A LABORATORY FOR PERSONAL DISARMAMENT
Toward the end of a two-day community experience in 1984 a late-middle-aged lady announced to the group: "I know Scotty said we weren't supposed to drop out, but when my husband and I got home yesterday evening we were seriously considering doing just that. I didn't sleep very well last night, and I almost didn't come here this morning. But something very strange has happened. Yesterday I was looking at all of you through hard eyes. Yet today for some reason - I don't really understand it - I have become soft-eyed, and it feels just wonderful."
This transformation - routine in community - is the same as that described in the story of the rabbi's gift. The decrepit monastery, a dying group, came alive (and into community) once its members began looking at each other and themselves through "soft eyes," seeing through lenses of respect. It may seem strange in our culture of rugged individualism that this transformation begins to occur precisely when we begin to "break down." As long as we look out at each other only through the masks of our composure, we are looking through hard eyes. But as the masks drop and we see the suffering and courage and brokenness and deeper dignity underneath, we truly start to respect each other as fellow human beings.
Once when I was speaking about community to the governing body of a church, one of the members wisely commented: "What I hear you saying is that community requires the confession of brokenness." He was correct of course. But how remarkable it is that in our culture brokenness must be "confessed." We think of confession as an act that should be carried out in secret, in the darkness of the confessional, with the guarantee of professional priestly or psychiatric confidentiality. Yet the reality is that every human being is broken and vulnerable. How strange that we should ordinarily feel compelled to hide our wounds when we are all wounded!
Vulnerability is a two-way street. Community requires the ability to expose our wounds and weaknesses to our fellow creatures. It also requires the capacity to be affected by the wounds of others, to be wounded by their wounds. This is what the woman meant by "soft eyes." Her eyes were no longer barriers, and she did, indeed, feel wonderful. There is pain in our wounds. But even more important is the love that arises among us when we share, both ways, our woundedness. Still, we cannot deny the reality that this sharing requires a risk in our culture - the risk of violating the norm of pretended invulnerability. For most of us it is a new - and, seemingly, potentially dangerous - form of behavior.
It may seem odd to refer to community as a laboratory. The word implies a sterile place filled not with softness but with hardware. A laboratory can better be defined, however, as a place designed to be safe for experiments. We need such a place, because when we experiment we are trying out - testing - new ways of doing things. So it is in community: it is a safe place to experiment with new types of behavior. When offered the opportunity of such a safe place, most people will naturally begin to experiment more deeply than ever before with love and trust. They drop their customary defenses and threatened postures, the barriers of distrust, fear, resentment, and prejudice. They experiment with disarming themselves. They experiment with peace - peace within themselves and within the group. And they discover that the experiment works.
An experiment is designed to give us new experience from which we can extract new wisdom. So it is that in experimenting with personally disarming themselves, the members of a true community experientially discover the rules of peacemaking and learn its virtues. It is a personal experience so powerful that it can become the driving force behind the quest for peace on a global scale.
A GROUP THAT CAN FIGHT GRACEFULLY
It may at first glance seem paradoxical that a community that is a safe place and a laboratory for disarmament should also be a place of conflict. Perhaps a story will help. A Sufi master was strolling through the streets one day with his students. When they came to the city square, a vicious battle was being fought between government troops and rebel forces. Horrified by the bloodshed, the students implored, "Quick, Master, which side should we help?"
"Both," the Master replied.
The students were confused. "Both?" they demanded. "Why should we help both?"
"We need to help the authorities learn to listen to the aspirations of the people," the Master answered, "and we need to help the rebels learn how not to compulsively reject authority."
In genuine community there are no sides. It is not always easy, but by the time they reach community the members have learned how to give up cliques and factions. They have learned how to listen to each other and how not to reject each other. Sometimes consensus in community is reached with miraculous rapidity. But at other times it is arrived at only after lengthy struggle. Just because it is a safe place does not mean community is a place without conflict. It is, however, a place where conflict can be resolved without physical or emotional bloodshed and with wisdom as well as grace. A community is a group that can fight gracefully.
That this is so is hardly accidental. For community is an amphitheater where the gladiators have laid down their weapons and their armor, where they have become skilled at listening and understanding, where they respect each others' gifts and accept each others' limitations, where they celebrate their differences and bind each others' wounds, where they are committed to a struggling together rather than against each other. It is a most unusual battleground indeed. But that is also why it is an unusually effective ground for conflict resolution. The significance of this is hardly slight. There are very real conflicts in the world, and the worst of them do not seem to go away. But there is a fantasy abroad. Simply stated, it goes like this: "If we can resolve our conflicts, then someday we shall be able to live together in community." Could it be that we have it totally backward? And that the real dream should be: "If we can live together in community, then someday we shall be able to resolve our conflicts"?
A GROUP OF ALL LEADERS
When I am the designated leader I have found that once a group becomes a community, my nominal job is over. I can sit back and relax and be one among many, for another of the essential characteristics of community is a total decentralization of authority. Remember that it is antitotalitarian. Its decisions are reached by consensus. Communities have sometimes been referred to as leaderless groups. It is more accurate, however, to say that a community is a group of all leaders.
Because it is a safe place, compulsive leaders feel free in community - often for the first time in their lives - to not lead. And the customarily shy and reserved feel free to step forth with their latent gifts of leadership. The result is that a community is an ideal decision-making body. The expression "A camel is a horse created by a committee" does not mean that group decisions are inevitably clumsy and imperfect; it does mean that committees are virtually never communities.
So it was in 1983 when I needed to make some difficult major decisions in my life - so difficult that I knew I was not intelligent enough to make them alone even with expert advice. I asked for help, and twenty-eight women and men came to my aid from around the country. Quite properly, we spent the first 80 percent of our three days together building ourselves into a community. Only in the last few hours did we turn our attention to the decisions that needed to be made. And they were made with the speed and brilliance of lightning.
