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| 1 Introduction
'Community' is a positive power-word. Almost everyone who uses it is seeking to celebrate or claim access to something secure, something that is earthed, real or ideal, a basic building-block of human existence. This search for security is also often called the search for belonging.
In this article I want to get a bit clearer about:
I will be reflecting mainly on the tension between community and institution, with some reference also to friendship as a model for security and belonging. The models of family and marriage will be discussed in another article.
2 Friendship and 'being real'
What does friendship contribute to our security and belonging, or to forgiveness? A friend seems to feel free enough, in relation to a wrongdoer, to not dwell on the wrong but be there to encourage, prompt, stimulate, suggest, reflect back about whatever new paths might be opening, and to empower as much as he or she is able. Christian psychiatrist and marriage counsellor Paul Tournier had a friend going through a divorce. He did not want to hide from his friend that he thought the divorce was wrong, but said:
So a friend is (relatively) free to initiate forgiveness. Is this the same as a support group? Sandra Bullock opened up to a rehab group in Arizona as part of her research for the movie 28 days, and said it was a life-changing experience for her. She said how free strangers were, and how freeing. Jordan Riefe (Planet Syndication / The Big Issue 15 June 2000) interviewed her about the film, and writes:
There is truth in Bullocks comments about losing people. By being owned my friend the friend can also become a possession (in part) and therefore less free. 'My' friend, to whom I can turn. Being there, day or night. I want my friend to be positive, affirming, encouraging.
But friendships can also develop and mature, because they point us to one of the central qualities in being alive at all. Unlike therapeutic relationships, however deep, friendship is not about the wrong or the problem. A friend is someone I learn from, am inspired by, who brings a unique life before me as I do to him or her, who changes the subject and takes me out of myself. Jurgen Moltmann puts it like this:
The freedom a friend brings is not just to help me through my problems, but to live a larger and more multi-coloured life. And happily sometimes a member of a support group can develop into a friend pretty quickly as I find this someone who its easy and good to spend extra time with, talking about music, or food or parents, or whatever allows us to share our joy and pleasure in life.
However, friendship has limitations. The modern idea of friendship is usually a private one, between two people, part of a search for intimacy and security which I will be looking at below. Goethe put this beautifully: "Blessed is he who, forsaking the world without hate, holds to his bosom a friend, and with his friend delights" (Werke Vol. 1, p 72). But alongside this there is also a pernicious dimension of what Moltmann calls 'business friendships,' where a person becomes skilled at extending an apparent friendship towards another, which is merely expedient. That is, it suits the person's career prospects or extension of a power base to form this alliance. When the 'friend' is no longer useful, he or she can be discarded.
This trend is increasing. Geoff Collee, a researcher at NYC University in New York, has conducted research on both sides of the Atlantic over the past three years. "I was rather depressed by what I found," he said. "We may have economically richer lives, but we are lonelier than we used so be. People are far more ruthless about abandoning friends if their faces no longer fit the current style." In interviews with 1,200 people, he discovered that the average number of bonded friends was just three, although the same people might have as many as 50 unbonded companions. (Less than 10% of the people counted family members as close friends.)
John Harlow, who cited Collee's research in an article for the UK Sunday Times (18 April 99), also comments that greeting-card manufacturers say their sales are rising fastest in the apology section. One said: "It is cards for all those cancelled lunches, and hand-written promises inside Christmas cards to see friends in the next year. The busier we get, the more money we spend trying to keep up appearances of loyal friendship."
These busy-life or business friendships are neither private or public. They give the illusion of private intimacy, in the corridors and private chambers of power, but are not able to stand in public when one or more parties to the friendship becomes unpopular or no longer useful to oneself. The risk and courage of standing in solidarity with the unwanted is rare.
Here in passing let me introduce a wise and profound insight from Moltmann about recovering the public dimension of friendship - however hopeless this may appear in day-to-day living. He wants to say that the Jesus of the New Testament set a new standard for friendship - an open friendship ('friend of sinners,' 'I call you disciples my friends') which gives emphasis to public identification and solidarity with friends, to the extent of being willing to "lay down one's life for one's friend" (John 15.13)
3 Institutions and a code
By and large, we want friendships to be positive, and not to include many incidents of disruption and disagreement. Often, friendships are collections of the like-minded, Aristotle's "birds of a feather flock together," (Nichomachean Ethics), but the best friendships allow creative variety and spontaneity, without major disruption.
