmer notes on p. 77:
The politics and economics of community are fundamental, and until we understand their full implications, our image of community will continue to be romantic and irrelevant. Community means more than the comfort of souls. It means, and has always meant, the survival of the species.
Ponder those words for a moment. the survival of the species - certainly our concern with the degradation of the physical world through human selfishness, greed, and refusal to accept science is a part of it. But it something beyond mere physical survival, of our habitat or of the species of which we are exemplars. It is a survival of soul, of dreams, of hope, which is one reason so many - here and in the larger American community of which we are but a small part - responded so strongly to the presidential campaign in 2008. It is also why the reaction to what appears the failure of that hope has struck some so hard, even as others attempt to persuade us not to consider only the negative but to recognize what positive changes have occurred.
Perhaps. It is never fair to judge anyone by either their greatest achievement nor their worst failure. Certainly I do not live up to the highest aspirations for my own actions, and, as I periodically mention here, the most meaningful words I know from the tales of the earliest Christian monks were those of the master who answered his novice's question about what they did in the desert which was the location of their spiritual community, We fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up, we fall, we pick ourselves up.
Palmer warns us about the dangers of false community, writing on p. 78
The most notable example of false community is the totalitarian society that emerges as the community declines. In the midst of mass loneliness, people yearn to identify with something larger than themselves, something that can redeem their lives from insignificance. This yearning runs so deep that even the appearance of community will feed it, so totalitarianism always presents itself as a communal feast for the masses, garnished with mythic meaning. What was Nazi Germany except a demonic form of community life? What is an brand of nationalism or racism except the archetype of community run amok?
On the following page he adds
False communities tend to be homogenous, exclusive, and divisive, while true communities strive to unite persons across lines of diversity. We should be suspicious of any "community" that forms too quickly and too easily. It is likely to depend on preexisting social categories that make not for community but for commonality - and commonality does not nurture the human growth and expansiveness that true community provides.
This community preexist my arrival here near the end of 2004 by more than a year. At the time of my joining I became UID 4334, preceded by a few numbers by sheba and immediately followed by slinkerwink. Now we approach 300,000 registered members. Some come but do not really participate. Others fade away over time, and some leave in anger and in hurt. The community is not, even today, fully defined, and is subject to respond to the concerns and expressions of new members. It is, despite some recent complaints, nothing approaching a totalitarian entity. We can and do have dueling recommended diaries. We allow strong expressions but ask for mutual respect, so that as a community we can build and go to the larger community with respect, with the ability to influence in a positive way. Palmer warns us on page 82 that we must in any community think beyond ourselves:
People who come into community, Christian or otherwise, with only their "dream wish" will soon leave - hurt, resentful, and probably lost to the cause of community building. But those who can survive the dissolution of their dream and the abrasion of their egos will find that the truth of community is richer and more supportive than fantasy can ever be. For in community, one learns that the solitary self is not an adequate measure of reality, that we can begin to know the fullness of truth only through multiple visions.
through multiple visions - is not that the real beauty of this place, that we have such a multiplicity not only of visions but also of experiences that we share with one another? Is not that how for many of us we escape from the isolation of our own thoughts and perceptions and begins to grasp possibilities - for ourselves, our families, and our geographical communities - beyond those we had previously imagined?
Our families . . let me use more of Palmer's words, from p. 86:
That the family can be a model of great power seems clear. For example, many of us find it impossible to imagine a form of community in which each contributes according to ability and receives according to need, a community with a common pot built up by those who can and drawn down by those who must. Yet wage earners in strong families have no question that a child or a spouse who earns no money has full claim on his or her resources. We might reach toward larger expressions of community by asking how to expand our sense of who belongs to "our family."
Here some post diaries, some mainly or only comment, others draw from what they read as lurkers. Our words are one form of how we add to the common pot. In that case, what someone draws out does not diminish what remains for the rest of us.
But we go further. There are our quilts. There are those who offer from their assets to those who otherwise might hurt. Recently noweasels thanked this community for how its members responded to her in a time of need - follow that link if you have not already read her words. I have mentioned how when I was not certain I could justify the expense of going to Pittsburgh in 2009 one person offered to pay all my expenses and another offered me the use of her home, even though I had never met either one. Hopefully our generosity of spirit goes beyond this community to the other communities in which we participate. That is also part of how we begin to change the society to a healthier shape, one which breaks down those things that isolate, that cause some loneliness, that can leave some vulnerable to the political snake-oil salesmen who seek only their own power and self-aggrandizement, whose vision of superiority can only be obtained by demeaning and diminishing others.
The health of our neighborhoods is fundamental to the health of the larger body politics: without local forms of community, it is impossible for representative democracy to exist. In political terms, neighborhoods are not a nicety. They are a locus and source of citizenship, a wellspring of feelings of relatedness, responsibility, and efficacy. The political impotence so many people feel today is directly related to the failure of local community: how can one hope to influence the course of a nation if one has no microcosm in which to exercise political muscle?
