Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Finding and Keeping Community

My newsletter article this week:

Rod Dreher is a conservative (political and religious) commentator for the Dallas Morning News and he has a blog at beliefnet. I often disagree with him but routinely find his writing to be thought-provoking.

Recently he had a post on what it means to be "local." Buying local, supporting local farms and businesses is all the rage right now. And, he says, rightly so. It makes environmental and economic sense to buy support what is local.

He notes, though, that buying local rarely gets paired with living local. He ruminates on his own move away from the local town he grew up in. He felt stifled there as a child and couldn't wait to move away. He loves living in the big city, Dallas for him, with its culture and convenience.

He knows, though, that something has been lost. That something is a sense of rootedness and community. Particularly since becoming a father he been working to create more of that "local" reality in his trans-local world. It is, he says, one of the reasons he joined a church.

I feel Rod's pain. I wouldn't want to live in the small town I grew up in. I love the city with its many opportunities and amenities. But it seems more difficult to find and create community. Although, and this is why I say it seems, I am not so sure it is all that easy in small towns anymore either. I am not so sure the sense of rootedness I sometimes feel nostalgic for is readily to be found anywhere in America today.

I think we have gone far down a cultural road of individualism and consumerism that makes finding and keeping community more difficult. I think both liberal and conservative values in their current forms contribute to this problem. Liberals celebrate individual choice and rights, which ultimately are considered to be of higher value than community. Because individual choice rules, we can choose to be part of a community or not; we can drop out, take a break, do our own thing. Because I am the final arbiter of truth, "my truth," the community doesn't have much authority. (Authority, legitimate authority, is power we grant to the community by virtue of our participation and our engagement in a community search for truth.) For community to work there has to be a middle ground between my way or the highway and the illegitimate authority of a cult-like group. You have to be able and encouraged to think for yourself; you have to want to participate. But you also have to be willing to make some commitment to the community you value and keep it. Liberal values of individualism, choice, rights, sampling the smorgasbord of life sometimes make this difficult.

Conservatives, on the other hand, consistently celebrate and support an economic system that destroys locality and community. The free market sends goods and services and people all around the world. It is virtually impossible to grow up in one place and find a job in the same place and live ones life in one community. The economy is dynamic; jobs and businesses are created and destroyed. It sounds wonderful in theory, but it kills community. In addition, the free-hand of the market rewards Wal-Marts and Targets and mega-malls and puts out of business small town and big city main streets and mom and pop shops. Even the locals who live in small towns drive to the nearest Wal-Mart to get the best deal. You can't blame them, but it just contributes to the loss of stable jobs and stable communities. I am continually amazed at the missed irony of conservatives who trumpet family values while extolling the wonders of the free market as it exists today.

When we started Open Circle some 16 years ago we wanted to create a community where people with progressive spiritual values could find a home, and find that sense of connectedness and rootedness that is not always easy to find anywhere today. I continue to be gratified by individuals and families who find a home at Open Circle and give something of themselves to make it a community. But it remains a challenge, given the cultural climate. I am not complaining, mind you; I am just calling it like I see it.

I hope to see you at our community meal this Sunday.

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