The Meaning of Community

This is a sermon I gave today. I was the guest preacher at the
Unitarian Universalist Church of Brevard
here in Melbourne, Florida.

I think “community” has gotten a bad rap. Say the word to some people, and they think of a group of crunchy New Agers sitting in a circle holding hands and chanting, or singing “Kum-ba-ya.” Say it to others and they hear the media’s overuse of the word—“the disabled community,” “the gay community,” “the African American community,” “the business community,” or most absurd of all (I heard this one on the radio recently), “the international community”—as if everyone in these groups have the same agenda or worldview!

A community is defined as a social group of organisms sharing an environment, normally with shared interests. In human communities you’ll usually find they also share beliefs. Resources. Preferences. Needs. Risks. How strong these elements are can determine their degree of cohesiveness, their identity as a community.

You’d think—or at least, I did—that the root meaning of the word “community” is “coming together as one.” But it’s not. The old Latin word communitatus comes from two even older words that mean “the changes or exchanges that connect people” and “small, intimate, or local.” And I think that’s incredibly telling.

Let’s look at the way humans have traditionally organized themselves. First you have yourself. Then you have your family—both actual relatives and intimate friends, your “family of choice.” Outside this is your extended family; perhaps your spiritual community; and your social circle.

Beyond that, nowadays, you’re generally organized by city, county, state, region, and country. But personally, I don’t feel a great deal in common with Brevard County as a whole, much less Florida or, goodness knows, the South. I’m an American, but my definition of what it means to be an American is rather different from that of many, many other Americans, and it’s certainly different from the vision of America that our politicians are trying to offer us.

As people banded together to constitute primitive societies thousands of years ago, the first major form of organization to emerge was the tribe. Its key organizing principle was kinship: there were families, of course; clans, which encompassed numerous families and even villages; and sometimes even claims of a common, godlike ancestor. To be sons and daughters of God, or a god, is a desire as old as humanity itself.

Now, the tribe’s key function was to infuse a distinct sense of social identity and belonging. It strengthened people’s ability to bond and survive. It still does.

Anthropologists tell us that tribal life was profoundly egalitarian. Political hierarchies, dominant groups, class structures, and other status systems simply didn’t exist. The title of chief, if there was one, meant little; he (or she!) was a person of influence, an advisor, a facilitator, a broker—but couldn’t give orders that had to be obeyed. Leaders were simply whoever showed leadership. And leaders needed to be modest, generous, and self-effacing—they needed to treat others as peers—or they didn’t get to stay leaders. Whether they were hunting for big game or conducting a ceremony, leadership was transient and low-profile; it kept shifting, and it depended more on the situation than the person. One day’s “head honcho” was not necessarily tomorrow’s. Major decisions, such as whether to go to war or where to migrate, were made in tribal councils open to all, where anyone (at least all household heads) could speak. Basically what you had was a consultative, consensus-driven democracy.

There were some informal status differences. They deferred to elders, for example, far more than we do. They honored their medicine people, their shamans, their religious leaders. But these distinctions were kept muted. Troublemakers—bullies, the lazy, the selfish—were dealt with pretty quickly. There was constant group-wide vigilance to keep anyone from gaining sway for too long.

At the same time, it actually wasn’t absolute equality so much as it was respect for individual autonomy—especially the autonomy of individual households. People prided themselves on being resolutely self-sufficient. In this spirit, the tribe emphasized communal sharing—like sharing food, giving gifts, and doing favors for one another. This obliged recipients to reciprocate; you might say the underlying ethic was honorable reciprocity. You never took something from another tribe member, not even their time, without giving them something in return: some food, an offering of tobacco, a small gift of money, something of substance. Tribal life was always cooperative and reciprocal.

In fact, principles of respect, dignity, pride, and honor were so important in a tribal society that humiliating insults might upset peace and order more than anything else.

Here’s the interesting thing: this tribal form is not ancient history. The tribal structure alive and well—in the Middle East, of course. In Africa. In South Asia. But it’s alive in North America and Europe as well! You can actually see the tribal paradigm everywhere around you. Just look at the often clannish organization and behavior of civic clubs, fellowships, college fraternities, sports clubs, and urban gangs. As David Ronfeldt has pointed out, all such organizations are normally more about ancient desires for identity, honor, and pride, than they are about modern proclivities for power and profit.

For a decade or so, I was a member of a small but rather famous—some might say infamous—Episcopal church in Washington, D.C. During the early days of the civil rights movement, St. Stephen and the Incarnation was the place where the firebrand preachers called for justice, where protesters organized, often sleeping on the pews before hitting the streets for this march or that demonstration. In the 1970s and ’80s we fed hundreds of hungry people every day, ran a free clinic, had a job counseling service, housed a progressive preschool, offered showers to homeless men—and struggled to make ends meet.

But at the center of our life was not the work, but the worship—the spiritual life that nourished and empowered the congregation. The joy of that church was that it strove to be the living embodiment of what “community” means. It was a tribe, no doubt about it. When I joined, they told me that when and if the time came for me to move on, I was not to simply disappear, to fade away. I was to come before the congregation, tell them what my heart was calling me to do or where I felt I was being led to go, and they would bless me and send me out.

After about ten years I was exhausted, burnt out from service to the church. And my own spiritual hunger was expressing itself in different ways—I had, for example, a sudden and totally unexpected pull toward a more earth-based spirituality. I remember telling one of the women who sang in the choir with me about some odd experiences I’d had, and she said, “You know, Craig, I think God is calling you to become a shaman!” This was news to me—I had heard the word before, of course, but didn’t know what shamanism was about, or why she thought it was something I’d be interested in, much less feel “called” to.

But she was quite right. In the months that followed, it was clear that I was experiencing what is now commonly called the “shamanic call,” with all its attendant perils and challenges. I asked for, and received, permission to hold a weekly evening drumming and meditation circle—in the church, right next to the high altar. A year later, the Episcopal Rite II service was no longer speaking to me, and it became clear that it was time to move on.

So the church did as they said they would: they helped me discern the next step in my spiritual journey, and then during one service, they all came up and laid hands on me, and blessed me, and sent me out.

Let’s talk for a moment about this “being called” or “being led” thing. For years I was hung up on it. A number of my friends have experienced the shamanic call even though they don’t believe in a Caller. They feel “led” but don’t have a conventional dogma that makes room for a someone or something who is leading them.

You know the famous passage in John’s gospel in which Jesus says, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God”? The problem with most commentators is that they stop reading too soon. A few verses later Jesus says, “The wind blows where it wills. You hear the sound it makes, but you can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it is going. So it is with those who are born of the Spirit.”

Now, in Greek (as in Hebrew), the word for spirit is the same word for wind. So the passage could be translated, “The Spirit moves as it will. You hear the sound it makes, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it goes. And so it is with those who are born of the Spirit.” Or it could be rendered, “So it is with those who are born of the wind.”

Jesus’ point is that those who experience a spiritual rebirth—a spiritual initiation, as it were—are essentially to be led by the wind, snuffling the air like dogs looking for the next scent, ready to go wherever the wind blows them. The “Spirit” that leads us is the wind, the air that surrounds us, the very air we breathe.

But I believe that that leading, that calling, however we experience it, always draws us back into community. In some denominations, ministers aren’t even ordained until a local congregation calls them to service. Shamans are not shamans in a vacuum—they always serve the tribe.

In modern Hebrew, the simple question “How are you?” is “Ma shalomcha?” It means, literally, “How is your peace?” Now, the roots of the word shalom imply connection. So when you say, “How is your peace?” you’re really saying, “How are your relationships?” There’s a recognition that there can be no real peace unless things are good between you and the people in your life, in your tribe.

And that’s the same understanding behind the word “community”: the changes that we go through, the exchanges we experience with others, the connections we make with one another—personal, local, intimate—are the very things that empower us, support us, feed us, teach us. Heal us.

But if we are to create community, real community, with everything that that promises, we need to covenant with one another. We need agreements about how we will treat one another. We need to weigh our words carefully, and follow through on our commitments. We need to work together, really work. We need a return to honorable reciprocity, never taking from one another without giving something of substance in return. To be resolutely self-sufficient and autonomous. To build consensus and be truly democratic in our decision-making.

To form that kind of community—to be a life-giving community to one another—we have to go back to the tribe.

I’d like to conclude with a reading for reflection. It’s called “To Be of Use,” and it’s by the American poet, novelist, and social activist Marge Piercy:

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Categories: Christianity, First Nations, Shamanism | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “The Meaning of Community

  1. Incredible to read, remarkable to hear. Especially so in the context of the wonderous day you helped make real.

    I can’t thank you enough.

  2. I wish I could have experienced this in person! But within some months I plan to become part of the tribe. . . .

  3. Adamus, it was entirely my pleasure. You and Becca made everything go off without a hitch. SO many people told me how much they appreciated both the service and the day as a whole.

    You done good, as they say.

  4. Becca

    Thank you, Craig, but the day would not have been seamless, as they say, without the beautiful sermon you delivered, and all the hard work Adam put into the rest of the service.

    I love you guys.

  5. indigo bunting

    Wish I’d been there…

  6. Ann Fuller

    I am profoundly disappointed I was unable to attend the service and had to resort to reading this sermon. I have heard excellent reviews from quite a few people who were present and can easily see why. We simply must do lunch!

  7. Nanu

    Craig, I wish I could have heard this, it’s wonderful. I hear the day was memorable and I am sure it was.

    I am sorry I missed it.

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