A Place Called Community

by Parker J. Palmer

Dr. Palmer is dean of studies at Pendle Hill, a Quaker living-learning community near Philadelphia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  March 16, 1977, p. 252. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In community one learns that the problems we pose for one another are not obstacles blocking our progress but ways of refining our understandings, and if we can embrace the problems (and each other) then the possibilities appear.

“We expect a theophany of which we know nothing but the place, wrote Martin Buber, “and the place is called community.” Surely his words in Between Man and Man are prophetic. God comes to us in the midst of human need, and the most critical needs of our time demand community in response. Today the thoughtful citizen might well ask: How can I participate in a fairer distribution of resources unless I live in a community which makes it possible to consume less? How can I learn accountability unless I live in a community where my acts and their consequences are visible to all? How can I learn to share power unless I live in a community where hierarchy is unnatural? How can I take the risks which right action demands unless I belong to a community which gives support?

In contrast to the difficulties raised by such hard questions as these, the popular image of community is distressingly pastoral and sentimental. White middle-class folk especially value community for the personal nurture it promises us, while we ignore its challenge of political and economic justice. We speak of “life together” in romantic terms which bear little resemblance to the difficult discipline of a common life. But the problems of our age will yield neither to personalism nor to romance. If the idea of community is to speak to our condition, we must change the terms of the discussion. And the church must play a central role in setting these new terms. For if the church would search its faith and history it would relearn those truths about community which we most need to hear. We would remember that God calls us to live in community not for ourselves but for others. We would recall that there are true communities and false ones -- and that God will know the difference even if we do not. We would learn again that true community leads inevitably to politics, to confronting the powers arrayed against the human interest. Although the contemporary church is a main source of sentimentalism about community, our history will remind us that community is no flourishing utopian garden but a place of promise and discipline where God prepares parched earth for the planting of the kingdom.

The Political Role of Community

Much current enthusiasm for community comes from our longing to cure loneliness. But when we define community simply in these terms, we not only fail to see community whole; we also fail to grasp the vital connection between personal problems and political facts.

For loneliness is not just a personal problem; it has political causes and consequences. We are lonely because a mass society keeps us from engaging one another on matters of common destiny. And loneliness makes us prey to a thousand varieties of political manipulation. Our loneliness renders us not only pathetic but politically dangerous. If we could understand that fact, we might create communities which contribute to political as well as personal health.

Political scientists have long known that community in all its forms can play a key role in the distribution of power. Families, neighborhoods, work teams, church and other voluntary associations mediate between the lone individual and the power of the state. They provide the person with a human buffer zone so that he or she does not stand alone against the state’s demands. They amplify the individual’s small voice so that it can be heard by a state which can turn deaf when it does not want to listen. In such communities most of us gain whatever skill we have in negotiating our interests with those of the group.

If these communities decline in number or in quality, the condition known as “mass society” sets in. Mass society is characterized not simply by size but by the fact that individuals in it do not have relations to one another which are free of state interference or control. In mass society the person stands alone without a network of associations to protect personal meaning, to enlarge personal power, or to learn the habits of democracy. The loneliness of men and women in such a society is a measure of their political impotence; and it is a short step from mass society to a totalitarian one.

As we seek relief from our loneliness, we must learn that personal health depends on our capacity to be concerned about more than ourselves. The ultimate therapy is to identify our own pain with the pain of others, and then band together to resist the conditions which create our common malady. Health ultimately requires the outgoing act of building communities which will empower us to guard and nourish our humanity.

True Community and False

Not all communities are capable of affirming life, so we must learn to tell true community from false. Selma, Cicero, South Boston: these were all communities, but false ones. As we learn the difference we will move even further from sentimentality about the common life.

The most notable example of false community is the very totalitarianism to which the decline of true community leads. In the midst of mass society people yearn to identify with something larger than themselves, something that will redeem their lives from insignificance. That hunger runs so deep that even the appearance of community will feed it, and totalitarianism always presents itself as food for the masses. What was Nazi Germany except a demonic form of “life together”? What is nationalism or racism except the idea of community run amok?

False forms of common life differ from true forms> in many ways. False community, for example, tends to be manipulated by the state, while true community is independent of government power. In false communities the group is always superior to the individual, while in true communities both individual and group have a claim on truth. False communities tend to be homogeneous, exclusive and divisive, while true communities tend to unite people across socially fixed lines.

