Philomela has initiated the first Carnival for Progressive Christians and suggested “community” as an initial theme. It’s telling that the blog that’s being used as the homepage for this carnival is titled “without a church”, because so many Christians who fit the definition given there struggle to find a spiritual home that is supportive to them and committed to the identified goals. While I suspect that the problem is bigger in the US than it is here in Canada (particularly urban Southwestern Ontario), I still consider myself extremely fortunate to have found my church.
People talk a lot about the importance of having a community of supportive, like-minded people in one’s life. It’s one of those ideas that’s almost taken for granted these days – community is good. But the thing is, living in community is also hard, even when you do share some common opinions, passions, perspectives with the others around you. I’ve said several times that self-identifying as both Christian and feminist means that I spend a lot of time explaining myself and my positions on both sides of that equation. I never feel quite like I “fit” in either environment, and others I try are generally even worse. Living cooperatively, committing to interacting with others on an ongoing basis, seeing oneself as part of a larger whole, accepting the certainty of conflict…it’s all less than pleasant a lot of the time. But I think that more than the support and the like-mindedness, the less-than-pleasant of community is central to progress.
As the definition says, “progressive” Christians tend to focus on the “love one another” aspect of the teaching, and for me, it’s easy to talk/think about that in the abstract, and a hell of a lot more challenging to do it on an ongoing basis. I consider my church a pretty progressive place – institutionally, it’s very active in anti-poverty work, both globally and locally, and several members of the congregation are heavily involved with outreach organizations. But one of the things I notice about the kind of anti-poverty work we do through the church, or “charitable” work in general, is that it allows us to “love” from a distance. Even in direct, local initiatives – we can cook, serve food and clean up at a soup kitchen, we can make beds at a homeless shelter, we can collect winter clothing in a clothing drive, we can donate furniture to recently arrived refugees. We can see the individuals that we’re helping, we can speak to them and we can be kind to them, but we can still go home and live our lives separate from them, without ever really having to interact with them on an ongoing basis, get to know them beyond the fact that they are homeless, or ill, or refugees. “We” are still helping “them”.
Yeah, it takes a level of humility and generosity to spend your evening or your day or your week scraping plates or chopping vegetables. And since culturally, the bulk of us are inclined to spit (figuratively, perhaps literally) on the poor or homeless, this would be a huge step towards “loving” the broader community, the whole damn human race. But you don’t have to love any of those people as individuals, because you don’t ever have to get to know them as individuals – you don’t ever really have to see yourself as equal to that person. You could never imagine that this other person might have something to give you or to teach you simultaneously. In extreme examples, this is an attitude that plenty of people talk about – white people in first world countries figuring they’re going to go to an African nation and solve all their problems just by showing them how to better harvest their crops or whatever. The vision of self as saviour to others, the complete inability to distinguish between humility and a condescending, self-important martyr complex.
So where does that closer community, with all its joys and supports and challenges, come into all this? Obviously, it’s not okay just to love those who look like you and think like you, those who never make you feel uncomfortable, or even those you can see. But sometimes , for me, it’s easier to say I’m being “humble” by spending six hours doing the dishes at a shelter and to call that “loving my neighbour” even as I remain absolutely certain of my “other than” status than it is to get up on Sunday morning, arrive early and smilingly greet the passive-aggressive woman my mother’s age who regularly suggests that my clothing may be inappropriate, or the Type A individual who devotes hours of her spare time to planning children’s pageants and decorating the church for special occasions and who simply cannot fathom that I don’t prioritize these tasks and give them the same amount of time, or even my formerly very close friend who is going through a tough time and who has asked that I just give her space to work that out on her own. I know those people’s names. I see them on their bad days, when they haven’t had enough coffee, when we’re engaged in some kind of personality conflict, when we’re not being like-minded in the least. I have to see them as my equals. I have to get familiar with all their flaws and defects and characters and still keep loving them, still keep working with them so far as we share common goals.
I’m outspoken, passionate, and not even a little bit quiet, which makes me often challenging to get along with. I’m also exceptionally self-conscious, often hypersensitive, and easily inclined to say “fuck it” when there is conflict in a community. For me, it can be far easier to slip toward isolating, toward opting out of the challenges, toward keeping myself at a distance from the community, though I’ll probably still try to find some way to give charitably to the broader “community”, just without ever having to connect with other individuals. And that’s a dangerous place for me to go, because I can’t really be “loving” without actually loving, and I don’t think I can make “progress” if I go there.