The Abundant Community
I found myself reading again John McKnight and Peter Block's new book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. What a wonderful read! A few weeks ago John had sent me a copy of a review of this book that appeared in the Christian Century. Since he sent me a hard copy of the review by Walter Brueggemann I thought it might be alright to copy it and use it as my posting on this book. I can't say enough about how helpful I found this book in a very practical way. It provides more different ways of looking at community and ways in which to build it than one usually comes across. It reveals imaginative and thoughtful ways of being engaged with community rather than reflexive and repetitive ways.
Brueggemann says in this review "It occurs to me...that the book is profoundly theological." And I couldn't agree more. Because while it seems on the face of it a book about community and community development the authors reveal a profound and deeply held faith in what I would call the power of presence of God in the life of each person. Too many mission efforts by congregations are functionally atheistic - but I think, in part, that is because we have not seen and thought of alternative ways of making sense of God's presence in the world around us. Especially in places that we least expect to see it.
Reading this review made me really happy that someone in the theological world recognized the gifts of the authors.
Here is Brueggemann's review...
John McKnight and Peter Block, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods
(San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010) xiv + 175 pp. $26.95.
The primary mantra of real estate, of course, is “location, location, location.” It is not different in this attention-meriting book where the mantra is “local, local, local.” John McKnight (emeritus at Northwestern University) and Peter Block (at “Designed Living” in my home town, Cincinnati) have both written previously about the nurture of local community. Now they offer a quite remarkable book concerning the crisis of our society and response to it that summons back to the neighborhood. The critical edge of this book is notice of “the conversion from citizen to consumer” that has happened in recent time in our society. The antidote that they propose is the reverse process whereby consumers retake their proper roles as citizens. The terms of the argument are crucial:
A consumer is one who has surrendered to others the power to provide what is essential for a full and satisfied life. This act of surrender goes by many names; client, patient, student, audience, fan, shopper. All customers, not citizens. Consumerism is not about shopping, but about the transformation of citizens into consumers. (p. 7)
A citizen is one who is a participant in a democracy, regardless of their legal status. It is one who chooses to create the life, the neighborhood, the world from their own gifts and the gifts of others…they function as full participants in what is necessary for a democracy to work. (p. 7).
The book falls readily into two parts, respectively, on consumerism and on citizenship. The critical part about consumerism will not be completely unfamiliar to readers of the Century but their characterization of “consumer” is poignant and suggestive. The accent is not on an insatiable need for consumer goods (as we often think), but it is the abdication of responsibility for neighborly life and the entrustment of common life to corporations, institutions, or systems at the expense of neighborly interaction. McKnight and Block focus on the way in which we have come, as a society, to rely on specialists and experts to meet our many social needs, thus no longer relying on looking to the neighborhood for associational support. Our lives have become increasingly dominated through reliance on therapists, life-coaches, financial advisors, consultants, social workers in an endless pursuit of “need satisfaction” that mostly will not lead to a “satisfied life”:
-The “human condition” of need, frailty, and vulnerability and eventually mortality is converted into a “problem to be solved.”
-Care becomes commodified and reduced to a curriculum that can be taught and certified in a routinized way;
-Personal “secrets” are privatized, entrusted to professionals, and kept from the family;
-A management mindset takes over; everything is managed, commodified, and specialized so that there is a deep pressure to be “fixed” by professionals who know better.
The intentional work of recovering citizenship, that is, full civic engagement with the neighborhood, requires breaking the power of specialization, accepting the “human condition” as a given of life together, a disclosure of “secrets” in primary relationships, and a serious engagement with neighbors. Beyond these generalizations the book teems with the kinds of interactions that can be taken that range all the way from “potlucks” to “talking to five people.”
While a good deal of theology can be inferred from the book, the authors make no such explicit claim or connection. The closest they come to overt theology is to say that citizenship is a “calling” that has three dimensions: 1. the giving of gifts, 2. the presence of association, and 3. the compassion of hospitality. But of course they do not say who it is that is “calling,” because the accent is elsewhere.
It occurs to me, nonetheless, that the book is profoundly theological. In my probe of Prophetic Imagination, already in 1978, I suggested that the prophetic task exhibits regularly two accents, to criticize and to energize. Criticism, in ancient tradition took the form of divine judgment. The “judgment” that McKnight and Block voice is a trenchant awareness that “consumerism” will never keep its promises of “satisfaction.” They do not imagine any supernatural judgment, but they see that the failure of a professional specialization of life can only lead to greater alienation. The energizing part of the ancient prophets is that they assert promises of gifts from God still to be given. These authors speak of an “abundance” that is generated by gift-giving in face-to-face engagement of neighbors who share and who find surprising resources for coping with and enhancing life. Thus the book is in fact organized around prophetic themes that may suggest a style of being “prophetic” that will ring true for lots of people who sense but cannot name the dead-end of consumerism.
The positive accent of the book is upon associational life in all kinds of groups and clubs like service clubs and book group, anything for constructive face-to-face interaction. Nowhere do these authors in any specific way mention the church, though the church can clearly be included among the venues for association. There is, of course, a great risk in identifying the church as simply as “volunteer association.” In this context, however, it is that even while we insist that it is much more than that. In this list offered here of “the capacities of an abundant community”—kindness, generosity, cooperation, forgiveness, fallibility, mystery, and hospitality—it is not only true that the church focuses on such practices, but that all kinds of “consumers” among us expect that focus in the church and count on it in time of deep crisis. Thus it is an easy case to make that the church, in its most elemental undertaking, is exactly the community that is the antidote to the deep pathology of consumerism identified here. It is not that the church has a monopoly on that role, but it is the church that is singularly and intentionally committed here. We may, moreover, be concerned that the church is frequently tempted to “professionalism” that appeals the practices of the Business School, rather than moving from its own center of gravity. Thus there is, in my judgment, a peculiar overlap between what these authors mean by “citizen” and what we may mean, in the church, by obedient discipleship.
The deep advocacy of the book is that a citizen become an agent in one’s own history and in the history of the neighbor, so that we are no longer passive recipients of a life offered by others on their terms. In the Exodus narrative, after YHWH makes sweeping promises to Israel, (Ex. 3:7-9), YHWH says to Moses, “You go to Pharaoh” (v. 10). After Jesus addresses the paralytic and forgives, he commands, “Stand up, take your mat, and go to your home” (Mark 2:11). And after Peter and John disclaim silver and gold, they say, “Stand up and walk” (Acts 3:6). All of these narratives concern empowerment that permits reengagement in the historical process.
There is so much in this book that is sober; there is even more that is empowering. The
book begins: “Our larger purpose…is to describe a few powerful and small actions to do something about this.” It is all about community, the kind that has been forgotten in the alienation anticipated by Karl Maxx, an alienation from self and from neighbor. McKnight and Block will surely say that this profound alienation is at the root of the malaise, weariness, and violence everywhere among us. I would say that their book is a profound “call” to the church (among others) for what is genuinely mandated and genuinely possible in our social world. Said another way, “’Tis is a gift to come down where you ought to be,” in the neighborhood as engaged citizens carrying out engaged citizenship. The “call” is a move out of abdicating passivity. The hope is mobilization the “workhorses” of community (a variety of associations), led by those who are “connectors” with special gifts:
-of head: “What you especially know about…birds, mathematics, neighborhood history”;
-of hands: “What you know about doing things…baseball, carpentry, cooking, guitar, gardening”;
of heart: “What you especially care about…children, the environment, elders, veterans, politics.”
Imagine, disconnected, disabled, disempowered no longer!
Columbia Theological Seminary
July 12, 2010