Commitment and community

Carol, my life partner, pointed me to an excellent post on John Michael Greer’s blog The Archdruid Report. The post is titled The Costs of Commitment, and it’s not a post about money:

…I don’t mean money. Communities need regular inputs of time and effort from their members, or they collapse into mass societies of isolated individuals — roughly speaking, what we’ve got now [in U.S. society]. Communities also need subtler inputs: a sense of commitment, of shared purpose, of emotional connection, of trust. To gain the benefits of living in community, it’s necessary to sacrifice some part of the autonomy that so many Americans nowadays guard so jealously….

And in fact one of the great weaknesses of today’s Unitarian Universalist congregations is that so many of the people who think of themselves as Unitarian Universalists aren’t willing to sacrifice any of their autonomy to participate in the congregational community. But here, as in so many aspects of life, ya gotta pay to play. Rule number one of congregational community:– if you want a Unitarian Universalist community, you have to give up the much-loved American autonomy that says it’s better to sleep in or go for a walk or play video games on Sunday morning. Then add some volunteer hours on top of that. Otherwise, you’re not part of a community.

And, as Greer points out, many of the people who claim to love-love-love community don’t actually belong to a functional community, and in fact deliberately participate in “communities” that are bound to fail:

I know a fair number of people in activist circles who speak in glowing terms about community; most of them don’t belong to a single community organization. I also know a fair number of people who’ve tried to launch community projects of one kind or another; most of these projects foundered due to a fatal shortage of people willing to commit the time, effort, and emotional energy the project needed to survive. Most, but not all; some believers in community have taken an active role in trying to build or maintain it; some projects have managed to find an audience and build a community, or at least the first rough draft of one. One of the reasons I don’t dismiss the Transition Town movement, though I have serious doubts about some aspects of it, is precisely that many of the people involved in it have committed themselves to it in a meaningful sense, and the movement itself has succeeded in some places in building a critical mass of commitment and energy.

It’s important, I think, to assess the ventures toward community that are under way now or have been tried in the recent past, both the successful ones and the ones that have failed, and try to get some sense of the factors that tip the balance one way or the other. It’s also crucial, though, to recognize that there’s a difference between fantasies of community that provides all the benefits with none of the costs, and the reality of community in which each benefit must be paid for by a corresponding commitment. I suspect the common passion among some peak oil activists for lifeboat communities that just happen to be too expensive ever to get off the ground, which often goes hand in hand with a distinct lack of enthusiasm for participation in real communities of real people that exist right now, is simply one way of evading the difference.

The theoretical and theological grounding for this post will be very familiar to Unitarian Universalists who have studied James Luther Adams’s work on voluntary associations (see, e.g., his collections of essays Voluntary Associations, ed. Ronald Engels, 1986, and/or On Being Human Religiously, ed. Max Stackhouse, 1976). If you read much of Adams, you will discover that he believes voluntary associations — a.k.a. “communities” — are the major line of defense in preventing fascism. This point is also implicit in Greer’s post.

Yet while there’s nothing really new in this post, Greer sums the main point up nicely when he writes: “There’s a difference between fantasies of community that provides all the benefits with none of the costs, and the reality of community in which each benefit must be paid for by a corresponding commitment.” Go read the whole post — it’s worth it. Then come back here and ‘fess up — do you really invest your time, energy, enthusiasm, and yes money, into a real living organized community? (And let’s be honest, “my circle of friends” is not a community, it’s a circle of friends.)

9 thoughts on “Commitment and community

  1. Bill Baar

    We give up some autonomy and freedom when we joing a community. We bind ourselves to a covenant when we join a UU Church/Society. There are some trends in UU thinking on collusion course here because I’m not certain all want to think in terms of those limitations we accept.

  2. Jean

    Hm. Does my work count? I mean the daily — yes, daily — interactions I have with students, other faculty, our shared focus on learning (for good or ill, we focus on it, even those who procrastinate, avoid, grumble).

    Other than that, I really don’t like people enough to want to be “in community” with many of them. I much prefer the company of animals. Now there’s a community I care about.

  3. Bill Baar

    @Jean, I’d argue work counts (curious what Dan says). Whether you like the people (and whether the people like you) the challange of being in community. It’s the friction that polishes us and leaves us better for having been members. Without community, we stagnate.

  4. Dan

    Bill @ 1 — You write: “There are some trends in UU thinking on collision course here because I’m not certain all want to think in terms of those limitations we accept.”

