Moving the Flock

In my previous post, I went out on a limb and declared the present day to be “biblical times.” A commenter named Olivia chimed in and we have had a great little conversation about how individual detachment is important to help us cope with the “end of the world.” In some cases individual action is the best or only option. But I’m skeptical that we can be individually “saved” in any meaningful way. The problems we face defy individual responses, and scripture points toward a salvation that is largely or entirely collective in nature.

This week’s selections from the Revised Common Lectionary include the biblical passage that launched this whole holy cooperation adventure for me: Back in 2005 I was given a Bible by a young woman named Mendy, as part of a bizarre string of synchronistic events including a rather biblical encounter with a group of Israeli tourists in a cave in New Mexico. Really.

The whole sequence was a bit too weird for my secular self, and it was only half a year later that I was ready to grok that the first followers of Jesus were a bunch of communists who were engaged in economic organizing that resonated with my own work in co-ops:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:44-47)

The other lectionary texts for this week are all about shepherds and sheep. And if there’s one thing sheep are not known for, it’s individual initiative. Sheep don’t even have a plural or singular, but rather exist as a drop in the ocean of sheepiness.

Sure, Psalm 23 is told from the perspective of one particular sheep, but not in a way that really indicates any particular individual coaching; rather, the shepherd keeps the whole flock out of the valley of the shadow. A different metaphor would have been more appropriate if the psalmist had wanted to illustrate a more focused attention to protecting individuals from our specific struggles.

Since I moved to Oakland in 2012, I’ve attended a regular Tuesday morning lectionary study group. It’s been a tremendous privilege and blessing to learn with this wise, expert and often radical little community. This Easter season we’ve been focused on the first letter from Peter, one of only a handful of canonized texts written by (or at least in the name of) the disciple who later became regarded as the first pope.

First Peter is a letter of reassurance to communities in what is now northern Turkey, which was then something of an imperial backwater where the letter’s recipients apparently faced persecution for their stubborn nonconformity.

Presumably there is some continuity in themes between this writing and Peter’s other teachings, including his great Pentecost sermon, delivered immediately before the miraculous outbreak of collective wealth described in Acts.

But oddly enough, the trials are not really described, and the content of Peter’s first sermon was reduced to this maddening little snippet: “And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’” (Acts 2:40)

Only the preamble to his sermon survived, forming the bulk of Acts chapter 2 (v.14-36). This preamble is generally mistaken for the sermon itself, but anyone who reads it aloud will notice that it only takes a few minutes – not even a long or complex sermon by our attention-deprived modern standards, and certainly not a memorably long bout of preaching back in the day.

Whatever words were in Peter’s sermon, the response was immediate and intensely collective in nature. It must have been obvious what he meant by “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (2:38) No explanation was needed for the followers to see that they – first and foremost – had to repent from the Roman economy.

Economic issues were the driving force of Jesus’ ministry and the core theme of his preaching. Some of his great miracles were about food and drink, and furthermore involved an element of collective participation (read carefully – neither the water-to-wine nor the loaves-and-fishes were clearly the result of Jesus’ specific action).

It seems most likely that the meat of the message was omitted because there was some sort of assumption of shared values once the reader bought into the importance of the sermon, which was established by restating prophesies that had been purportedly fulfilled.

There was probably no need to write down that painfully obvious element; it would be like spending most of a New York Times op-ed with an elaborate case for private property or voting, or against al Qaeda or forced marriage.

Also omitted was building a case for collectively turning from sin and toward God. This makes sense, because when it comes to economics I honestly don’t see any other way to effectively repent than by working together.

Sure, we can take individual action, and we must: We can move our money. We can buy Fair Trade chocolate. We can avoid the companies that use the worst sweatshops (or even eschew new clothing entirely). We can recycle. We can ride our bike. And in the end none of this addresses the systemic nature of our problems.

