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People Like Me

I finished drafting another chapter for the book today. The chapter has the title of this post: People Like Me. I use that to explore the tension between two competing forces in our search for community: affirmation of individual identity and community built through recognition of others.

I describe the first idea by reading the title as People Like ME. Remember back when Al Franken was a comedian instead of a United States Senator? Does the name Stuart Smalley sound familiar?

Admittedly, Stuart tries too hard. Yet the sentiment of wanting to be known is common to us all. Set against that are the demands put on us when in groups. We want to fit in. I think of that by reading the title as PEOPLE LIKE me.

Pursuing both of these simultaneously requires Grace. Much of the chapter explores the stages of community building outlined by M. Scott Peck. His four stages are pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and then community.

Pseudocommunity is where we live most of the time. The dominant ethos is one of politeness. We don’t want to make waves. We want to fit in. Doing so comes at the price of the very affirmation we were looking for. If I tell people what I really feel, others in the group would be uncomfortable. There could be a scene. I might even be ostracized, thereby losing the sense of belonging.

Too many churches and too many Christian universities are characterized by pseudocommunity. It’s why we advertise them as “friendly, family oriented” places. In other words, nothing will happen here that will make you uncomfortable.

Sometimes, however, we’ve got enough safety to let a bit of our true selves out. We start sharing uncomfortable opinions. Some people won’t like what’s been said. There will be bad feelings all around. This is what Peck calls “chaos”. That’s probably a little melodramatic but it does characterize a lack of control and the introduction of uncertainty. You know then you’re there because suddenly a number of others try to squelch the discontent and restore the politeness norm.

Peck says that we can press on to “emptiness”. That’s another label that may be more Buddhist than intended, but it means to go along with the uncertainty. Parker Palmer says it requires adhering to a rule of “no fixing, no saving, no setting each other straight.” In other words, it means to live with the uncertainty without attempting to resolve the situation.

Then, and only then, do we get to community. Like the stage theories I explored a couple of posts back, these aren’t fixed in time. We slide back into earlier patterns and must repeat the process as we go along.

It’s helpful here to remember that Bonheoffer’s wonderful little book Life Together underscores that we don’t make community happen. Community, he says, is a gift of God’s Grace. It comes because all of us in the group stand in common relationship to Christ as the basis of our connections. It comes because we are together pursuing obedience to Christ.

I was wrapping up this chapter when the news broke that Exodus International was shutting down and president Alan Chambers issued a statement of apology. I haven’t been impacted by EI in any way, so my reactions to the apology and the end of the ministry probably don’t count as much as others. But as I look at his statements and those of others on Facebook and Twitter, glance at comment sections, and generally pay attention, it strikes me that Chambers’ statements certainly begin to push the edges of pseudocommunity. When you read reactions of those deeply scarred by E-I’s work over the years, we begin to approach chaos. When we add in the reactions of those who wouldn’t be happy with any apology, we’re getting really close to it.

Looking at community in this way suggests that the evangelical world can move back into pseudocommunity or forward through chaos. If the former, we’ll isolate into interest groups of like-minded folks where our identity can be affirmed without threat. Our groups can then comment about the wrongness of those on “the other side”.

Or we can venture on through chaos. We could choose to live with the uncertainties of those who are trying to reconcile their faith and their sexual orientation on the one hand while others are tying to reconcile hospitality and scriptural authority. The truth is that the way forward is messy.

But if Bonhoeffer is right, and I’m sure he is, we aren’t making that journey alone. It takes courage to build community that isn’t based on safety, that affirms the identity of the other. It’s a courage well beyond our own capacities. But not beyond God’s.

P.S. As I was finishing this, Andrew Marin of the Marin Foundation posted this response to the Exodus story which illustrates what I tried to say here at the end better than I did.


1 Comment

  1. michellevl says:

    So well stated. (Love the pic of Stuart Smalley in the mirror, too!)

    “It takes courage to build community that isn’t based on safety, that affirms the identity of the other. It’s a courage well beyond our own capacities. But not beyond God’s.” YES.

    When it happens, it is a glimpse into the kingdom of heaven – and to the healing that comes when our scattered, self-protective bits of self are made whole. Seeing the identity of the other, and being seen in return, can hasten and facilitate that healing.

    I worked at a Christian university for nearly 5 years. I saw plenty of pseudo-community. But I also saw the real deal happening side-by-side with the faux kind.

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