Everything depends on how we build our life together. Everything. When St. Paul wrote “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you” (1 Cor. 3:16), he wasn’t writing about you or me. The “you” he uses is plural: You all together are God’s temple, and God’s Spirit dwells in the community you are building together. So be careful how you build, he warned; build something that endures. It’s a message we need to hear, because we’ve grown careless about how we’re building our community.
Frankly, I’m deeply concerned at the number of informed, thoughtful people who are warning that the future of the community we’re building in the United States, our democracy, is at risk. That’s not merely a political concern; it’s a concern for people of faith, for you and me. Paul was writing to a young, growing church in Corinth, one of the most worldly, cosmopolitan cities of its day. He was writing to a church struggling to overcome disagreement and the threat of division, a church trying to teach the world how to live the abundant life Jesus offered (Matt. 28:19-20; John 10:10).
Paul’s message was not for Christians only; it was and still is a message for the whole human community. How can we order our life together in the congregation, in our villages and cities, and in the community of nations, in a way that provides for abundant life to be shared equitably among all people? How can we make the reign of God real in the places where we live? In building the human community, we’re building God’s dwelling place, and in building God’s dwelling place our lives are at stake (1 Cor. 3:17). Build poorly, and what we create won’t survive.
Parker Palmer is an American author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change. I studied with him thirty years ago, and he’s one of those people to whom, when he speaks, I always listen. Not long ago he rephrased Paul’s question to the Corinthians in a very contemporary, practical way. “How can ‘We the People,’” he wondered, “call American politics [which is to say, American public life] back to health at a time when, in the words of Bill Moyers, ‘we have fallen under the spell of money, faction, and fear’?”
He was really asking how we can heal the human family, how we can build a community where we can be holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2), perfect as God is perfect (Matt. 5:48), merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36). The good news is, in Christ God was making us whole (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19), but it is still a broken wholeness, waiting for us to work out the details (Phil. 2:12-13). And though Palmer didn’t use the traditional language of faith, the way he described for rebuilding the foundations of our democracy is, I believe, very deeply rooted in our faith. Here are the five habits Palmer thinks we need to revive.
First, we need to understand that we’re all in this together. “Despite our illusions of individualism and national superiority,” he writes, “we humans are a profoundly interconnected species – entwined with one another and with all forms of life, as the global economic and ecological crises reveal in vivid and frightening detail. We must embrace the simple fact that we are dependent upon and accountable to one another, and that includes the stranger, the ‘alien other.’”
That’s the Christian message, the gospel. As Paul put it, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19). God makes no distinctions of race, nationality, political party, gender, sexuality, or even according to how we’ve sinned. God is bringing everyone into a common human household. We are all in this together, and we need to recognize that. How would that change the way you encounter the next stranger you meet in the grocery store or at a gas station?
Second, we need to cultivate an appreciation of “otherness.” The biblical concept of hospitality, Palmer writes, “rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites ‘otherness’ into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to us.”
Only twice in our scripture did Jesus meet someone whose faith was so great it amazed him, and both of those encounters were with someone who was not of his faith and culture, one a Roman soldier (Matt. 8:5-13), the other a Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28). In our relationship with the world, we need to be building bridges to connect us with others, not walls to separate us. How can you start to build even a very small bridge to someone, a neighbor perhaps, who is very different from you?
Third, we need to develop our ability to sustain tension in our lives in life-giving ways. “Our lives are filled with contradictions,” Palmer writes, “from the gap between our aspirations and our behavior to observations and insights we cannot abide because they run counter to our convictions. . . . [W]hen we allow their tensions to expand our hearts, they can open us to new understandings of ourselves and our world, enhancing our lives and allowing us to enhance the lives of others.”
In the world of Paul and the early church, nobody was more different, no one’s faith and culture more alien, than the Gentiles. Yet Paul and the church entered into fellowship with Gentiles that was as intimate as with anyone of their own faith and culture. It was a fellowship that celebrated the faith of Jewish Christians and allowed Gentile Christians to still be Gentiles. How can you initiate a spiritual fellowship with someone whose faith and culture are very different from yours?
Fourth, we need to nurture a sense of personal voice and agency. “[M]any of us lack confidence in our voices and in our power to make a difference,” Palmer writes. “We grow up in educational and religious institutions that treat us as members of an audience instead of actors in a drama, and as a result, we become adults who treat politics as a spectator sport.”
We also too often treat our faith as a spectator sport, too likely to become a member of an audience at an emotional entertainment on Sunday morning instead of members of the living body of Christ who are at work transforming the world to reflect God’s reign on earth. What can you do this week, what can you do today, to give the next stranger you meet a taste of the life God offers?
Finally, Palmer writes, we need to develop our capacity to create community. “Without a community, it is nearly impossible to achieve voice: it takes a village to raise a Rosa Parks. Without a community, it is nearly impossible to exercise the ‘power of one’ in a way that allows power to multiply: it took a village to translate Rosa Parks’s act of personal integrity into social change.”
“We must all become gardeners of community,” Palmer writes, “if we want democracy to flourish.” What will you do to organize a group of six or eight people to explore together how you will give voice to your faith, how you will express your faith in the world? What will you do to plant and nurture the seeds of authentic human community not only in your church but in your neighborhood, your village or town, your Congressional district?
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote as the young American democracy was taking shape. They were times that would test the quality of how the nation was building its new community. These are also times that will test us to see how we will build the reign of God on earth.