Community is not the answer to everything

Recently on facebook an article was posted on leadership. I liked the article but a line at the top of the page made me a bit uneasy. It said ‘Whatever the problem, community is the answer.’ Really?

I wonder if ‘community’ has become a buzz word whose implications we don’t fully get. Community can be beautiful. Community can be dangerous. Community can be empowering. Community can be oppressive.

Maybe it’s the reaction to consumerist individualism and uncaring faith that makes community such an attractive Utopia. Many have tried to create this community, sometimes by force, sometimes by rules or sometimes by coercion. When something goes wrong we immediately look for a scapegoat. Rene Girard speaks of this powerfully in his writings and I am yet to read him properly. Yet it is interesting that blame seems to be such an individual category. But I think communities must be willing to take blame. For they have power and communities engage in good and bad acts. Who is to take responsibility for these actions whether good or bad?

Which is why the research of my friend Drew into the apology of the church of England for the slave trade is fascinating. After all the slave trade had such a wide participation of certain societies that even today the prejudices of that age are still echoing and resonating around the world.

The bible is quite ambiguous whether communities are good or bad. Many times it’s the single individual who is called to stand against the community. Yet the times of unified celebration and joy is definitely portrayed as good.

I think the word ‘community’ needs to be always qualified. We need to always refresh its meaning so that it protects and empowers the individuals in it. Otherwise we’ll be consigned to codes of silence, of abuses of authority and of excluding the slightly different.

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The recurrence of whitewash

An American football coach, a deceased British DJ and an American cyclist. What do they have in common? Well for one they are in the news. The stuff they have done pretty horrific.

Jerry Sandusky was recently sentenced for abusing countless numbers of boys. Jimmy Savile, a veritable British institution turns out to be the ultimate nightmare by abusing countless numbers young people. Finally, Lance Armstrong seems to have won all his titles and fame by cheating.

Now, what’s been done is terrible enough but something that binds these three people is the culture of cover up that protected them for so long. All of their acts were known in their circles for years. Yet a culture of silence followed it. The same with the abuse of children in the church. It doesn’t matter what institution or grouping of people it is, those who wield power are able to bend justice into injustice and drag those close to them into that injustice. So Sandusky’s employers knew but didn’t report anything. Savile’s associates and employers knew but didn’t do anything. Armstrong’s teammates definitely knew but didn’t do anything. No they actually did something. They colluded and reinforced the injustice that was occuring.

This is scary. Because it could happen to anybody. Have we ever been part of a group that suddenly turned on an individual an bullied them? I have. I’m ashamed of that. This is the spirit of people coming together that I want to avoid. How we see an injustice and yet can’t see it.

I follow formula 1 a lot and here’s what two of the better drivers in terms of personality and driving have to say.

For Alonso, Lance Armstrong is always a legend even if he cheated. This is something that a lot of Armstrong’s fans are saying. ‘He cheated. So did everyone else. He was the best of the cheats.’ Why do we choose to be blind?

When Roman Polanski was under threat of being extradited Whoopi Goldberg along with other hollywood personalities leapt to Roman’s defence.

Why do we do this? Why do we defend the indefensible? Why do we cover up uncomfortable and unjust happenings within the groups we are in? Is it because the image of what we believe, is more important than the reality that presents itself later? Questions, questions. I just hope that I’m brave enough not to be part of whitewashes though I fear I’m already part of some. Lord have mercy.

Community vs Individualism – A false divide? Part 2

What is often dressed up as individualism is often a plain delusion. Advertising screams at us, claiming that if we buy that product which all the other millions have already bought then we will be truly unique and truly individual. So in effect we are encouraged to be part of the herd under the guise of being an individual. I wonder if being an individual is a huge sham. After all we are the product of the prejudices and beliefs of our times. The really different ones are mad, and/or unable to relate to the rest.

Great theologians like John Zizioulas and others have given us brilliant explanations of what constitutes a person. A lot of it revolves around the idea of a person being the network of relationships she is part of. Of course reading him would give a much better understanding. But I still don’t understand what an individual is. The problem is illustrated by a few musical examples.

In a symphonic orchestra there are many individual instruments or ‘voices’. Often the unity of a community is illustrated that saying that we are an orchestra playing our different parts. Agreed. But… the orchestra is considered successful only if each person performs exactly what has been pre-ordained for them. So in effect there is very little individuality. Yes each instrument is different but if they did their own thing it would be chaos.