But there is a theological way of making the distinction that brings us quickly to the heart of the matter: false communities are idolatrous. They take some finite attribute like race or religion or political ideology and elevate it to ultimacy. They confuse their own power with the power of God, and eventually try to use that power to decide questions of life and death. False communities are ultimately demonic, which is not to say that true communities are divine, for both retain their human character. But true communities will take the form of covenant; they will experience both the mercy and the judgment of God.

Community is finally a religious phenomenon. There is nothing capable of holding together a group of willful, broken human beings except some transcendent power. What that power is, and what it demands of those who rely upon it -- these determine the quality of a community’s life.

Demythologizing Community

Any effort to define true community will require the destruction of certain romantic myths common in contemporary thought -- myths which have replaced the reality of community. There is first the myth that community is a creature comfort which can be added to a life full of other luxuries. For the affluent, community has become another consumer item: you can buy it in weekend chunks at human potential centers, or you and your friends can have it by purchasing a stretch of rural property. But community is one of those strange things which will evade you if you aim directly at it. Instead, community is a by-product of commitment and struggle. It comes when we step forward to right some wrong, to heal some hurt, to give some service. Then we discover each other as allies in resisting the diminishments of life. It is no accident that the most impressive sense of community is found among people in the midst of such joyful travail: among minority groups seeking identity and justice, among women seeking liberation into fully humane roles, among all who have said No to tyranny with the concrete affirmation of their lives.

Another myth tells us that community equals utopia, that in easy access to one another and the comfortably supportive relationships which will result, we will quickly find ourselves brothers and sisters again. But community is not like this; it is more like a crucible or a refiner’s fire. Community means the collision of egos, and while there is the pain of not getting our way, there is the promise of finding the Way.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this situation very well:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a dream wish. . . . God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. . . . God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. . . . He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial [Life Together (Harper, 1954), pp. 26-27].

The great danger in our utopian dreams of community is that they lead us to want association with people just like ourselves. Here we confront the third myth of community -- that it will be an extension and expansion of our own egos, a confirmation of our own partial view of reality. But in true community we do not choose our companions. Instead, they are given to us by grace. In fact, true community might be defined as that place where the person we least want to live with always lives!

If we live this way we can avoid the trap that Richard Sennett in The Uses of Disorder (Random House, 1970) has called “the purified community.” Here, as in the typical suburb, one is surrounded by likeness to the extent that challenge is unlikely and growth impossible. In true community there will be enough diversity and conflict to shake loose our need to make the world in our own image. True community will lead us to risk the prayer that God’s will, not our own, be done.

In examining each of these myths about community we are reminded again that true community is a spiritual reality which lies beyond psychology and sociology. Community is a by-product of active love. Community can break our minds and our egos open to the experience of a God who cannot be contained. Community will constantly remind us that our grip on truth is fragile and incomplete, that we need many ears to hear, the fullness of God’s word. And the disappointments of community life can be transformed by our discovery that the- only dependable power for life lies beyond all human structures and relationships.

The Risk of Seeking Community

The hard facts which lie behind these wish-dreams of the common life help explain why American rhetoric about community has always outdistanced commitment to it. For despite our dreams, Americans operate on the assumption that the possibility of true community has passed and that we had better learn to stand on our own two feet.

Such is the thesis of Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Harper & Row, 1968). Rieff argues that community itself was once the vehicle by which individuals maintained or regained psychic health. But as community began to wither under the impact of industrialism and urbanism, a new mode of therapy emerged (notably Freudian) whose aim was to make the individual strong, autonomous, less dependent on others. Behind this therapy lies the assumption that seeking to integrate our lives through community is, in the modern world, a foolish risk.

The same assumption and strategy can be found in our systems of education. Schools, which once came from and created community, now teach students that they have to make it on their own and at the expense of others. Education is essentially competitive, not cooperative, as illustrated by the common practice of grading on a curve, or the fact that students getting together to cooperate on their work are said to be “cheating” -- so highly are the communal virtues regarded in our schools. But what else should we expect from an educational system whose primary social function is to monitor competition over the scarce resources of wealth and power? If we did not teach young people to compete (the argument goes), we would not prepare them for the “real world.”

