Monday, March 04, 2013

Gift-Based Community

I used to feel alone in the world. I felt cut off from the kind of human relationships that I wanted - a group of people who would love me for who I really was, and not simply because I conformed to their expectations. I yearned to be part of a community. I had all sorts of ideas about what this imaginary community should look like and how it would fulfill and complete my life.

Something remarkable about my early visions of community is that none of these fantasies required me to change at all. I wanted others to fulfill me as I was, not to transform my perceptions, actions and character. I could not see it at the time, but my ideas about community were largely an idol. I had turned community into a product that would fulfill me as I was, rather than shake me to the core.

Idols die hard, and I clung to this one for many years. Slowly, however, I started to see that my own attitudes, habits and ways of treating others were keeping me outside the circle of community. I began to understand that I was not going to find a magical solution out there unless I was willing to be changed in here.

It is no wonder that I clung to my ideas of the perfect community for so long. With my false images of community firmly in hand, I demanded that the world love me, even though I was doing very little to show love to the world. The truth was, I often hated others - hated them for not giving me what I wanted, for not loving me, for not seeing me for who I was. In the height of silliness, I blamed them for not loving me, when I hated them. How could I ever have expected others to return love for my hatred?

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus did for all of us. Though we hated him, spit on him, tortured and murdered him, he loved us with every fiber of his being. He was secure enough in his Father's love that he could return good for evil, love for hate.

In this, we discover the secret to authentic community. Real community requires me to make myself vulnerable to others, even when I have no reason to expect to receive anything good in return. Genuine relationships are built on the foundation of the self-giving love that is a pure gift from God. We cannot produce it, we cannot sustain it - we can only allow this abundant life and power to flow through us and fill our lives and relationships.

Is this all sounding too mystical, too theoretical? In practical terms, true community demands that we make ourselves available to people that we do not always like. It means renouncing the right to shut down the conversation. These kinds of relationships are made possible because our trust is not primarily in other people, or even ourselves, but in the living presence of Jesus in our midst. In a mature community, we love one another because Christ loves through us.

Without the presence of Christ in the midst, community cannot endure, because our relationships are based on fulfilling the needs of each individual through transactions. When we try to live in relationship through our own strength, community ends up becoming a marketplace for unfulfilled desires. This marketplace-community breaks down quickly when some of its members have nothing to sell.

The Kingdom of God stands in sharp contrast to this brittle, transactional style of community. In the kingdoms of this world, we haggle and trade; but in the Kingdom of God, we share gifts. In merely human communities, we each seek our own fulfillment; but when we are gathered by Jesus, we become capable of laying down our lives for each other.

What challenges do we face in a world where most of our communities are based in the idea of exchange, commerce and transaction? What might it look like for us to live in the gift-based community of Christ? Where can we find the encouragement we need to start giving to others without thought of being paid back? How can we speak to the deep loneliness and anxiety of our neighbors, freely giving the love that we have received from God? What would it be like to create a loving environment where real transformation can begin to take place?


Jenny58 said...

While I definitely agree that communities can fail or become pseudo-communities without a central core or purpose, I am puzzled buy this sentence;

"Without the presence of Christ in the midst, community cannot endure, because our relationships are based on fulfilling the needs of each individual through transactions."

Community is not unique to Christians, nor are they/we the only ones who can live in a community that is based on selfless caring and love. Unfortunately these days we are also recognizing that some Christian communities, which may have looked very selfless from the outside, were hiding terrible abuse.

Micah, were you suggesting that communities have to be "Christ centred" to be true communities or was I mis-understanding you?

Zarestad said...

Jenny58 has a really legitimate point here.

The author Daniel Quinn uses a "gift based" economy as an example of a potential alternative to our system, which he labelled "Civilization." He cites certain American Indian cultures as being community oriented/gift based. While these cultures conform to the standards set by Micah in this article anthropologically, they are certainly NOT Christian groups.

I believe that faith is required to ensure the success of a gift based community. Certainly not faith in Jesus Christ as god; & not necessarily faith in any deity specifically. A faith in the basic goodness of man, perhaps, is the only prerequisite.

P.S. Micah, I am a huge fan. Your blog has been very elucidating. Your beliefs are a cool corner of the "Q-Continuum" & are serving as a helpful resource on my spiritual journey.


Micah Bales said...

Jenny -

Thanks for your clarifying question, which I think is warranted.

When I talk about "God" or "the Spirit" or "Jesus," in my experience I'm talking about the same person (so to speak). So, it's important to clarify that when I say that the presence of Christ is essential to authentic community, it would be equally valid to say that God or the Spirit is at the core of all true community.

Because it is my experience and conviction that Jesus is himself God, it follows for me that Jesus must be at the center of any genuine community. However (and here is where it gets really tricky), I am not saying that real community is impossible without a shared intellectual belief in things about Jesus. (Though I would say that it helps!)

I think it's very likely that the world is full of communities that do not claim Jesus as their center, yet which experience his presence in their midst. The God that I worship in the person of Jesus is not so feeble that he is incapable of working in communities that do not yet know his name.

It is my experience that the reality of Christ's presence is found not primarily in intellectual assertions about him, but by the experience of his living presence within us and among us.

I hope this explanation is helpful. We may still disagree as to whether God's presence is essential for true community, or whether Jesus is indeed God-with-us. But I hope it is at least more clear now that I am not suggesting that intellectual beliefs about God - by themselves - are the key to the deep, challenging community we are called to. Instead, I speak of a living relationship in and with the Way, the Truth and the Life - whom I confess is Jesus.

Zarestad -

I'm blessed to know that you find my writings helpful. As a blogger, it's not always clear whether, or to what extent, these essays make an impact. Thank you for letting me know.

I look forward to continuing the dialogue as we walk together in faith.

broschultz said...

If nothing could be done without the knowledge of God working in us, nothing would get done. Thankfully God created a world where things do get done regardless of our knowledge or lack thereof of His presence in our lives. It is impossible for His creation to understand the magnitude of God's wisdom, power and love. Just as God arranged for Joseph to be Pharoah's right hand man in times of drought so too does God infuse people everywherew with His wisdom and love. Sometimes they are Christians who have a relationship with him and understand and appreciate fully the source of that wisdom and love but probably more often they are not. However, the important thing to remember is that to whom much is given, much is required. A true community requires selflessness that is beyond human ability and requires Amazing Grace for at lesst some of those in that community or they would run out of faith, hope and love because their reward, as often as not, will not be measurable by silver and gold.

Janatude said...

I love reading your blog, Micah. You have such insight and honesty. And I really like what you have to say about community. As a fairly new Quaker (only a few years), I am still learning about the value of community, and realize more and more that being part of a community is how we grow and learn what it means to be a Friend.

Micah Bales said...

Jim -

Amen, brother!

Jana -

Thanks, Jana. I'm really glad to hear that this blog is meaningful for you. :)

Jenny58 said...

Thank you for your response, Micah. To be honest I am still doing some of my own processing - the path continues. Yes I am convinced that many voices, many names, many types of worship - one God for us all. My Guide or pathway to God is Jesus but I cannot say that my Jewish or First Nations friends need Jesus to have their direct relationship with God . Nor can I say that they need Jesus to be working in their midst without knowing or accepting his Name.

I read your blog because I find it challenging. I don't want to read a blog that I agree with all the time. I enjoy wrestling with the content - thank you.