So maybe we have to look at a jazz ensemble. Even there, with all the improvisation spaces there are still rigid traditions that dictate the place and space of each musician. I have heard of a few improvisational ensembles where they make it up as they go along which sounds absolutely amazing but there seems to be so few of them.

The time you truly hear an individual is when the others intentionally give space to the individual. Maybe that’s how we go. We live a life that in ourselves is always seeking to give others space in our own way. It is an other centred individualism where our primary concern is the development of the individuals around us to be more fully human in their own way. But of course this sounds very idealistic and I’m not sure how it fully works out in practice.

But through reflection I have to conclude that community is not the end to which we strive for. It is both. An other centred individuality and a community which ensures that its individuals flourish. After all Jesus is not the Holy Spirit. Father, Son and Spirit work for each other so much so that they not only seem one, they are one while being three. A mystery of course but it’s that mystery, that we are called to inhabit.

Community vs Individualism – A false divide? Part 1

Last year while at a conference the principal of Spurgeon’s college spoke of his support for individualism. I sneered within. Typical westerner. Community is what we are meant to be. Isn’t that what a major portion of theology and the bible is working towards? And of course we Indians know about community compared to these poor individualistic Westerners. Ah racial prejudice! You’re like a nasty cold that never leaves.

The principal has a point. Over the past few years by reflection and observation I’ve seen and realised how oppressive communities can be. In fact so much of the radical steps of society, were in recognizing and safeguarding of the individual. The reformation for example allowed faith to be expressed in such individual terms as had rarely been before. The balance is probably the other way now especially in urban cultures where the individual is given so much importance that everyone’s a bit tired of it and wants to get ‘community’ back.

However communities can be dangerous. Amartya Sen in his brilliant book Identity and Violence speaks of how communities suddenly turn to violence when individuals consider their community identity as the sole way of expressing individual identity. History has shown this. All the Germans who supported the Nazis weren’t bad people. Yet as a community they seemed to be taken by a particular spirit that blinded them to horrors of Nazism.

Beyond the obvious examples of Nazism and Stalinism I’ve seen how communities suddenly unite to exclude certain kinds of people. Twice before because of disagreements with church leadership we suddenly found ourselves losing bunches of ‘friends.’ The people that are meant to love each other and the supposed community is actually a tribe which can’t bear for its superstitions and institutions to be questioned.

I think all groups of people have this herd mentality from choirs to churches, to political parties to the regulars at the pub. There seems to be a kind of spirit that descends on people when they are together and united. This ‘spirit’ can do great good and great harm. I think the question I’m grappling with is how the community can truly make us human when so often it dehumanises everyone in it.

How do we call ourselves a community without losing the individuality that is also core to our identity?

King’s X; victims of racial stereotyping?

I’ve recently been listening to a lot of King’s X. Though I’d heard their stuff a while back just right now they’ve really hit the spot with me. If you go through the youtube videos of their music one particular comment comes out strong. “Most underrated band ever.” And I agree. For their time they were at the very forefront of rock. Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam reputedly said that King’s X invented grunge. Billy Sheehan the virtuoso bassist in this video says that King’s X should have been bigger than U2. Rock bands like Extreme, Mr. Big and later bands like RATM all seem to have got some inspiration from King’s X when you listen to their music chronologically.

Yet why are they so underrated? It can be said that many bands fall foul of the music industry but these guys worked very hard with the industry itself and yet they never hit the big time. I could be wrong but I think it’s because they are a mixed race band. We have to remember that in the early 80s MTV were still not showing many black artists including Michael Jackson. Significant numbers of Americans still think that mixed race marriage should be banned. I think in that kind environment marketing a band like King’s X would have to really rise above racial stereotyping. How many black frontmen are there in rock/heavy rock/metal bands? Not that many and I think those that are around are probably from more recent acts than King’s X was. So as with a lot of things it was a huge marketing issue. Racial prejudice would’ve dampened King’s X obvious rise to the top.

Obviously it’s sad. They are an astonishing band combining sounds that even today very few bands can authentically do. Yet they live on in the memories of their hardcore fan base. Long live King’s X.