The idea of community is attractive because seems to go further, carrying with it a sense of giving primary value to personal relationships, but with a greater scope for working through the unknown or complicated parts of one's personality and history. And therefore that incidents within relationships may be painful anger, hurt, misunderstanding, competition, jealousy, theft, unreciprocated love, and so on yet the relationship is not ended because of this. The idea of community seems to sustain and restore wounded relationships.
The opposite lies in the idea of institution. Not that institutions give primary value to incidents, but that by contrast institutions put both relationships and the incidents within them as secondary to a set of behaviours and personal characteristics. These are the institutions ethos and moral code. So institutions will end relationships easily and abruptly when members disrupt this ethos and make the relationship with them too demanding to persevere with.
In industry there are not many institutions, and relationships are secondary to performance and skill, not to behaviours and personal qualities. Recently Jim Wallace, the Scottish Minister for Justice, announced a courageous major overhaul of the Scottish judiciary and its method of appointment of judges moving away from the closed self-perpetuating white male power group to an appointment based on skill and also reflecting the demographic makeup of Scottish society. This is a good example of what is meant by the modernising (which actually means industrialising) of institutions.
Jesus, the great source and proponent of forgiveness, understood institutionalisation to be the great enemy of spiritual life. He interacted personally and lovingly with the individual Pharisees, yet utterly denounced their institutionalised 'religion':
In the whole of this powerful and rather frightening speech (throughout Matthew 23) Jesus identified many of the characteristics which manifest themselves in moribund institutions, including advising but not empowering, love of career and status, idolising of some members, obsession with domestic small-scale matters and with decoration, and obsession with 'cleanliness' rather than mercy and transformation.
He did not refer to the insider jokes, pettiness and gossip which so often define membership of our institutions today. Perhaps the world-weary Jewish humour we know today only developed after his public ministry. In institutions, cynical humour functions as a safety valve for the aggression built up in such hidebound, fearful, oppressive structures. As Moltmann said so powerfully about Goebbels:
Cynical laughter is a powerful tool which institutions use to reinforce their ethos even while appearing to disparage it. Laughter at ones institution is a safety valve provided by the institution to keep its work-force relatively content and to dis-able critical, reforming voices.
The press and media can present themselves as above other institutions, self-appointed judges. Yet they reflect and reinforce the hypocrisy in institutional values and attitudes, and embody this cynicism more than any other organisation today.
4 Exploring 'institutional attitude' It can be a shock to discover how deeply an institutional attitude governs and influences the behaviour of friends and people you love. I find that the Jesus reflected in the Gospels opposed this attitude more than any other. I believe it is the greatest inhibitor of life-transforming forgiveness.
What do I mean by institutional attitude? Well, here are some of the chief characteristics:
Maintenance Certainly the concern with maintenance, with keeping the show on the road despite the human suffering caused. (See Can we forgive institutions?, and also The power to initiate forgiveness §10.) I have shared in that attitude sometimes, though Ive mostly been concerned with reforming institutions rather than protecting them. Maintenance priorities are ones I have discussed under the headings of bounded set and judging by externals (in On not excluding others). Maintenance and status are closely linked, and for anyone who finds great purpose in maintaining and preserving an institution, success will be measured by the ability to do this. Career and promotion are built around the ability to represent and perpetuate the values of the institution, rather than to reform them.
Keeping up appearances This aspect of representation, of sounding right, being 'sound' and one of our kind, leads on to keeping up appearances, the ultimate bourgeois preoccupation which reflects maintenance values at a personal level as well as for whole institutions. Establishment professions like law, politics, and churches are prone to misleading their audiences and client groups in order to maintain an appearance.
Autonomous value As they develop, institutions also develop their own value system. The ethos and code I referred to above express this in part, but what is characteristic of a developed institution is that it views itself as independent of any other forms of critical evaluation apart from its own. In other words, it will only accept evaluation which uses its own frame of reference.
This characteristic builds on the 'maintenance' and 'appearances' aspects of institutional attitude. Although familiar in 'establishment' areas such as the law, military, and church, it is increasingly apparent in the commercial world - when a representative says, "Im in it to make money" or "Thats our job, to manufacture weapons", then interviewers give up the chase. The "I am what I am" stance is beyond critical discussion!
