This week’s fiasco in Washington is yet another symptom of something that has been going on in America for some time now: the undoing of community. As Americans have lived through the past few years of “culture wars”, social change, economic downturn, and climate change, we have found it harder and harder to be a cohesive community. The work of building community is never easy, and the United States has not had cultural and political cohesion for a long time, if ever. But we do seem to have entered an unprecedented phase of community disintegration. Increasingly, large numbers of us simply do not seem to realize that there is a larger sense of goodness that might personally cost us something but serve the greater community. More and more, large numbers of us seem to value community only if it looks, thinks, and acts like we do. And since we live in a nation that is filled with all kinds of people who look, think, and act differently from one another, the net impact of this narrower attitude is that community on a wide scale begins to break down.
It is easy to put this week’s government shutdown — and other associated woes — in the laps of politicians. I have done so myself. However, as I think about our current situation, it has become more and more clear to me that our politicians are really like a bunch of mirrors, reflecting back the very voters who put them in office in the first place. The genius — and the risk — of democracy is that government is only as good as the people who are elected to run it. We complain about politicians as if they were somehow imposed on us by some outside entity. And yet, if we want to know who is responsible for putting them in office, we need only look in the mirror. It turns out that the enemy is us.
In an earlier era, people learned a lot about what it meant to live in community through their religious traditions. The various faith traditions have more experience in making and maintaining community than any other entity. Sadly, too many religious people and communities among us have squandered that heritage and that collective wisdom by succumbing to the same temptation that afflicts so many of our people: the desire to make community that only looks, thinks, and acts like us. And so many of our religious communities end up reenforcing the divides that separate us rather than calling us to a higher purpose, a grander vision of human community.
Yet, it is all there in our deepest spiritual DNA: the insistence of the Hebrew Bible that the poor and vulnerable be cared for; the witness of the Gospels that the kingdom of God includes everyone, even those we would least like to acknowledge; the radical communal life of the first Christians in Jerusalem. Community is created when we join with our neighbors, and Jesus was pretty clear about just who our neighbor is.
Americans have been spending a lot of time these past few years dwelling in cultural, political, and religious gutters. It is time that we seek to elevate ourselves and our community to embrace a bigger vision of what it means to be a democracy. We need to see community in all its richness and diversity and not be afraid, but rather recognize that it is in that very diversity that we find a higher calling and a higher purpose. It is past time for our tribal warfare to end, and for a new unity to begin.