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August 12, 2018: “The Life and Death of the Communitarian Impulse”

Call to Worship Rev. Denis

The words of A. Powell Davies:

None of our private worlds is big enough for us to live a wholesome life in.

We need the wider world of joy and wonder, of purpose and venture, of toil and tears.

What are we, any of us, but strangers and sojourners forlornly wandering through the nighttime until we draw together and find the meaning of our lives in one another, dissolving our fears in each other’s courage, making music together and lighting torches to guide us through the dark?

We belong together.

Love is what we need. To love and to be loved. Let our hearts be open; and what we would receive from others, let us give. For what is given still remains to bless the giver – when the gift is love.

Reading from “A Model of Christian Charity,” by John Winthrop (YAC Guest or Mary)

This morning, I am sharing with you a few excerpts from a sermon delivered by John Winthrop, entitled “A Model of Christian Charity,” delivered on March 30, 1630, aboard the Arabella, before he and his fellow passengers landed in Massachusetts.

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we haue undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake.

“From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honourable than another or more wealthy &c., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man.

“It is by a mutual consent, through a special overvaluing providence and a more than an ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ, to seek out a place of cohabitation and Consortship under a due form of Government both civil and ecclesiastical.

“In such cases as this, the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular Estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.”

Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

It’s important to know who you are, where you exist in relationship to other people. Comparing ourselves to others helps us understand both ourselves and the people we live and work with daily. It’s especially important for people in leadership positions.

We need to understand why we do what we do, our values and priorities, but more importantly our motivations.
I’ve had to take a few quizzes in my time.

While I haven’t had much interest in finding out which Winnie the Pooh or Harry Potter character I’m most like, I have been interested in things like the Meyers-Briggs personality types and the Enneagram, an ancient system for understanding motivations. I have to admit, when it was new, I did take the theology quiz on Beliefnet which told me – FIVE different times – that I am a Liberal Quaker.

Somewhere along the line, I took a quiz that put me on the political spectrum.

The results are on the cover of our order of service.

I was put solidly in the category of Communitarian.

It didn’t really surprise me. My heroes have always been the people who do things of service to others, not because they feel good doing it, but simply because it’s the right thing to do. They’ve been people like Margaret Fuller, the founder of the American Sanitary Association, which went on to become the Red Cross;
and Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. I’m moved and inspired by regular people, the kind who do simple things that don’t make them famous but change the lives of people in their communities every day.

People like Brad and Libby Birky who opened a nonprofit organic restaurant in Denver, where everyone can eat healthy food, regardless of their ability to pay. They call it SAME café. SAME is an acronym for So All May Eat.

I used to keep a folder of articles who did amazing things like that for the benefit of their communities. After a while, it got too thick to manage, then stories about Communitarians just stopped.

Now, I’ve never personally known any of these folks I mention, but I feel confident that every one of them feels the way I do: that our liberty is bound up with the liberty of everyone else. We need each other in order to survive, so taking care of one another isn’t an option,
it isn’t something we do just because we want to. We do it because we have to. Our responsibility to ourselves isn’t optional, we can’t ignore it.

It makes sense that the results of the political quiz would put me in the category of Communitarian.

But what is a Communitarian? It’s a word we don’t hear very frequently.

The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies defines Communitarianism as a “social philosophy that… emphasizes the importance of society in articulating the good. …. Communitarians examine the ways shared conceptions of the good are formed, transmitted, justified, and enforced. Hence, their interest in communities (and moral dialogues within them), the historical transmission of values and mores, and the societal units that transmit and enforce values – such as the family, schools, and voluntary associations (including places of worship), which are all parts of communities.”

Communitarianism, in chart on the order of service, is summed up as “More economic regulations” and “Stricter Community Standards.” You can tell just by the words used to describe the two philosophies that the author probably leaned more toward the libertarian than the communitarian.

These are not the words I would use to describe my values. I would say “protect each other and the environment” on the left and “responsibility to shared morality” on the right.

As an aside, earlier in the week I saw another chart very similar to this one, with headshots of famous politicians who espouse each philosophy. Libertarians were Ted Cruz, Bill Maher and Charles Koch. Communitarians were Bernie Sanders, Oprah Winfrey and Adolf Hitler. Guess who published that image?

But, back to my point. Communitarianism is usually contrasted with libertarianism.

