Friday, September 16, 2016
Undoing excommunication . . . .
Over the last couple of weeks, one of my favorite interfaith podcasts, "Interfaith Voices", has run a series of segments focusing on people who have left their religious "homes".* Their reasons are as varied as the religious groups (e.g., Chasidic Judaism, Fundamentalist Mormonism, Westboro Baptist Church, etc.). One thing, however, was somewhat common (although not entirely so): once they left "the nest", they were shunned, or disowned. In the case of one of the individuals, he was, in many respects, cast entirely adrift; he had no skills, no money, no connections. The stories of many folks (whether profiled in the series or that I've heard elsewhere), speak of the sense of loss they experienced, even as they reveled in the freedom they had found.
This got me thinking about the power of community, or, on the flip-side, the powerful threat of exclusion from community. "Excommunication", often associated with the Roman Catholic Church, has its counterparts in almost every religious tradition -- see the Wikipedia article! And, of course, it's not solely a religious phenomenon; think "political exile". The reasons for "casting out" differ widely -- some are moral/ethical, others are doctrinal (political). Regardless of the reason, there seems to be an underlying assumption that individuals are more likely to conform than to risk the "punishment" of exclusion. To lose the structure, the fellowship, the support of the community is, for some, a proverbial "fate worse than death." (Indeed, in some traditions, exile/excommunication implies not being able to be buried in "hallowed ground" -- the exile is eternal.)
So, where are we on this "community" thing? Questions have been raised for quite a few years about the breakdown of communal bonds. Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2001) is just one example of the critical eye that has been trained on the seeming dissolving of our community bonds. More recently, numerous articles** have chronicled the increase in loneliness, despite an increase in the ways we are connected (i.e., through social media). We see reports of people making plans to spend time together -- and then that translates into them sitting at the same table, each working furiously on his/her own phone, one on Snapchat, the other on Twitter.
I do not stand outside of this phenomenon! I, too, spend (probably way too much) time on my electronic devices. And there are times when I sense a greater sense of understanding and connection with folks on particular Facebook groups than I do with other organizations where I have face-to-face interactions. I suspect that a reason is that the FB interactions are more "frequent" than a once-a-month club meeting. Yet the regular interactions with folks around the state/country/world don't necessarily translate into support when the going gets rough.
Research, however, clearly points to the need for re-connection. And it's not just to re-create, or re-inforce, a social fabric that implies that we need to rebuild community. As the books/articles point out, there is an incredible increase in the phenomenon of loneliness. And loneliness translates into a host of other problems, from mental health issues to physical health issues.
The fracturing of community must be reversed! The Jewish mandate of tikkun olam -- the repair of the world -- is incumbent upon all of us, but not just in terms of environmental or justice work. We must do all we can to repair and restore community, to seek out and build strong relationships with one another that will provide support doing those rough patches. We know the power of community. May that knowledge translate into the will to build and maintain those bonds.
* Last week's episode is here; this week's, here.
** See for example, this Independent article from last year.