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Observations on Community

Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus and executive director of the Center for Religion in Public Life at Phillips Seminary. He is a former OCCJ board member and remains a good friend of OCCJ’s mission.

Occasionally, a drought or a dam repair dries up a river or lakebed, and an archeologist’s paradise is uncovered. Stuff that was there all the time, but covered by the waters, is revealed. Fossils. Arrowheads. An ancient canoe. A long-missing car. Bones. All there for decades, sometimes centuries, but we could not see them.

What are the revealing pictures you will remember from the early weeks of this pandemic? Empty streets, restaurants, theaters, and pews? Faces of delivery persons, masked or naked and vulnerable? Construction workers talking to each other a foot apart instead of six feet? Faces of friends, family, co-workers, clients, and fellow congregants in little boxes on your computer screen—at once a wonderful sight and a painful reminder of how we need each other, in real spaces, in community spaces, in our lives?

Well, I’ve been observing and studying what “community” means at least since I wrote a dissertation on the subject 30 years ago. This pandemic shut-down of our “normal” lives enables us to see our communities—and ourselves—in a way akin to what is revealed in a temporarily revealed riverbed.

Here is what I see.

It is hard to do more than try to keep life as normal as possible right now. But I hope that “normal” does not return, if normal means invisible neighbors serving the privileged visible persons if that means we forget about those who stock stores, take our blood, transport food, pick up our trash, protect and respond, and teach our children.

I hope that a new normal will include dealing with tough, vital questions. What kind of people do we want to be? Which civic virtues need to be strengthened? Who is our neighbor, and what do neighbors owe to each other? What size and organization of government do we need in order to protect the health of our communities?

In the U.S., we don’t have a sufficiently rich public rhetoric of how to talk about community to deal with this crisis. Partisan political mega-identities atomize us, uniting by common enemy rather than a shared sense of space, time, story, meaning, and destiny. Economic terms have invaded realms in a virus-like manner, displacing richer understandings of what it means to be community. To paraphrase Jesus of Nazareth: markets are made to serve humankind and not humankind the markets. Reducing human life to economics destroys persons and communities—including the community of living things on the planet.

A society that is merely a collectivity of self-interested, stand-alone, atomized individuals, united and divided by whom we despise, is no community. I don’t want a society in which care and decency end at the end of one’s driveway or political identity.

No, I want a society that is a community of communities, that is organized in a way that acknowledges we all—WE ALL—are healthy to the extent we are formed by, participate in, and foster healthy communities supported by social structures (governmental and civic) of sufficient size, power, authorization, virtue, and trust to do their work.

The time to look and ponder and dig deep in our national psyche is when the water’s retreat reveals the river’s secrets.