The Institute for Humane Studies at Georgetown University, a training ground for libertarian jurists and legislators, describes its philosophy as diverse in perspectives, but “united by a belief in personal liberty, economic freedom, and a skepticism of government power.”

As libertarians say, “More Individual choices” and “more property rights.”

A communitarian such as myself might describe the liberarian values as “service to self” on the left and “protecting the rich” on the right.

But actually, regardless of the wording, you can see that there is a lot of diversity within both philosophies, with room for both liberals and conservatives.

Liberals are generally for diversity in the form of more individual choices and human rights paired with economic and environmental regulation.

Conservatives are generally for property rights and stricter community standards in the form of traditional values.

These days, it’s hard to imagine any places in which the left and the right can come together. God knows it isn’t happening in congress or in the white house.

But there is one place where you can see it happening out in the real world: the back woods of our nation, the undeveloped regions where the long arm of municipal regulation can’t reach, among people who choose to live off-grid, in an effort to become more self-sufficient.

Conservative libertarians go to places like the Alaskan Bush or the high mountains of Big Sky Country to live off the land. Their image is the lone cowboy, driving herds of cattle they raise to feed families and make enough money to supplement what they can grow on the land. Their aim is to be free of taxes, dependent on nobody, ready for whatever disaster may occur, from peak oil, to an ebola epidemic, to the Biblical Apocalypse. If their lifestyle benefits the planet, that’s a fine, but that’s an unintended consequence of their actions.

Picture Amon Bundy and his brothers, living in isolation, claiming government property as public property ready for grazing by their herd.

Liberal libertarians go to places like wildly lax Portland Oregon or unincorporated areas just outside of major cities in states in the middle of the country.
Their image is the hipster homesteader, creating a sustainable lifestyle that will allow them to survive economic collapse. They just want to grow kale and herbs, and raise goats for milk, cheese and soap to sell on Etsy, free of municipal zoning regulations. If their lifestyle means they’re separate from a walkable neighborhood, they can survive with zero emissions vehicle, or one that runs on old vegetable oil.

Picture Jay Shafer, the maven of the tiny house movement, living in a cross between an RV and Henry David Thoreau’s shack in Concord, Massachusetts.

Conservative libertarians have kids with names like Jacob and Sarah and wear camouflage and crosses.

Liberal libertarians have kids named Sierra and Krishna and wear tie dye and do yoga.

Other than the subtle markers, you can’t tell them apart. Left or right, they all homeschool.
And when they meet up at the general store in town, they probably get along just fine.

All kidding aside though, Henry David Thoreau and Frank Lloyd Wright, liberal libertarians to their core, were the people who originally appealed to my budding Unitarian Universalist heart, a heart that was still a home builder put off by the growing avalanche of building and zoning regulations.

If I’m honest, I have to admit that I hate that for me to get a couple hens in my back yard of the very Communitarian Cleveland Heights, it would require no fewer than three permits and a public hearing. And I don’t love paying three times the property taxes I would pay for a comparable house in Chesterland.

If you look at that chart again, the communitarian side is not completely shaded, because there is a part of me that loves the idea of unfettered property rights. The larger part of me is afraid of how poorly non-landowners would be treated if the rest of us could do anything we wanted.

It’s not easy for communitarians. We have to give up a lot for a greater good that may never serve us personally. There is no equivalent of the off grid movement at the other end of the spectrum. When Communitarians congregate in communities, it’s usually across the lines of identity. Gated communities of people of the same socio-economic strata. Intentional communities that require all residents to be vegan and car-free. That kind of thing.
Communitarianism seems to be splintered by tribalism.

Communitarianism is pretty common in traditional societies, where there is not a lot of diversity. Historically, in this part of the world, indigenous people lived in long houses, with shared fires down the middle. Multiple families and generations shared responsibilities and rewards, harvesting the food and eating it. That all changed quickly when Europeans arrived.

Today in Denmark, the most popular, most sought after housing is co-housing, where private spaces are small and spaces shared between every household are large. Everyone eats together, growing, procuring, and preparing their food. Cohousing is somewhere between a condo and a commune, where they com-mingle resources based on shared values and a mutual desire to protect one another and conserve.

That’s all well and good in a place where virtually everyone shares race, religion, values and history.
It’s a lot harder to make happen in places like the US, where there is much more diversity. The conflict always comes down to one simple question: who gets to determine what our shared values are? Who gets to set the community standards?

