What if my community is wrong?

I have been meditating on community standards, and have both addressed the right of a community to form standards, and their right to change them. In these essays, I was thinking of a faith community and worked under the assumption that this was a faith community with voluntary membership, and no power to dictate standards to those outside its community. Specifically, I’ve been defending the idea that a community can have shared values and vision.

Sometimes the individual members, or in the case of a Yearly Meeting sometimes entire meetings are not united behind what once were valued community standards. Sometimes it goes beyond apathy and extends to antipathy. Sometimes, community standards are either misguided, or at times even harmfully wrong. What recourses does a community member have in addressing such an issue?

Before moving forward, the community or local church should prayerfully consider whether the issue is worthwhile. It takes an effort to change something, for the old has a history. Those who want to change should seek to understand the old. We should be careful that the change is an improvement. Because our community has a history, we owe it to ourselves and our future to maintain a respectful dialogue with this history — we may disagree, but we should listen. After listening to the past, and examining the issue, we really should decide: “Is it worth addressing this issue?”

If this issue is worth addressing then I recommend finding and using the proper agency of change. No matter how passionate, a group of changeable people will not remain the same. The community is constantly redefining itself as its members learn how to live with each other. A larger community will have a system for producing change and evaluating its standards.

If the issue is too important to go through the process, a voluntary community always gives the option of leaving. In the case of a faith community a letter telling why you are surrendering membership can alert the community to the seriousness of the issue. It is sad if there is an issue that is more important than participation with the community, but sometimes this happens. People leave churches, and churches leave denominations because issues become greater than the value given to the community. Fortunately, when the members value and respect the community this extreme option can be avoided.

In a way, the option of “civil disobedience” is a more extreme option. Bluntly, it is the height of arrogance to think we can set our own standards and disrespect the community. It is true we can communicate our protest by getting ourselves cast out of the community instead of leaving voluntarily, but this creates unnecessary tension in the community. It is damaging if a member acts in civil disobedience but is not punished for some become jealous because “rules apply to some but not others”, others become frustrated, because there is a lack of clarity, still others wonder if there is any respect for the idea of community.

Wrong standards need changed and not ignored. When something is ignored, it damages the credibility of all standards, and damages the strength of the community. If civil disobedience is commonplace, and discipline is non-existent it is not community but anarchy. Eventually those who seek community will find it somewhere else. My recommendation is that civil disobedience should only be used to protest injustice, or issues that are actively harming another.

We live in community, being in community is part of being human. We are not only individuals, but we are groups — this is why our biggest life challenges fall not when we are conflicted with ourselves, but when the communities we belong to are in conflict with one another. Our idea of self is related to our relationship with community, thus if community is wrong, we need to seek ways to engage community. When engaging community, we must also continually consider that we might also be mistaken. In the end, the hope is to reconcile and strengthen community through engagement.

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