Some disjointed thoughts on community, beginning with two important words and a phrase… all of which express something of what it means to be part of a community. Think of these as “background vignettes” that can inform and shape our thoughts on and understanding of community.
Communitas is an intense community spirit, the feeling of great social equality, solidarity, and togetherness. Communitas is characteristic of people experiencing liminality together. This term is used to distinguish the modality of social relationship from an area of common living. There is more than one distinction between structure and communitas. The most familiar being the difference of secular and sacred. Every social position has something sacred about it. This sacred component is acquired during rites of passages, through the changing of positions. Part of this sacredness is achieved through the transient humility learned in these phases, this allows people to reach a higher position.
Communitas is an acute point of community. It takes community to the next level and allows the whole of the community to share a common experience, usually through a rite of passage. This brings everyone onto an equal level, even if you are higher in position, you have been lower and you know what that is.
A Zulu word, literally meaning â€œhumanness.â€? Ubuntu is a social and spiritual philosophy serving as a framework for African society. Its essential meaning can be conveyed using the Zulu maxim â€œumuntu ngumuntu ngabantuâ€?â€”meaning, in essence, â€œa person is a person through other persons.â€? The practice of ubuntu is fundamentally inclusive, involving respect and concern for one’s family and one’s neighbors. It also implies respect for one’s ancestors, in a deeper spiritual sense. Ubuntu defines the individual as a component of a greater (inclusive) collective whole, and it stresses social consciousness and unity.
An attempt at a longer definition has been made by Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1999):
A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Louw (1998) suggests that the concept of ubuntu defines the individual in terms of their several relationships with others, and stresses the importance of ubuntu as a religious concept. He states that while the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (“a person is a person through (other) persons”) may have no apparent religious connotations in the context of Western society, in an African context it suggests that the person one is to become by behaving with humanity is an ancestor worthy of respect or veneration. Those who uphold the principle of ubuntu throughout their lives will, in death, achieve a unity with those still living.
Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows.
A traveller through our country would stop at a village, and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but Ubuntu has various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve?
People of the Spark
[I]t just seems like some people have that “spark” within in them, and you can’t help but notice it. Sometimes they’re quite theologically astute, and sometimes not, but either way, you just knew that they “had been with Jesus” in a way that was encouraging, refreshing, and challenging all at the same time.
Sometimes we don’t know who is in our community, because it isn’t always obvious. As Ben Sternke observes, “Community is not what happens to a group when they finally feel warm fuzzies toward each other. Community does not ‘happen’ at all. Community simply is, or is not.” It has to do with how we relate to each other, but not always how we feel about each other. There’s somehow a fluidity about it, and this nagging feeling that we receive from community in proportion to what we give; we are made better people as we give ourselves to the whole. And we can’t escape the fact that as people of the spark, we burn brighter together.
From what Iâ€™ve learned from your blog, you are part of a traditional liturgical community (bones), an artsy â€œemergingâ€? community (skin), and a small home based fellowship (heart). In this you have a richer understanding of the body than those who cordon themselves off in one corner. When we stop insisting that those who visit our fellowship live (be structured) like us and instead share with them our strengths/weaknesses and welcome theirs, then we start to live as the church catholic.
— Bob said this about me, and I think it’s somewhat accurate, similar to my own remarks about my experience of community in November 2005, referencing Rob’s post on People of the Spark. There are many different formats or types of community, each with its own strengths and, perhaps, its own corresponding weaknesses. But are any of them able to represent all of these facets well? A community is rare that can provide a full balanced range of the elements implied by Bob above, but in trying to adjust a “community” so that it improves at one characteristic or another, we discover that it’s rather hard to tinker with… too much focus on community destroys it. More thoughts to follow.