Shared values are usually determined by race, economics and religion. So here in the United States, in the 21st century, the people who believe Jesus Christ sends hurricanes and wildfires as retribution for laws he doesn’t like are not going to set themselves up in community with the people who believe God is one or God is pure love. And they sure aren’t going to share resources with atheists. Or humanists. Or pagans, or Muslims, or Jews or Catholics or the freakiest of freaky cultists, those Unitarian Universalists.

The left and the right just can’t seem to find common ground in Communitarianism.

It wasn’t always that way.

As recently as 30 years ago, Ronald Reagan referred to John Winthrop’s sermon, A Model of Christian Charity, regularly when he talked about the United States as “A City on a Hill,” a model for the rest of the world.

Though the term Communitarian was coined two hundred years after his death, John Winthrop, considered one of our most influential founding fathers, is considered to be a quintessential Communitarian.

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.” Winthrop wrote.

It wasn’t that long after Winthrop became governor of Massachusetts that this newly formed society determined collectively that all men are created equal. But Winthrop, like most thinking people, noticed that isn’t true. Some men are born rich. Some are given access to stellar educations. Others are not born enslaved. Others aren’t even born men.

So, how did he reconcile his observations with the Bible he quoted? He believed that leaders, all leaders, including himself, were required to use their power

“…first upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them: so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor nor the poor and dispised rise up against and shake off their yoke,”he wrote.

For Winthrop, the many poor had to be protected from the few rich as much as the rich had to protected from the masses.

Leaders had a responsibility to everyone, a responsibility to the common good and God himself.

He went on:

”From hence it appears plainly that no man is made more honourable than another or more wealthy &c., out of any particular and singular respect to himself, but for the glory of his creator and the common good of the creature, man. …the care of the public must oversway all private respects, by which, not only conscience, but mere civil policy, doth bind us. For it is a true rule that particular Estates cannot subsist in the ruin of the public.”

So much of who we are in this country is rooted in the words and the attitudes of John Winthrop.

But it feels like after a long life that helped make this country great, those ideals are dying fast.

Communitarianism is dying on the right as protecting wealth and property take precedence over personal responsibility to others and shared morality.

Communitarianism is dying on the left as individual choices and rights take precedence over regulations that protect the most vulnerable among us.

In Unitarian Universalism, we are wading through the treacherous waters of identity politics that make us allergic to language that feels exclusionary. We don’t talk about our historical roots in large part because it’s hard to hear the sexist, classist, racist, ablist language of the time, language written and spoken by white male property owners. It’s hard to even talk about political and philosophical categories, because it always sounds simplistic, reductive.

But, we’re working on it. We’re having these hard conversations. And as we strive to make our association as diverse as our nation, who decides? Who decides what’s important to us? White, Black? Men or women? Youth or elders? And what about all the people who fall into categories in between?

Women now hold the majority of power in our Unitarian Universalist Association, and people of color and LGBT folks make up most of the rest. And the majority of them are younger than 50.

But, at our last general assembly in June, the attendance was the lowest it’s ever been, and there wasn’t one single past president or past moderator present.

Men, white folks, elders are feeling squeezed out.

And that’s the big challenge with Communitarianism, the challenge that has always existed. Who gets to determine what our shared values are? Who gets to set the community standards?

We’re fast losing our roots. We don’t know our own history. We’ve forgotten our principles, our seven principles,
which are the meat and the bones of the covenant between the congregations of our association.

The good news is that our history and our principles are still with us. They may be feeling neglected, squeezed out, but we can turn that around.

That’s why this year I will be focusing more on history and our principles than I ever have. It’s time to understand better what it is that has always drawn us together emphasizing the importance of articulating the good,
and examining the ways shared conceptions of the good are formed, transmitted, justified, and even enforced. It’s in our best interest and in the interest of the our communities to understand our job as a voluntary association to serve not just ourselves but the world.

Now is not the time for casual faith, and our faith calls us to do something bold.

It feels to me like the most radical thing we can do is reunite, reignite, the communitarianism where it is strongest, in the middle, the place where liberals and conservatives come together on the side of personal responsibility to a shared world.

The Communitarian middle is exactly the opposite of the middle where libertarian is strongest and dominating our public discourse.

We can create a deeper understanding of our shared values and responsibilities by starting with ourselves, knowing our history, and knowing what binds us together as a voluntary association, a congregation in an association of congregations.

May it be so.