The end justifies the means Underlying this is a pseudo-morality of the end justifies the means. Let me illustrate this. Some years ago I had to work with a supervisor (in a church context) who made very cavalier decisions about appointments and use of resources. Whenever the consequences of these decisions finally worked out well ... thanks to Gods grace and the hard work, creativity and desire to make something positive out of what was a mess of the people made to suffer by his decisions he would suggest that his decisions had been right all along.
I suppose this a version of the medieval Western theology of the 'blessed fault' or felix culpa - that from the perspective of Christian theology the best thing that could have happened was the Fall or Original sin ... because it meant God would provided such a wonderful redemption! This should frankly outrage us ... human beings are too precious and too worthwhile to have their creative response to imposed cruelty belittled by praise being heaped on despotic benevolence.
Sometimes religious people can too easily (though not intentionally) refer the praise to God for another's creativity - though this is not a problem if the creative person does this first. But it is facile to praise God - or worse to implicitly praise oneself - for mucking up someone's life simply because the 'someone' then managed to make good come from it. Mucking up someone's life by administrative incompetence or carelessness needs to be confessed as a 'sin' as much as any other. The point is that a lot of spiritual insight is needed to see whether a personal disaster can really be seen as a gift for growing from God, part of a spiritual discipline (see The place of anger in enduring love §8), or whether it is institutional incompetence and fearfulness, for which a transforming anger may be the truer response (ibid §13) and where God's energy is in the anger rather than the apathy.
I think we can also see something similar in many marriages (marriage is the most basic of all human institutions), where one or both partners are long-suffering but generous towards the others weaknesses, failings, abuses or needs. (It often works both ways; there is seldom only one victim and one selfish partner.) In the role of rescuer, partners notice the good that has been won by their own effort and settle for that, rather than acknowledge and if possible confront and work with each others failures as well as successes. "It all worked out in the end."
Short-term cycles of repetition In both the above cases - of supervision and of marriage - the institutional attitude of 'the end justifies the means' expresses itself as a contentment that the institutional relationship has survived and in some measure become 'happier' and satisfactory. The happiness is probably illusory, but because they are concerned with perpetuating and maintaining survival, institutional attitudes are also very short-term, repeating cycles of behaviour to reinforce them. Institutions often give great emphasis to ritual and to calendar cycles. To take a longer-term view requires the readiness to reform, remould and transform - institutional attitudes tend to bury their heads in the sand until the problem goes away.
Judging people by their performance Philip Yancey, editor of Christianity Today, wisely observes that what defines the mind-set in almost all society's institutions, from schools to multi-nationals and certainly churches, is "the insistence that we earn our way." Not only is it economic success which creates our assumed standard of superiority but more generally our deeds earn or merit their consequences (What's so amazing about grace? p 36). We earn our rewards, we deserve our punishments. We judge people almost entirely by what they have done.
Because of the institution's main concerns with maintaining its own survival and its own value system, lukewarm or unimaginative performance tends to be accepted as the norm. The main 'work' is not about originality or creativity, so a good performance is a sound, 'representative' one. Startling originality is evaluated as poorly as severe incompetence or error. People are referred to their past, and not to their future.
Martin Rutte, business consultant, president of Livelihood and one of the energisers for developing spirituality at work, comments:
Valuing gifts and abilities Another of the defining characteristics of institutional values is viewing people in terms of their gifts and abilities, as commodities to be put to use. People are valued in terms of what they have to offer the business of the institution. In essence this is an issue about employment. The hierarchy accredits staff. The salaried staff respond by trying to provide missionary employment for existing members, and for new members, although usually the existing members dont want to be employed in doing anything other than what they already know and like doing.
In the same way, careerism involves the possession and acquisition of appropriate gifts and skills. It also involves political nous the ability to manipulate perception and people with power. However, there is all the difference between someone who manifests or offers or presents one gift which can be employed by the institution as it understands its present needs, and someone whose gifts are focussed and shaped by his or her distinctive point of view. To have a vision, a separate voice, an approach or style these are threatening to the institution.
Even employing an outside consultant needs to be carefully negotiated so that the consultant will 'suit our style' and not be so powerful that the institution is led to lose its voice or style in an enthusiasm for new and creative activity. (The 'valuing' of people in terms of gifts and abilities is actually only valuing in terms of the institution's own existing value system, and of one's usefulness to maintaining that system.)