I had a mixed reaction when I read these words from p. 87. I understand the intent of Palmer's words, and as one who has served on the board of my community association I can see their applicability in the frame in which they are presented. And yet we are presented with a different concept of neighborhood, one that expands beyond the immediate geographical surroundings in which we find ourselves.
I do not think that different concept is something completely new, nor is it merely a product of technology, of our ability to reach out and communicate by electronic means, although that is something important in my life - I currently serve on the steering committees of two organizations of teachers nationwide trying to make a difference in the direction of educational policy. I have met on a face to face basis only 2 of the other people on either of those committees, yet consider some among my dearest companions in our common effort, just as I felt close to many here before I ever knew what they looked like or the sound of their voices.
I am too much of a student of history to think what we do is entirely new. After all, parts of the American Revolution were organized via correspondences. Like-minded communities sometimes begin because people have a common reaction to something they read, and actively seek out others to begin the process of organizing.
Palmer is correct that for the vast majority of us we begin to overcome our fears and our sense of impotence when we can organize and work on a smaller scale. I think that is also true of this community. For some, it has been the experience of reading about the efforts of others, or hearing at one of the conventions of the possibility of actions within their power, perhaps running for local political office or school boards, or becoming part of the Democratic Party organization in their communities or their states.
I have often in my life sought community. I have felt myself something of an outsider in life. Like Palmer, I am prone to depression. Like him as well, I tend to reflect a great deal, sometimes in my case at the expense of physical action. Although I finally met him physically only recently, his thinking has been a part of my own for a number of years, helping challenge me from inertia, encouraging me to take risks in my own activities, especially my teaching.
My teaching. My main activity of community. It is not just the actions I do within my classroom and my school. For better or worse I have some facility with words, at least sufficient to help others understand the reality of life in a classroom, not merely for those paid to be there but for many of the young people who pass through our care.
Some have said my writing here is a form of teaching. Perhaps. But many teachers will tell you that the task of teaching is one of constant learning. It is a path of ongoing taking of risks, of exploring beyond the limits of safety, and thereby challenging oneself to grow more. My teenagers can take apart what I might present, even if I am supposed to be the 'expert' presenting them with the "received knowledge." What I present has meaning only insofar as those encountering it can connect it with themselves, with their own lives and experience. That is true in my classroom, it is true here. In teaching I can at best model the process of learning, and that must include the willingness to learn from those ostensibly my students. Here I may post a diary that begins a discussion, but the most important lesson may come from a comment posted in response, just as in my classroom the most important lesson may come from a student who is provoked to speak because the process has been initiated.
Community. At the first two conventions, still called YearlyKos, Markos would say that all he did was build a website. Not true. He may have put up the website, but he also created a space that he did not seek to control by fiat, that allowed for the development of something larger, something that has increasingly become a community of choice for many, and in some cases a form of family.
We can all learn from that. Do our actions, here and elsewhere, similarly provide an opening for a deeper sense of community to develop? If not, why not?
I have been thinking much of community. I have several times in my life seriously explored joining monastic communities, in the US and in Greece. In both cases I was told I would be welcome, that I could make a good monk. In both cases people wiser than me gently suggested that my life might have more meaning for myself and for others in a different form of community.
I am married. That is my most basic community, and the one with which I struggle the most, for in it my own failings are so glaring, so evident, that any sense of arrogance to which I might be tempted are easily demolished. That is important. What is at least equally important is the sense of sustenance, because within that community I know I am accepted, even with my own myriad faults. I know I am loved. This is beyond the romantic love with which our relationship began more than 36 years ago, and whose formalization we will celebrate on a 25th anniversary at the end of this month. At times I want to be selfish, to draw in the boundaries and be by ourselves. But each of us is drawn to take what we have to larger communities - of family, of professional associates, of our separate religious communities, of those we encounter not merely face to face but through reading and writing, through correspondence on paper and electronically.
I suggest that the same is true for our participation in this community. At least it is for me. I benefit greatly from my participation here, even if at times it is to merely read the words of others. That becomes part of what I do in the other communities in which I participate. Like my marriage in part, like my faith community in part, this place is one that stretches me, supports me, challenges me, comforts me, and makes it clear to me that I am a part of something far larger than myself, whether of my most grandiose dreams or my worst fears of failure. It reminds me of my interconnectedness with, and thus my responsibility to and for, the rest of humanity.
Walk gladly across the earth answering that of God in each person I meet. That is my challenge. It is, as my wife notes, probably my most basic mantra. I sometimes forget, in this community and elsewhere. I sometimes look only at the actions or the words that upset me, and forget That of God in the person with whom I am in disagreement, whether it is by cursing under my breath when he cuts me off on the highway, or allowing disappointment to color my actions towards a student who yet again has failed to do her work, or in resorting to snark and sarcasm towards someone in an exchange here.
Walk gladly - even if worried to tears about the future.
Answering that of God - even if those three letters G-O-D are irrelevant to that person's self conception and world view, it is still a mindset of valuing every person.
Just a few thoughts on a Saturday morning, shared from the work of a man who has had a profound influence on my own thinking and my own life.