The Common Good
March-April 2000

Only Jerks Allowed

by Chris Rice | March-April 2000

If those who know me really knew me, what would they think of me?

There is much talk these days about the disintegration of "community," and no wonder: One in two marriages break up, leaving disillusioned children of divorce suspicious of intimate commitment. Industry's growth tears people out of lifelong neighborhoods. High mobility and downsizing move us like nomads. Yet Internet chat rooms are standing-room-only. We yearn for a place of belonging.

Douglas Coupland poignantly voices this yearning in the novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. "All looks with strangers," says the main character, "became the unspoken question, 'Are you the stranger who will rescue me?' Starved for affection, terrified of abandonment, I began to wonder if sex was really an excuse to look deeply into another human being's eyes."

We desperately need and long for deep connectedness with others. But we seem to be complete failures at finding it. In reality, I think we resist it. Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance illuminates a very good reason why.

The story is based upon Hawthorne's experience in an intentional community. As the character Miles Coverdale leaves behind the "false and cruel principles" of the world and begins life at Blithedale, he imagines life together as "something that shall have the notes of wild-birds twittering through it, or a strain like the wind-anthems in the woods." The group goes downhill from there, slowly unraveling in mutual disappointment and ungrace as the dark side of each communal member emerges.

Hawthorne didn't even last a year at the real-life utopian farm, whose downfall lay in its vision as "a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more wholesome and simple life than can be led amidst the pressures of our competitive institutions."

In other words: No jerks allowed. That's a pretty strict guideline given that we are all big jerks in one way or another. Sure, some of us are more obvious about it than others. But fallen people fall. Stick around anyone long enough and you'll see they have a dark side. I'm not a lovable sight when I'm screaming at my children, or my perfectionism makes unceasing demands, or deep-seated envy rears its ugly head. The question haunts us: If those who know me really knew me, what would they think of me?

The problem with genuine community is that your true self can't hide. Intimacy has no room for fantasy. The very place that offers the only hope of belonging is the same place where we become most disappointed with others and with ourselves.

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER writes in Life Together that genuine community is born only after we are first "overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others...and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world."

Bonhoeffer continues, "Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God's sight...The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse."

Only when we accept the limitations of our own love can we receive a greater love outside of ourselves. Only when we come to the end of our powers to love, and hang on, can a greater power be released. Eventually the shock of mutual disappointment becomes not a big deal, and forgiveness and repenting become a routine.

To experience the joyful mystery of community is to practice a love that mirrors the divine. To paraphrase the apostle John (1 John 4:10), "This is love, not that jerkface loved me first, or stopped being a jerk, and therefore became worthy of my love, but that I—a jerk myself—served and loved jerkface."

What Walter Wangerin said of marriage can also be said of community. It is ultimately "the soil from which a finer love—a sacrificial love—may spring and grow."

Chris Rice lived and worked in an interracial community in Jackson, Mississippi, for 17 years. He was co-founder of Reconcilers Fellowship and co-author of More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. He was a research fellow at Boston University's Institute on Race and Social Division, and lived with his family in Vermont, when this article appeared.

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