Thursday, January 31, 2008

Giving, but Not Receiving

When we open ourselves up to our respective communities, do we fail to receive what these people and places are so uniquely primed to offer us? Too often it seems that in our North American culture we are oriented to the "what I can do" or "what I can offer." Our culture's blatant endorsement of rugged individualism can explain some of this attitude, but more deeply still I think that control is driving this attitude. We want to dictate the where, when, why, and how of our interaction with other people and places. It disturbs us to be surprised or caught off guard. As such we tend to position ourselves as servers because traditionally servers occupy the position of control and power. We interact with the people and places that compose our community in ways that ensure that we need not be vulnerable or open to mystery. In short, we largely perpetuate a static relationship with our communities, failing to fully immerse ourselves in the dynamic, unpredictable relationship that follows when we live in communities where we admit our ability to both give and receive. What would it look like to receive the gifts of our communities? How can we more faithfully maintain a posture of humility, ready to both give and receive?

Challenging Tradition

Do we honor the past and tradition most by challenging its role in shaping the present and future? Sometimes I think we imagine that traditions just emerge effortlessly from the stream of history. But do we forget the often difficult challenges that individuals faced in establishing their deepest convictions, which now arrive in the form of long standing beliefs and practices. I contest that by passively receiving our traditions from the past, we fail to honor the radical and progressive nature that is at the heart of many traditions. This need not mean that we now reject our traditions, but rather we join in the passion of traditions by critically engaging what is handed down to us, and synthesizing and adapting such materials for a still better future. Conservatism, as understood as the mere perpetuation of tradition, may in fact be the very antithesis of what first inspired such vigor and conviction as to generate a long standing belief and practice. How are we engaging our traditions today? How does Calvin College engage its heritage of Dutch Reformed tradition in this modern context?

Positioning for Shalom

Nicholas Wolterstorff asks a profound question in his influential work, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, does God take sides? That is, in a world divided by class, gender, race, and sexuality, does God ever stand with one group of people in particular? Wolterstorff argues convincingly that God always stands with the impoverished and oppressed peoples of the world over and against the rich and the powerful. Certainly God is perfect in his love for human beings, but does He especially defend and work for justice and peace among those deprived of basic human rights in this life? If God does stand with those that are impoverished and oppressed, where does that leave the rich and powerful? Who are the rich and the powerful? Are they the richest 1% of Americans? Are they the half of the world's population that is able to earn more than an average of two dollars per day? So often in our society we are captivated by dreams of upward mobility. There always remains someone who has more than us. This materialistic vision, though, ignores the vast majority of the world's population that bears the terrible burden of unnecessary poverty, disease, and oppression. The sinister implication is that in our dreams of upward mobility in our American society that we not only turn our backs on most of the world population, but also on God himself who is standing with the poor and oppressed, asking, "Where are you? What have you done today to bring Shalom?"


Who agitates the agitators? In service-learning there is a clear effort to deconstruct individual’s presuppositions through reflection on their experience with service. This process is inherently disconcerting and unsettling for those critically reflecting on their assumptions and behaviors. In the end, the hope is that previously unquestioned biases, stereotypes, and behaviors will be questioned, and in some cases reconsidered. Thus, a process of agitation, while disconcerting, accomplishes a meaningful good. The danger, though, is that those that agitate will grow complacent in their own presuppositions, that is, they will ironically fail to let themselves undergo a process of agitation. It seems that this is the special predicament of leadership, that is, the subtle rise of hypocrisy in one’s words and actions. Who will hold leaders, agitators, accountable? What would agitating the agitators look like?

Of Community

Human beings are chaotic and complicated. There is very little about the human being that can be reduced to a neat and easy model of explanation. Trying to seek out the motivation for any given action or thought often leads us on a trail backwards in our histories as we trace the elaborate series of events and people that have brought us to this present moment.
As human beings we find ourselves always afflicted and gifted with this thing called a past that has been formed through the communities and relationships we are always involved in. Have you ever noticed that human beings are perpetually in relationship to one another? The use of language especially testifies to this fundamental characteristic of life. There cannot be language in isolation from relationship between things capable of communication. Language can only take place in a world where there is at least a “you” and an “I.” Our near constant use of language then reminds us of our community-based existence. Sometimes we remain lifelong members of our communities, such as our families, and other times we migrate from one community to the next, such as the student bodies we belong to as we progress in our education, but always we are embedded in a web of relationships that form us and sustain us. Our identities, how we live, act, and think all bear the unmistakable fingerprints of this life in community, which we understand through what we call our past.
In each present moment, the past haunts us and helps us in each decision we make. That is, as human beings, we always seem to bring a particular perspective to any person or event. We are creatures conditioned by the communities and relationships we have been and are a part of, and they leave us with habits of thought and action.
In application, this means that when we participate in service-learning we are always coming to any given person, group of people, neighborhood, city, or situation with certain ideas and attitudes towards or about them. While we can and often do need to change the content of these ideas and attitudes that we carry with us, the general characteristic of being creatures perpetually in community, means that we are always going to be affected and guided by our past in how we act in the present and future. Our best recourse is to first understand exactly what it is we are coming with in our interactions with people and places. How do I perceive this person or neighborhood? Why do I perceive them in this manner? What experiences have I had with volunteering or acts of service that now govern the way that I engage in these acts of service? How do the religion, family, and neighborhood I have been raised in affect how I relate to this place or person(s)? How does the relationship I am now in with this person(s) and place leave me with new habits of thought and actions for the future? We are human beings, constantly involved in relational existence in this world, forever experiencing the present become the past, and the past affect the future.
Sometimes our histories within our communities leave us with wicked prejudices and opinions, and destructive behaviors towards the people and places around us. But sometimes our histories within our communities leave us with habits of compassion and nurturing, thoughtfulness and love towards the people and places around us. To answer the questions concerning how the past affects what we do, say, and think in the present does not always need to lead to being harshly critical of oneself, although it will likely involve that sometimes, rather the meaning resides in the larger task of realizing our humanness. We are limited human beings, forever with a past, present, and future, never stopping, always living and interacting in community.

1. What communities have you belonged to, or belong to now?
2. How do certain communities affect your habits of thought and action?
3. Can we, should we, escape the habits of thought and action we form in the communities we are members of?
4. For many of us, one community that we commonly belong to is the body of Christian believers throughout time, called the church. How do the traditions of the church equip us in our interactions with the people and places we will come in contact with through our experiences with service-learning? Are these traditions positive or negative?
5. How does your understanding of the degree to which you are deeply affected and guided by the communities which you have been a part of, in turn change the way you see others? Does this attitude cultivate a greater degree of graciousness, charity, and patience towards others when you realize that we are all deeply limited human beings?

Finally, the question of Now What? With the beginnings of an understanding of the habits of thought and action that our histories in communities and relationships have left us with, what do we do next?