The assumption that community is gone can also be found in much that passes for the “new spirituality” these days. The community called church having disappointed us, the religiously obsessed in the ‘70s turn to the glory of the self: its nurture, its growth, its destiny. In quarters where the self appears to be taken as the true referent of the word “God,” “spiritual development” consists largely in “getting in touch with one’s self.” Lost is the confrontation between the self and the living God who comes to us in the history of human communities.

The assumption that it is risky to count on community must be credited with utter realism; community in any form is hard to find and even harder to create. But C. Wright Mills was correct when he called such assumptions “crackpot realism,” for when we act on them we help guarantee that the future will contain only more of the same. Such a future we cannot survive. Every soul shaped by the “go it alone” strategy in therapy, education or religion is a soul lost to the vital task of reconstructing a common life and is a danger to us all. We must replace such short-run realism with the long-term truth. We must cultivate in ourselves and each other the courage to risk community despite all the evidence to the contrary. The alternative is the war of all against all.

Models of Community

The communal movement of the past ten years has contained much cultural arrogance in its assumption that the small intentional community, withdrawn from the larger society, is the only worthy form of common life. Clearly the emergence of such communes is important to us; they do provide models, and they serve as schools for less intensive forms of community life. But they are out of reach for many people. We need to help each other build community where we are rather than encouraging dreams which turn to despair over a community that will never be for us,

For some people the community to build is the extended family. If we are drawn to do so, however, we must weigh our own aspirations against the economic pressures which have torn the family apart for three generations. On a large scale Americans have readily weakened family ties in favor of the mobility necessary for personal advancement and economic success. We will rebuild community in the family only if the lure of achievement can take second place to the cultivation of our roots. (And this may be the right moment in history to reconsider our commitments, as we begin to see that the economic escalator will not go up forever.)

For some of us the place for building community is in our neighborhoods, which tend to be held together more by mortgages and zoning laws than by the religious understanding of the word “neighbor.” But again, we must test our motives. Don’t we want to protect some private space in our busy lives, to stay loose of entanglements with those who live next door, to be free to move without breaking bonds when job advancement calls us elsewhere? We will be able to place the neighborly ethic above our precious privatism only if we have a larger commitment to public health, to the commonweal.

For others among us the community to build is in the places where we work or go to school, for these have become the major arenas of alienation for many Americans. In them we are pitted against one another in hierarchy and competition so that something called “higher performance” can be achieved. But when we destroy the community of work, we get unethical products and degrading services. When we destroy the community of scholars, cruel teaching and learning are the result. We will build community in these places only if we see that performance at the expense of community is no achievement at all.

Community and the Church

Finally, there may be those among us who are called to build community in our churches. There is irony in that suggestion since the very idea of church is the idea of community, and if we have any model of true community it is in the biblical vision of what the church should be.

So the church falls far short of God’s intent. And it fails to conform to our fantasies of what a community should be. But if we could drop those fantasies, as Bonhoeffer advises us to do, we might find it easier to know God’s will for the church. More than any other major institution in our society, the church still contains the potential for life together. The symbols of community are there; the tradition of community stands behind us; and sometimes the leadership for community is also present.

Most important, the church contains a more typical cross-section of people than any institution around, a human diversity which is held together in theory by commitment to a transcendent truth. In practice the church usually tries to suppress the diversity it contains, and when the suppression fails, fragmentation is the result. But the church might yet learn to deal with its secondary differences in the context of its ultimate unity. If so, the church could become the most compelling model of community in American culture.

That will not happen until we reconceive the task of theology. Theology should be no more and no less than constant reflection upon the human experience within the community of faith -- without fantasies. Theology should face the disillusionments of community squarely, while continually reminding us that God calls us to live life together. And theology should help us cultivate the courage to risk community in that place between the difficult facts and the joyful hope. This will be no simple task, for theology has largely divorced itself from community; it is shaped more by academic norms than by the experience of the church. Shall the specialization of our institutions go so far that congregations will live the religious experience while seminaries will think about it? If so, then neither the living nor the thinking can bear fruit since one is lifeless without the other.

The difficulty of the questions will not discourage those who truly seek life together. In community one learns that the problems we pose for one another are not obstacles blocking our progress but ways of refining our understandings, and if we can embrace the problems (and each other) then the possibilities appear. That is so because we know that as we turn to one another we turn to God. And as we turn, God’s promise of life in communion will be fulfilled.