Monday, August 30, 2010

Why Do We Fear Community?

If you ask the average postmodern twentysomething if man is inherently good or evil, they're going to say "good" 9 times out of 10.  If you ask that same twentysomething if they'd be willing to open a bank account with a stranger who shares their worldview, they're going to look at you like you're crazy.  Americans perpetually preach the doctrine of autonomy and independence while statistics show that we're lonelier than ever.  We want to be loved and known, but we maintain our relationships via 140-character tweets rather than engaging in meaningful, face-to-face interactions with the people around us.


I've been pondering that question quite a bit lately.  Why
is the idea of community... of interdependence... of a collectivist mentality so terrifying?  Some may point to recent examples of "communities gone bad" (Jonestown, Branch Davidians, etc.) to explain their misgivings, but I think our fears run much deeper than that.  

Lately, I've been exploring the works of
Marina Abramović, a performance artist from the 1970s who examined the complex relationship between performer and audience.  The video below describes a controversial piece that was performed in Germany but ultimately proved too provocative for US galleries.  (Disclaimer: This clip contains a bit of nudity...)

The comparison I'm about to make is far from perfect.  Actively engaging in community is a far cry from passively surrendering to a crowd of strangers, but both do require you to put your life and your well-being, at least partially, in the hands of others.  This is, in my opinion, why we fear community.  Despite our hopeful platitudes on the benevolence of humanity, on some very real, instinctive level, we know better: People are evil and, if given the chance, they will destroy me.  We would prefer a kinder summary, but our behavior (and our history books) betray us.  The audience members of Rhythm 0 were not animals - they were likely upper- to middle-class, educated patrons of the arts.  The undergraduates chosen for the Stanford prison experiment were probably good kids from good families.  And, yet, when allowed to exert power over others, even "civilized" individuals are quick to abuse and terrorize.  As much as it's nice to talk about peace and love in theory, the thought of really living as one is simply not an option for most of us.  Charles Bukowski said it well: 

beware the average man the average woman
beware their love, their love is average
seeks average

but there is genius in their hatred

I think this is why, of all the things that Jesus could have prayed for His church, he prayed for unity.  It is in our close, interdependent relationships that we reveal who and what we really are.  Nice people are not uncommon - I meet at least one or two every week.  But truly loving communities are rare indeed... and our deepest wounds are usually inflicted upon us by the ones who are supposed to love us the most.  I think Jesus knew that the most powerful statement about who He was couldn't come from an army of "nice people."  There's nothing especially unique or inspiring about that.  Jesus knew that what the world needs most (and sees least) are people who love each other like family when they're not... who carry each other's burdens when they don't have to... who sacrifice for each other when there's nothing to be gained.  This is the type of behavior that points to something transcendent and other-worldly in the lives of everyday, broken human beings.

And the early church understood this.  In his book Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community, Phillip Kenneson describes the reputation of Christians in their early days:

Because the Greek word for Christ (christos) was so similar to the word for kind (chrestos), apparently many people mistakenly (though perhaps fittingly) called Jesus' early followers not "Christians" but "the kind ones."

I don't think that most Americans would feel comfortable calling today's Christians "kind ones."  A recent study conducted by the Barna Group, an Evangelical research and polling group, found that the majority of Americans view Christians as "judgmental," "hypocritical," and "homophobic."  Perhaps it is because, unlike the early church, we do not practice what we preach by sharing our possessions with each other and the poor among us... or opening our doors to strangers who need shelter... or loving one another deeply like brothers and sisters in the family of God.

If we did, maybe community wouldn't be so scary after all.

1 comment:

  1. Way to wield a pen! Or, a keyboard in this case.

    Your post reminds me of a story about Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. He was invited to talk at an event commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima. After he talked, one of the event organizers came up to him and said, "You used the word 'Jesus' way too much. We invited Buddhists, atheists, and people of all beliefs to this event. I just don't think it was very nice." JWH replied, "The guys who dropped the atom bombs were probably very nice people."