Of course, why seek solutions to systemic problems if we believe (as I usually do) that the whole system is irredeemably corrupt and doomed to collapse in our lifetimes? Ultimately, I think the answer lies in the need to confront our deeply-rooted mythology of individualism.

If one nurtures the fantasy of individualist escape from a collapsing society, there are essentially two possible trajectories – both neither plausible nor pleasant.

First, there’s the siege: A stockpile of ammo, iodine and non-perishable food is built up in some sort of obscure and defensible compound. Basically, that’s resigning oneself to a life of shooting at starving people, who will come individually or in groups until the supplies run out – since there’s no plausible way of producing for basic needs under siege – or until one succeeds.

Second, there’s a sort of hybrid group siege. This has much in common with the naïve industrialist utopia of Atlas Shrugged. In this scenario one finds other like-minded folks to attempt the launch of a new world on a small scale, in hopes that the local circle will somehow gradually reunite with other “good” people. Eventually the survivors form a new civilization once the old one has died back to a much smaller and more sustainable human population, hopefully without rendering the planet uninhabitable through a combination of escalating warfare and increasingly unsupervised industrial sites along most of the planet’s waterways.

This is a popular one among those who think that Jesus is going to show up like the hero in some zombie movie, saving adherents from the unpleasant conundrum of Jesus’ commandment to love and serve the poor who happen to be increasingly desperate in their pursuit of food. Hopefully He will return in glory before that 10-year supply of freeze-dried beef stroganoff runs out.

This sort of millennialist thinking is based less on biblical models and more on the individualist myth deeply embedded in our collective psyche. This mindset is rooted in the notion that some rugged pioneers loaded their nuclear families into a wagon and headed west. Sure, they traveled in a wagon train. But upon arrival they found the best (often idyllic and isolated) piece of land upon which to build a homestead. There is truth in this; a great many people got 160 acres for themselves through formal homesteading programs that supported isolation by reducing the land to a grid of acreage (which continued until 1976 – and for another decade in Alaska).

The stereotypical rugged individualist actually stood little chance against the stereotypical bands of Indians. On the other hand, the communalist Mormons built a flourishing new civilization in a rather difficult region of the west. Although The Book of Mormon included next to nothing that explains their propensity to develop elaborate socialist economics, the Saints used commonwealth approaches to counter the hostile settlers who passed through on their way to the gold fields. More on this here and much more in Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom.

We should wonder whether many pioneers would have made it to California if their path hadn’t conveniently included a stop to rest and resupply in Zion. I believe that there would not have been a critical mass of emigrants to allow the United States to wrest the southwest from Mexico had it not been for the Latter Day Saints. The Great Basin would have remained a land of sparse outposts along a poorly defined border, perhaps along the lines of southern Algeria – certainly without any Olympic host cities among the arid plains and forbidding mountains in which Brigham Young’s followers attempted to build the Kingdom of God.

This conversation started with the recognition that the end of the world is not a bad thing. It’s the only way we can really see the flowering of the Reign of Heaven. It is true that individual choices about how to engage with the world make a difference about how we might experience the end of the world.

But I’d like to be setting a higher bar than minimizing our suffering. Indeed, Christ’s suffering is held up as something to emulate: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Pet 2:21) But it seems like the suffering is something we should bear together in common struggle against the status quo, rather than individual submission to it.

All homesteaders also built systems of mutual aid, and somewhat obviously they worked together to build new economies and systems of defense against the land’s previous residents (for better or worse). And there were many dozens of communes constantly springing up as the United States’ spread westward.

Admittedly there is no clear line between the shared siege I described above and building new community; we just need to look strategically at whether a particular community is capable of reaching critical mass – through its unique blend of numbers, physical resources and passion.

There is no frontier anymore. We’ve got nowhere to which we might escape, so we have to stick around. We must pull out of the economy but remain facing it, ready to receive those who follow us. In the same way that the Mormon’s developed systems of emigration stretching all the way back to Europe, we need to find ways to draw people out from however deeply they are ensnared.

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