5 The institutionalising of community
An institution is invariably the mausoleum of a vision. The idea of institution has legal overtones as well as in Calvins "Institutes of Religion", meaning a synopsis of the defining laws. But in the sense we usually have in mind as we speak, an institution is a physical structure ( a building or set of buildings), a legal constitution, and a purpose. It was established (the meaning of the Latin root) by one or a few people with this purpose. Institutions were formed to provide scientific and medical overview and assessment, or to co-ordinate charitable work.
So it was formed out of a vision. That is why people with a different or fresh vision cause its members to feel threatened. Vision is unilateral there isnt the space for alternative visions puling in different directions.
Jean Vanier wrote:
Vanier believed that a twin focus on personal relationships and on common tasks is the key to renewing a community as community, rather than leading it down the road to institutionalisation:
Community seems to be the place where 'being' and 'doing' are unified. Jim Wallis in Washington said much the same from his experience of guiding the Sojourners community there:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together to define and mark out his own experiment in forming community as a seminary at Finkenwalde in the 1930s. Many people still deeply admire his courage in seeking to oppose the rise of Nazism by being more deeply Christian. He said,
However, these exceptional figures have been leading 'young' communities. Task and mission unify young communities, but these activities are not self-renewing. For them, sustaining has been a matter of years, not of centuries. Gradually, love and belonging become tasks and duties themselves, and the defending and maintaining the traditions of the institution become the primary concern. Martin Buber said that:
Buber's attention to something which overrides other relations is - for him - a way of pointing to a divine, personal basis for community. Only the divine, he says, can be self-renewing, constantly changing yet permanent, the antidote to becoming a moribund institution.
6 Community and 'being real'
Buber may be right to point to divine involvement as the antidote to institutionalisation. Yet religious communities have been no less prone to hardening into institutions than any other. The 'divine' component needs to be located in something less abstract and more practical. I want to suggest that forgiveness, and the values associated with it, are the main doorway through which a group has to pass if it is to become community rather than institution.
Scott Peck explores a process of growing into community in The Different Drum. He suggests four stages a group passes through to become a true community: Pseudocommunity, Chaos, Emptiness and Community.
Pseudocommunity is the attempt to be a community by avoiding conflict and being nice to each other. Chaos follows when we start to express our individual differences and try to heal or convert each other. Peck notes that the two ways out of chaos are through stepping courageously into chaos, or through organisation. And organisation is the beginning of institutionalisation: as he observes, organisation creates organisations and not communities.
In Emptiness we are ready to let go of our expectations and preconceptions, prejudices, ideology, theology and solutions, the need to heal, convert, fix or solve, and the need to control. It seems necessary to let go, go with the flow, be open to the process, experience a kind of death, before it is possible to move into true community. "When its death has been completed, open & empty, the group enters community. In this final stage a soft quietness descends. It is a kind of peace."
Peck is able to speak of a spiritual strand without requiring a particular religious tradition as well. His stage of letting go (emptiness) has many elements of forgiveness in it. But his theoretical process, while psychologically sensitive, does not include such basic and solid human elements as joy, happiness, gratitude, laughter ... or those of human work. Martin Buber also saw that community needs another strand - to be earthed in 'real' social life and work.
Buber's approach, which he called Biblical humanism, has much to offer today's spiritual seekers which the institutionalised churches cannot. About community he says:
It seems to me that Buber points us most clearly to the key historical feature of community - that communities existed by the accident of geography.
Yes, many were united around common tasks: villages of workers living in tied houses and serving a common master or employer. But what made them community was that people had to live together. The village idiot may offend the rich widow, or vice versa, but they still had to talk to one another the next day. There is little fear of anger; emotions can be full and fully expressed, multi-coloured and very non-bourgeois, because the relationships are permanent and necessary. In this sense, communities answer Sandra Bullock's important point about our fear of losing friends.
This is still visible in 'neighbourhoods', whether the 'hoods' of black disadvantaged Los Angeles or South African townships, or in Northern Ireland, or the suburban world of Australian soap operas. Community is an accident, 'unselected' as Buber put it - or perhaps better what Heidegger called 'thrownness' or Wittgenstein called 'givenness', the dimension of life which is your genetic birth, unavoidably and simply where you have to start from.