One of the most beautiful characteristics of community is what I have come to call the "flow of leadership." It is because of this flow that our community in 1983 was able to make its decisions so rapidly and effectively. And because its members felt free to express themselves, it was as if their individual gifts were offered at just the right moment in the decision-making process. So one member stepped forward with part A of the solution. And since the community recognized the wisdom of the gift, everyone deferred to it so that instantly, almost magically, a second member was free to step forward with part B of the solution. And so it flowed around the room.
The flow of leadership in community is routine. It is a phenomenon that has profound implications for anyone who would seek to improve organizational decision making - in business, government, or elsewhere. But it is not a quick trick or fix. Community must be built first. Traditional hierarchical patterns have to be at least temporarily set aside. Some kind of control must be relinquished. For it is a situation in which it is the spirit of community itself that leads and not any single individual.
Community is a spirit - but not in the way that the familiar phrase "community spirit" is usually understood. To most of us it implies a competitive spirit, a jingoistic boosterism, such as that displayed by fans of winning football teams or the citizens of a town in which they take great pride. "Our town is better than your town" might be taken as a typical expression of community spirit.
But this understanding of the spirit of community is profoundly misleading as well as dreadfully shallow. In only one respect is it accurate. The members of a group who have achieved genuine community do take pleasure - even delight - in themselves as a collective. They know they have won something together, collectively discovered something of great value, that they are "onto something." Beyond that the similarity ends. There is nothing competitive, for instance, about the spirit of true community. To the contrary, a group possessed by a spirit of competitiveness is by definition not a community. Competitiveness is always exclusive; genuine community is inclusive. If community has enemies, it has begun to lose the spirit of community - if it ever had it in the first place.
The spirit of true community is the spirit of peace. People in the early stages of a community-building workshop will frequently ask, "How will we know when we are a community?" It is a needless question. When a group enters community there is a dramatic change in spirit. And the new spirit is almost palpable. There is no mistaking it.
No one who has experienced it need ever ask again "How will we know when we are a community?"
Nor will one ever question that it is a spirit of peace that prevails when a group enters community. An utterly new quietness descends on the group. People seem to speak more quietly; yet, strangely, their voices seem to carry better through the room. There are periods of silence, but it is never an uneasy silence. Indeed, the silence is welcomed. It feels tranquil. Nothing is frantic anymore. The chaos is over. It is as if noise had been replaced by music. The people listen and can hear. It is peaceful.
But spirit is slippery. It does not submit itself to definition, to capture, the way material things do. So it is that a group in community does not always feel peaceful in the usual sense of the word. Its members will from time to time struggle with each other, and struggle hard. The struggle may become excited and exuberant with little, if any, room for silence. But it is a productive, not a destructive, struggle. It always moves toward consensus, because it is always a loving struggle. It takes place on a ground of love. The spirit of community is inevitably the spirit of peace and love.
The "atmosphere" of love and peace is so palpable that almost every community member experiences it as a spirit. Hence, even the agnostic and atheist members will generally report a community-building workshop as a spiritual experience. How this experience is interpreted, however, is highly variable. Those with a secular consciousness tend to assume that the spirit of community is no more than a creation of the group itself; and beautiful though it may be, they will leave it at that. Most Christians, on the other hand, tend toward a more complicated understanding.
In the latter frame of reference the spirit of community is not envisioned as a purely human spirit or one created solely by the group. It is assumed to be external to and independent of the group. It therefore is thought of as descending upon the group, just as the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove. This does not mean, however, that the spirit's visitation is accidental or unpredictable. It can fall upon and take root only in fertile, prepared ground. Thus for those of Christian orientation the work of community building is seen as preparation for the descent of the Holy Spirit. The spirit of community is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
This does not mean that community is solely a Christian phenomenon. I have seen community develop among Christians and Jews, Christians and atheists, Jews and Muslims, Muslims and Hindus. People of any religious persuasion or none whatever can develop community. Nor does it mean that a belief in Christianity is a guarantee of community. It is reported that some men saw Jesus' disciples casting out demons in his name, and they thought that this was an easy formula. So with no more thought, they went up to some demoniacs and shouted, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus." But absolutely nothing happened, except that the demons laughed at them.
So it is with groups. A group of Christians who are not prepared can sit around shouting "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus" until they are blue in the face, and nothing will happen. They will move no closer to community. On the other hand, any group of people (no matter what their religious persuasion or whether the word "Jesus" is ever spoken) who are willing to practice the love, discipline, and sacrifice that are required for the spirit of community, that Jesus extolled and exemplified, will be gathered together in his name and he will be there.
My own frame of reference is Christian, and for me, therefore, the spirit of community, which is the spirit of peace and love, is also the spirit of Jesus. But the Christian understanding of community would go even beyond this. The doctrine of the Trinity - of three in one - holds that Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit, while separate in one sense are the same in another. So when I talk of Jesus being present in community, I am also speaking of the presence of God and the Holy Spirit.
In Christian thought the Holy Spirit is particularly identified with wisdom. Wisdom is envisioned as a kind of revelation. To the secular mind we humans, through thought, study, and the assimilation of experience, arrive at wisdom. It is our own achievement. We somehow earn it. While Christian thinkers hardly denigrate the value of thought, study, and experience, they believe that something more is involved in the creation of wisdom. Specifically, they believe wisdom to be a gift of God and the Holy Spirit.
The wisdom of a true community often seems miraculous. This wisdom can perhaps be explained in purely secular terms as a result of the freedom of expression, the pluralistic talents, the consensual decision making that occur in community. There are times, however, when this wisdom seems to my religious eye to be more a matter of divine spirit and possible divine intervention.
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