    Yes indeed. Even though covenant is a fundamental organizing principle of Unitarian Universalist communities, there are Unitarian Universalists who want to have nothing to do with a covenant because of the limitations covenants impose on individuals.

    Jean @ 2 — This is the question I struggle with myself. My job as a minister is all about building community — I suspect your job, as a professor, is about the same. So yes, some jobs can count as building communities.

    Here’s where I struggle with it. I spend all this time at work building community, and then when I come home at night, I just don’t have much energy left over to devote to other kinds of community. But I don’t think that lets me off the hook. I still have to participate in other communities — I still have to put in the time, energy, enthusiasm into other communities. Those of us who actually believe in democracy feel compelled to do this, because the other option is creeping totalitarianism. Which is, in fact, what we’re seeing in the U.S. today; a creeping totalitarianism that is not about Democrats or Republicans, but more about citizens giving up their citizenship so they can sit on a couch and play video games.

    Bill @ 3 — The bit about friction and polishing — nicely put. A little bit of conflict is good for us.

  5. Bill Baar

    @Dan re: “Those of us who actually believe in democracy feel compelled to do this, because the other option is creeping totalitarianism.”

    I have to go back and read JLA in the context of the times he was arguing this line and make sure I understand it. Fascism and National Socialism (in the narrow historical context of these movements) was all about the individual reconnecting and submitting oneself, with a natural community; of shedding individuality for the greater race. Liberal individuality and autonomy was sean as weakness…and degeneration.

    So if JLA saw association as a counter to fascism, I’m curious how so… perhapes he shared the fear of weak Liberal individuality and sought strength in some voluntary association?

  6. Jean

    I think one of the subtexts here is that a “community” is going after the good of the whole of society, that it is embracing the liberal agenda (as they call it out here in the midwest). Not so a lot of the time. For instance, a good number of folks out here would identify with various communities that are none of those — the gun community, the anti-abortion community, the radical religious right community. They get along well, share work, support one another, give and receive in generous measure within their established communities. But they don’t like liberals one bit. It’s the glue that binds them. Does that make them totalitarian? Fascistic? Nope. Just makes them conservative, deeply so. And I daresay most Unitarians would shudder at what indeed goes on in these communities. But that doesn’t make them evil or after the total domination of society.

    So I don’t think a blanket embracing of “community” is all that useful, frankly. Hell, even gamers have communities. Right? They just want to sit in darkened rooms and play games. Community enough, right? By their standards, right. So community is not it: it’s citizenship that matters. That’s a whole different game.

  7. Barry Zavah

    I agree and it is frustrating. There are many commitments to our time; true enough. But for many; attending one of our churches was a major step forward and then, joining, even more so.

    Thereafter, our vaunted religious independence of thought and deed (“nobody can tell me what to do”) is akin to sitting alone in a cave; somehow expecting the payday to be enlightenment. “Commitment” seems to take on the connotation of a dirty word – like religion, sadly – or what ever else many attending are still in an active state of rebellion.

    Truly we bring with us the baggage of our past (religious) experiences. Admittedly it was not always positive. Nobody put a gun to another’s head and said: “sign here”! Signing the membership book was done with much thought and a deep sense of “this is the right place for me”.

    In reality – just look around – a dedicated few generally do all the work. We’re deemed to be adults and we treat the doers in the congregation as if they are our parents, expecting without measure; responsible for everything, nothing coming from us – but criticism.

    Our church isn’t sustained like a perpetual motion machine. One cannot obtain any of the benefits of belonging to a church without doing the work it requires to be a part of and build community. “Faith and works”? Work manifests the fruits of one’s faith.

    Few truly understand or appreciate what is entailed by signing the membership book. A church is not a one-way street. It isn’t about just “getting” the benefits of a nice service; music, a stimulating sermon, that “we’re a Welcoming Congregation”, good conversation and great coffee or that the Church has several successful community projects under its name – off of which we live vicariously.

    The doors won’t remain open unless members are prepared to devote “sweat equity” to the church community. Thereafter, the benefits of participating are legion; including our own personal growth…spiritually and emotionally. We receive as we’ve given and it is a win-win proposition for all concerned.

    Our very existence depends upon the commitment of all those having signed the membership book. Everyone has their unique talents, skills and gifts. Each contribution of money; but more importantly time, is a gift of supreme love.

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