Nuns on the Bus and In(ter)dependence Day (Some More Thoughts on Community)

Standing in church last Sunday I could sense in myself a familiar unease as the beginning chords to “America the Beautiful” soared from the organ pipes to the vaulted gothic ceiling above. Despite the Catholic Church’s recent politically charged actions, I, more often than not, take my church and state to be separate, and comfortably so. I have always felt a decided distaste towards religious patriotism and patriotic religiosity. The idea that the United States has any special right to God’s truth, favor, or love strikes me as not only uncomfortable but untrue. And I have been often deeply troubled by the religious right’s narrow appropriation of Christian teaching and values. But even as I squirm at the thought of religion and politics mixing, I am beginning to understand the necessity of their interaction and the great potential for their healing dialogue.

Last week I reflected on the need for and pursuit of community in light of a global industrial capitalist economy. For Wendell Berry, a body politic or a “public” is very different from a community. In his formulation, the least common denominator of the public is the individual, whereas a community cannot be reduced beyond a marriage or a family – microcosms of community. A public does not hold the same sense of belonging to the land and to one another cultivated in community nor the responsibility that accompanies that sensibility. And while I believe the pursuit of community is deeply needed, at times in Berry’s writing the goal seems idealistic or archaic, achievable only in some agrarian small-town fantasy. But if community is to offer any hope to this country and this world, as I truly believe it does, then its principles must be practical and scalable in this country and in this world. And that means they must somehow function in and through the two major human organizations of our day – the church and the state. That same Sunday I half-heartedly sang the patriotic recessional hymn, I caught a glimpse of how community might be the common ground on which religion and politics meet, nourishing the integrity of each.

On Sunday the “Nuns on the Bus” visited Shalom Farms. This group of religious sisters toured the nation to raise awareness broadly about how Catholic social teaching should inform Catholic political sensibility and specifically regarding the morally reproachable Ryan budget, which proposes reducing the deficit by cutting funding to programs that support the most vulnerable members of our society. Having stopped in eight other states, the nuns made their way to Richmond and the office of Representative Eric Cantor before finishing their tour in Washington, DC. At each stop, the Nuns on the Bus visited a congressman supporter of the budget and a “mission site” that represents a community response to the needs of the people this budget would most hurt. When they visited Shalom, I was struck by how the sisters’ position as members of a particular community had equipped them to engage the political realm – and the world – in a special way.

Monastic community is often painted in an unflattering light – pious navel gazers hoarding their holiness in a life safely removed from the squalor of the real world, or something along those lines. Even having met monks and nuns who utterly defy unfair stereotypes of this kind, I sometimes struggle with whether or not religious community adequately answers the call to be “in the world,” particularly with regards to cloistered communities. While the Nuns on the Bus are not of the cloistered variety – many of them are social workers or work in other helping professions – they do represent something of great value that I think all monastic communities can teach us: they “get” community. It was after-all a religious sister, Mother Theresa, who said, “If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” That sense of belonging, of community, was so evident in the Nuns on the Bus. And what was so amazing to realize was that the same sensibility nurtured by the sisters’ communal life informs their engagement with the rest of society – i.e. church and state. It is their intrinsic sense of community that allows them to understand their responsibility to the world outside their order – that they belong to it and are responsible for it. Far from cutting the sisters off from society, their religious life draws them more deeply into it, in service to their neighbors and toward an ever-expanding sense of community. Their value of community, learned and practiced in their immediate religious community, enables them to hold the Church and the state to the same standard, and pursue the transformation that would make the Christian community and the American community worthy of that word.

Wendell Berry has probably never used the word community to describe the church or the nation. A community for Berry is necessarily local – it cannot be abstracted from its relationship to a particular place. But I am realizing now how our immediate communities can teach us a way of being in relationship with one another that is not confined to a church building, a city district or a county line. If we can see the interconnectedness – mutual belonging and responsibility – of our individual selves within small communities, we can begin to see the same principle holds true on the larger scale. When we understand ourselves as belonging to a particular community in a particular place, we can begin to understand that our community belongs to a larger one, and that to a larger one still until we can finally see ourselves as belonging to the entire world. Our communities are not self-sufficient any more than we as individuals are. Rather, every individual is taken up into a community and with it into the membership of all creation. Thus local communities can become classrooms for learning the values that create and nourish a global community.

Priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen observed, “There are many groups that have been formed to protect their own interests, to defend their own status, or to promote their own causes, but none of these is a Christian community. Instead of breaking through the walls of fear and creating new space for God, they close themselves to real or imaginary intruders.” This describes the sort of religiosity and patriotism I balk at. If our devotion to our church or to our country is based on an “us and them” mentality, it will never lead us to the Kingdom. A “community” understands little of community if it cannot see itself as belonging to something larger than itself, if it is insular or exhaustively self-serving. If, however, our love for our church and our country grows from a sense of mutual belonging and toward a community that encompasses the entire world, then I can’t see how it wouldn’t. If we could celebrate interdependence (as my boss instructed me to do upon giving me the 4th of July off from work) and practice it as a nation, this would radically change our government and our relationship with the rest of the world. If we could embody as a church the interdependence that we as a church teach, we could be that change – the Body of Christ building up the Kingdom.

“Community,” Nouwen writes, “is grounded in God, who calls us together… The mystery of community is precisely that it embraces all people, whatever their individual differences, and allows them to live together as brothers and sisters of Christ and sons and daughters of his heavenly Father” (Making All Things New, 83).