7 Accident and permanence in community
So I am suggesting that community has three, not two, key dimensions: a secure permanence and endurance in relationships, tasks and work, and thrownness or accident.
I would want to affirm here that monastic communities - in all religions - have often managed to be a genuine if unusual form of community, in that they generate the necessary permanence in their relationships by rules of life. Clear, up-front 'contracts' about one's commitments, responsibilities, duties and expectations create a free space inside the community to fail, to forgive, to be renewed and transformed. And at the same time they manifest the quality of 'accident' by having such low-key, non-active tasks or missions - what Buber called "simple, unexalted, unselected reality, a reality not so much chosen by them as sent to them just as it is."
Jean Vanier understood this very well:
It seems to me that the long-term fascination of the Friends series for much of the developed and developing world is that whereas most soap operas occupy a 'hood' - a village, a street, a close - and explore explosive emotions and incidents but (accurately) find permanence harder to celebrate, the Friends are always reaching out for that permanence, and finding hysterically funny creative and complicated ways to do so.
It's quite hard to create an accident, though! The fact that it has been possible for great religious leaders to create community - whether around their own teaching as a 'school' or by a shared rule and geography - can take our eyes away from the norm of accidental birth into a community. And accident is reassuring and stable, once one owns the accident of one's own life!
The defining characteristic of Hinduism, according to Raymond Hammer, is the Indian origin of its adherents. 'Hindu' is the Persian word for 'Indian'. Yes, there is the Dharma or eternal teaching, but each Hindu has a flexible and creative relationship to the teachings. Former Indian president Radhakrishnan said, "Hinduism is more a culture than a creed." The religion and the vast community co-exist. Human and divine. Not a separate group though the impetus towards separation, adolescent distinctiveness and identity, etc, occurs within the people by caste.
This was why the accident of an arranged marriage made more sense, in a vast religious/ethnic community - the institution of marriage did not need to be brought to life by an inner communion of 'being in love' or being 'brought together by God'. (This makes less sense today, as western culture interacts with Hindu.)
The same basis in ethne and culture seems to me to be true of other world religions, and whereas Judaism has often acknowledged and even aggressively celebrated its ethnic root, Islam and particularly Christianity are usually hopeless at acknowledging the hidden primacy of cultural preferences and values - caste, our kind of people, 'artistic' and elitist western culture and the rest. The harder it is to acknowledge the accidental, 'personal-preference' nature of our religious choices, the more proud, imperialistic and colonial we will seem to others to be - and also the more possessive and concerned not to lose what we have gained..
8 The end of community?
The Christian churches have tried to create and to renew community for centuries, making it a primary mission through education, then basic health care and then political and economic protest. But as our new century exposes the continuing erosion of community, and has not yet thrown up a clear new model of human living, I believe that we need to avoid idealising community, and to see it as a stage in the historical process from tribe to patriarchal family to geographical village to ...? Well, what? The virtual reality of the internet? Beehive lifestyle in the mega-city of Tokyo-Yokohama? E M Forster's The Machine Stops?
I certainly don't expect the established or institutionalised Christian churches to 'end', but to continue on a diminished scale as historical relics - mausoleums - for those attracted by their artefacts and 'religious' pleasures. (This is not to say that many churches were ever real communities, but they at least could talk and aspire in that direction!) The important point for us in a country like the UK is that the dimension of geographical community is dissolving. In the USA or South Africa, where Christianity is still energetic, a big part of that energy and relevance lies in the continuation of geographical neighbourhoods (and presumably the vast success of the wonderful computer strategy game The Sims will reflect that!).
Religions in our country can perhaps in the short term maintain themselves by building on ghetto ethnic cultures, but the real challenge lies in awaiting, seeking and recognising the emergence of a new sociological structure, pattern or model for social interaction and strengthening human relationships. The institution may not end, but the claims and ideals of community, and of relevance to community, will gradually be transmuted into a new ideal, because geographical community will continue to dissolve and fragment and yet we will continue to seek what has lain at the heart of community, namely the security of accidental permanence.
'Belonging' is not a matter of choice or creativity, but the journey of discovering, owning and celebrating the accidents of one's birth and life. This journey is one of the values associated with forgiveness, bringing compassion and wisdom about human diversity and complexity, and gratitude for them.