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what binds us together?

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For the past few weeks, I have been reading a book by famed psychiatrist M. Scott Peck which chronicles his travels (together with his wife) through remote parts of the UK in search of prehistoric stones. The book is part travel journal, part spiritual musings, part psychology, and part personal anecdotes. A mixed bag, to be sure, and not always a winning combination. At one point, I considered putting the book aside, not finishing it, but then Peck started writing about community. He is no stranger to the concept. He has led hundreds of community-building workshops over the years, helped start a non-profit organisation dedicated to fostering community, and written a compelling book about the topic, one which greatly impacted me when I read it oh so long ago.[1]

In preparation for a course I am teaching next year, I have been doing quite a bit of study on unity and community. Once you start thinking about it, you see and hear evidence of it everywhere. (See my blog on the impact of believing in a trinitarian, communal God here.)

I have begun listening to podcasts while working out at the gym (so much better than blaring music or insipid television shows), and last night, the episode happened to be on church unity.[2] In light of all the fractures evident in the Christian church universal, especially the Protestant arm of the church, the hosts of the podcast asked: what is it that unifies us? The obvious answer is Jesus, but in practice, Christians seem to be following different versions of Christ. Some believe he is here to bring world peace, others quote Matthew 10:34 and say he is here to bring a sword. Some claim that Jesus means Christians to govern and rule while others want to separate church and state. The particular points by which Christians measure whether a person is with Christ or against him are just as diverse: for some, the stance on gay marriage delineates a true Christian from a false one, for others, it is whether one adheres to an inerrant and mostly literal view of the scriptures. Still others place a high value on loyalty to particular traditions (infant or adult baptism) or obedience to certain expressions of righteousness such as modesty or abstinence from alcohol. To be honest, these so-called litmus tests for Christianity seem a bit arbitrary, and I can confidently say that most (perhaps all) of them fail to take into account the whole biblical witness and the variegated history of the church. How did we get so good at being separatists and so bad at building community?

Peck has some helpful thoughts on this. "We are all equal in the sight of God. Beyond that, however, we are utterly unequal. We have different gifts and liabilities, different genes, different languages and cultures, different values and styles of thinking, different personal histories, different levels of competence, and so on, and so on. Indeed, humanity might be properly labeled 'the unequal species.' What most distinguishes us from all the other creatures is our extraordinary diversity and the variability of our behavior. ... The false notion of our equality propels us into the pretense of pseudocommunity, and when the pretense fails, as it must for any intimacy or authenticity, then it propels us to attempt to achieve equality by force: the force of gentle persuasion followed by less and less gentle persuasion. We totally misinterpret our task. Society's task is not to establish equality. It is to develop systems that deal humanely with our inequality - systems that, within reason, celebrate and encourage diversity."[3] Peck rightly observes that we have mistaken submissive compliance (don't rock the boat) and a flattening of differences to equate unity. Unity is not achieved when everyone believes or practices the same things. In fact, thinking of unity as an achievement places it in a performance-based paradigm instead of a relational context, and unity is, above all, relational.

Rachel Held Evans notes that when people question her in order to ascertain whether or not she is a true Christian, whether she is on the team or off the team, they always ask what she believes. Rarely do they ask if she exhibits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. She comments that people ask about our opinions/beliefs on things when, in contrast, Jesus teaches us that Christians can be identified by how they love one another and how they love others, even their enemies.[4] Genuine Christian community is birthed when love transcends all differences. But how do we get to that point?

Based on his research, Peck divides the building of community into four stages:
1) Pseudocommunity: This is something that looks like community but isn't. It is a group characterized by good manners and glossing over differences. This behaviour has its place, offering primitive tools for coexisting peacefully, but it is not real community.
2) Chaos: When differences inevitably surface, the group disintegrates into chaos. The natural response is to try to make everyone the same, to convert everyone back to pseudocommunity. Unfortunately, the pressure to revert to a superficial unity can become progressively more and more forceful until the group self-destructs in conflict (war) of some sort. Nevertheless, chaos is a step closer to reality and a stage which cannot be skipped in moving toward peace.
3) Emptiness: This is the hard part of becoming a community. Peck says, "Pseudocommunity and chaos come naturally to us humans. Emptiness does not. But it is crucial (if you'll pardon a not so accidental pun). In the stage of emptiness the members of the group will sacrificially empty themselves of whatever it is that stands between them and real community. The list of 'things' that must be emptied can seem almost endless: fixed expectations and rigid agendas; prejudices or simplistic instant likes and dislikes; quick answers arrived at without listening; the need to heal and convert or 'fix' others; preset positions and notions of what winning might look like; needs for certainty and control and looking good; intellectual equanimity and the appearance of sophistication; excessive emotional detachment; sexism, racism, and other 'isms'; a fondness for fighting on the one hand and a desire for peace at any price on the other."[5] In other words, the only way out of chaos is surrender.
4) Community: When participants have emptied themselves enough, Peck notes, community just happens, like a miracle. A marked shift is noticeable in the group and they begin to speak authentically and concisely. Space is made for silence and people listen well. What was irritating becomes endearing. In essence, the group operates in sync, like a beautiful piece of music. Peck observes, "Some experience it as if the door had suddenly been thrown open and God had walked into the room. Even more commonly that moment is felt as the entrance of a palpable spirit of peace. Peace - pure, deep, soft, ever so gentle peace."[6] The peace that accompanies genuine, loving community is a peace that originates in the communal God, the God who loves his enemies enough to die for them. This peace rewrites our simplistic definitions of unity and transcends our feeble and often forceful attempts at conflict resolution. Quite simply, peace surpasses our understanding of what it means to live in community.

I think most of us would agree that we want to live in peace with others, but sometimes we are unwilling to do the hard work this requires. As stated above, humans are good at pseudocommunity and good at chaos. Not so good at emptying and peacemaking. Even after a group has entered into genuine community, there is no guarantee that it will remain there. Community is not a once-for-all state. Like peace, it requires tending and nurturing and ongoing work in order to avoid devolving into pseudocommunity or lapsing back into destructive chaos. We must always be willing to do the work of emptying, of surrendering our quick judgments and unrealistic expectations, letting go of the need to fix or control others, sacrificing our desire to win. This is the hard work of peace. This is the relentless work of community. This is the large, demanding work of love. This is the ministry of Jesus.

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[1] M Scott Peck, MD, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (New York: Touchstone, 1987).
[2] "Church Unity," Episode 4, September 9, 2014. The Liturgists Podcast. Available on iTunes.
[3]  M. Scott Peck, MD, In Search of Stones (New York: Hyperion, 1995), 254.
[4] Rachel Held Evans, interviewed on "Church Unity," The Liturgists Podcast.
[5] Peck, In Search of Stones, 249.
[6] Ibid., 250.

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