Some Thoughts on Community

My readings last week were a collection of essays by Wendell Berry regarding community. This is a topic of real pertinence to my work with Shalom Farms, an organization that recognizes itself as a “community development project” (quoted from the website About page). Community development is a relatively new and admittedly ambiguous category of work. The phenomenon of community is surely as old as humanity itself – so why this recent emergence of organizations like Shalom Farms working in community development? Is community – in principle and practice – threatened? If so, why might its restoration be deemed a worthwhile pursuit? And how might we make it a successful one?

To approach any of these questions we must first ask a more fundamental one – what is community? This question, seemingly the most basic of all, is not easily answered and perhaps not actually answerable in any final way. There are likely as many articulations of community as there are entities that identify themselves as such. So I will turn to Wendell Berry on this matter as he is, if not an expert on, then at least a true devotee of community. In his essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” Berry posits that community “has to do first of all with belonging,” that is, “it is a group of people who belong to one another and to their place” (Art of Commonplace, 161). Berry is adamant that this relationship of belonging is not simply characteristic of but in fact unique to community – it is what distinguishes community from any other collection of individuals. “We would not say,” he reasons, “We belong to our public,” but we do indeed say, “We belong to our community” (161). This belonging is not an abstract common sentiment; rather it is a recognition of and a response to what Berry calls “the constraints of community life” (163).

Thus belonging and responsibility emerge as hallmarks of community in Berry’s formulation. That is, members of a community share in a sense of mutual belonging “to one another and to their place” understood and actualized in real responsibility to the life of that community – those members and the common ground beneath them. Equipped with this working (albeit incomplete) definition of community, we can return to the original questions.

How might we explain the recent emergence of organizations working in community development?

This question is perhaps sufficiently answered via the question that follows – is community in peril? But first, we would do well to note that current efforts in community development reflect not necessarily a lack or need but unquestionably a value judgment. It is quite clear that many peopleperceive that community is under threat and that they are disturbed by this reality, as evidenced by their effort to change it. That is, we believe community – however it is conceived – is something of great value and, if endangered, entirely worthy of saving.

So, is community – in principle and practice – threatened?

Berry’s writing resounds with an unequivocal “yes” to this question. He alternatively cites globalization, industrialization, capitalism, radical individualism, and “the present economic and technological monoculture” (162) as serious threats to the livelihood of communities. Most basically he faults the ascendency of the private interest in the public sphere. As Berry sees it, the thrust of modern politics is the single-minded protection of individual liberties under the law. This emphasis is, Berry suggests, dangerously misplaced, for “one individual represents no fecundity, no continuity, and no harmony” (162). What’s more, “the individual life implies no standard of behavior or responsibility” (162). Thus, “freedom” is misconstrued “as a license to pursue any legal self-interest at large and at will in the domain of public liberties and opportunities” (163). “People,” Berry writes, “are instructed to free themselves of all restrictions, restraints, and scruples in order to fulfill themselves as individuals to the utmost extent that the law allows” (163).

The deep irony Berry distills is that in this globalized, industrialized, capitalistic, technological age, most people are actually “free to make very few significant choices” (163). The “freedom” we have achieved has landed us in “a rootless and placeless monoculture of commercial expectations and products” (164). Berry writes, “The net result of our much-asserted individualism appears to be that we have become ‘free’ for the sake of not much self-fulfillment at all” (164). As we assert our independence, turning away from community interests and responsibilities, we become more reliant upon systems that scarcely recognize our humanity, much less our individuality. Berry puts it powerfully – “if you are dependent on people who do not know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe” (166). It would seem that the principle and practice of community are indeed in peril. Forces internal and external to themselves threaten to disintegrate communities as individuals become decreasingly accountable to the lives of those near to them and increasingly subjected to dependence upon a placeless economy. Any real sense of belonging or responsibility to a life other than our own or a place other than our private property is being unremittingly dissolved in the modern political, social and economic climate.

Is community restoration a worthwhile pursuit?

Again Berry’s answer is unmistakably affirmative. Championing community for Berry is perhaps the worthwhile pursuit and certainly definitive of his project as a writer, theologian, farmer, and neighbor. But let us explore for a moment ourselves the value of community and its worthiness of defense. On the most basic level, community is necessary for our survival. If this alone seems too basic or mundane a justification for protecting community, may I suggest that our ingenuity and adaptability as a species sustain themselves over time by that same force. Culture, wisdom and tradition too depend entirely upon community for their accumulation and transmission. On a more explicitly theological note, community has essential ontological significance and an eschatological aim: we are told in scripture that where two or more gather in Christ’s name, He is there with us; we proclaim our belief in “the communion of saints” in our creed; we pray to a God who is community – three in one; we talk about the Church as the Body of Christ – many parts but one body; and we announce the Kingdom of God in which all will finally be brought together in Christ. Then the survival of community is absolutely necessary for our physical, cultural, and spiritual survival, and thus unarguably a worthwhile pursuit.

How do we restore community?

We have determined that community is under threat and that it is deeply important that we respond. Now, how do we begin to enact that response? This question is surely as broad as the prior query regarding the meaning of community and is a topic to be given further consideration in future blog posts. But for now it is perhaps useful to look to areas where there is already a concerted effort to restore community. Of particular interest to Wendell Berry, Shalom Farms, and me are community efforts in the food movement. Community gardens and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are becoming fixtures in cities all over the US. People are reclaiming a sense of belonging – to a watershed, a food shed, a local economy – and are embracing the responsibility that follows as they confront the realities of “neighbors downstream,” food deserts, and shared finite resources. Food is the great equalizer and a powerful revelator of our interdependence – we all must eat and we are all fundamentally dependent upon other creatures to do so. It is only natural then that food would impart a sense of belonging and responsibility to our fellow creatures and the places we inhabit. For Christians, food takes on even greater significance and unifying power. Jesus Christ gives Himself to us as food, and that food is our Communion. As Christian communities gather around the table, they become that which they receive: the Body of Christ. This Communion is a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet we await in faith and announce in our living.

Berry’s prognosis on the current state of affairs is a grim one. But his hope in the power of community is as real and as deep as his love for this troubled, miraculous, broken and blessed world. I will conclude this post not with any cohesive conclusion but a poem that conveys that hope:

A Vision
by Wendell Berry

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
there, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility