Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Do we really want community:" A woman's view

I very much appreciate, resonate and am in harmony with the work of Micah Bales, so much so that I subscribe to his blog, a rare occurrence for me. Lately, he wrote a post called "Do we really want community?" at I want to respond from a woman's point of view. 

Like Micah, I believe community "requires that we consider the needs of others on an ongoing basis, even when it frustrates our own desires," but also find this highly problematic for anyone who has been part of a group that has routinely been indoctrinated to "frustrate" its "own desires." Forgive me as a woman for being leery of  such a call. As theologians such as Dorothy Solle and Andrew Sung Park have written, issues like sin, sacrifice and subordination look different depending on one's social location: male or female, black or white, First World or Two-thirds world. Do what extent do I have to be submissive for the good of the group? Who benefits? Who, in reality, will sacrifice the most?
Dorothy Solle

Much of the social fragmentation we see in our current culture arose from the identity politics that emerged from the 1960s as women, blacks, native Americans, gays and other groups demanded a new community more inclusive of them as fully human (ie, as being like white males) and more responsive to their needs. Many stood up to a social cohesion--a "community--" based on exploitation and caste. Much of our recent apocalyptic literature speaks, I believe, to the fragmented and desolate social landscape we have all been living in for the past 40 years. 

But are women and minorities to blame for destroying community in pursuit of our own needs? Have we sinned? Park would say no. As the oppressed, we have  challenged  forms of community that harmed us, and thus have produced what Park calls han, the damage caused by the protest of those who suffer against injustice. I realize that my sufferings as a white woman in a privileged country have been very small; all the same I immensely grateful to these minor indignities for the sensitivity and insight they have given me to the more intense sufferings of others in greater oppression. When I recognize how angry I can get when I am, say, dismissed  or condescended to or accused of being a whiner for even mentioning gender, I am humbled by what much worse oppressions people bear with grace.

What first jumped out at me from Micah's post was his mention of the Howard Thurman quote that I use it as a tag line for Emerging ... Micah writes: "The famous Howard Thurman quote –Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. - is twisted into justifying boundless individualism. If it meets your needs, do it."

I am glad Micah noted that turning this quote into an individualist manifesto involves "twisting" it. It never once occurred to me that this statement could remotely support selfish individualism. I have seen it affirming a community that values everyone's gifts, a vision countering a totalitarian view of community that I witness so often as a college instructor, in which my students deny their own deep gifts to pursue a vocational major seen as valuable to society (ie, subordinating their own needs to the good of the group) because it offers a job at the other end. These choices are couched as individualism, but are, I believe a form of market totalitarianism in which human value is reduced to a paycheck.  Thurman is quite clear that we should pursue our own gifts not for reasons of self-fulfillment or individual ego gratification, but because the world--and I love the use of the term world for allowing inclusion of an eco-spirituality that transcends mere human needs--cries out for our gifts: our specific, God-given gifts. 

I realize that gender plays a huge role in why Thurman's quote resonates with me. As a child growing up in  the 1960s, I imbibed completely traditional gender expectations. When the woman's movement erupted as "bra burning" in the late 1960s,  it was treated by adults in my community as utterly bizarre. I grew up, albeit only half consciously, having internalized a strong message that my needs were  naturally subordinate to male needs. The Thurman quote has helped liberate me to be a person who dares to use my gifts with a confidence that doing so serves the world. I can't express how much I have leaned into that wisdom.
How seriously can we take women when our society reduces them to beer cans? Can we blame them/us for being leery of "community?"

I know Micah hardly envisions a community that replicates the gender and ethnic oppressions of the past. But we can hardly build a new community without being conscious--acutely so--of what has gone before. Even in Quaker circles, which tend to be less sexist than the wider society, the unconscious sexism--not to mention racism and classism and other isms-- we have all internalized ought to be addressed. 

We need community.  As long as we are, to use Biblical metaphors, clusters of scattered sheep or lone sheep, we are easy pickings for the wolves of the world. Yet this new community needs to be a truly new community, based on the kingdom of God. Jesus showed us how to do this. Through the foot washing, he demonstrated that the privileged must serve the less privileged. This doesn't mean that the priest washes a few parishioners feet once a year. It means-- a repeated message through both testaments-- that the stronger care for the weaker. Jesus said, three times to Peter, feed my sheep. He didn't say feed my sheep only if they work or only if they subordinate their very selfhood to your needs. His kingdom means the stronger--and this includes the many privileged parts of me--take on greater frustration for the good of the group. Can we do this?
It can be hard to find images of community that don't foreground men and whites, but this one was OK. 

Part me of me, falling back on Thurman, wants to say we must each put on our own oxyen mask  before we can participate in community, but clearly, we need others even to wear an oxygen mask. Often, I simply want to reject community. After all, the subtle oppressions of community are both easy to perpetrate and easy to dismiss.  However, I will, as I have done, continue to struggle with this issue through a lens that highlights the knowledge that some have been treated as more equal than others.    


Paul Klinkman said...

For many years, FLGBTQC has held a daily worship at Friends General Conference. Persistent worship was the key, not scheduled lectures or loose discussions. Enormous amounts of grief, rage and ultimately spiritual power flowed through the meeting, and in time FLGBTQC worship came to be known as a full-of-wonder experience, not to be missed by anybody. I think of FLGBTQC as an integral part of FGC, where they are us, where the LBGTQ community takes a fair share of the organization and leadership of all of FGC.

If you want to see community, I recommend that persistent group worship is equally going to be your optimum tool. I see an enormous reservoir of bottled up grief and rage among the sexual and physical abuse survivors within Friends. Most of the survivors are women and most of the perpetrators are men, but not all so please don't exclude all men.

I also see a certain lack of general awareness of the depth of hurt taking place. The ad in the picture portrays women as beer cans, in other words, as drunken sex objects. Such an unthinking attitude promotes sexual abuse. This type of advertising (and perhaps the abuse also) will continue until the men in our own community (the men usually respond most favorably to this type of ad campaign) say no, this is a PR disaster for Anheuser-Busch so goodbye Busch. Down the road, men in general would start to say no, and then these ad campaigns would disappear.

I recommend taking the problem collectively to the great I AM, in the form of a daily meeting for worship at FGC. If you're not going to FGC, you might try this at your yearly meeting level. I don't recommend starting at the monthly meeting level, because you're going to need a critical mass of spiritual firebrands to start.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article, Diane. I completely agree with your viewpoint and concerns, they resonate for me. The one point I would make though is a blink spot that I notice some women have about "community" -- including simple the two or three other people in your midst at any one time: "Community" includes you. The reason that ultimately you don't have to be so wary of community is because community necessarily includes YOU. This means you. It is hard for many ordinary women to imagine that as a foregone conclusion. Might never occur to them. So Amen to what you've said, and thank you for sharing your own Gospel good news too! -Olivia

Anonymous said...

meant to type "blind spot" not "blink spot" ha

Diane said...

Thanks so much for your comments and recomendations.

Diane said...


Yes, I hear what you are saying.