“Instead of having friends, we watch Friends on television.” –Robert Putnam
A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out with one of my friends who is a pastor in Chicago. He moved there a few years ago, and was telling me about the joys and challenges of his work. At one point, he said that one of the greatest challenges he faces in Chicago is that he can’t seem to build community.
He said because of the nature of Chicago, there’s always some fun event or function that people can attend, and creating a cohesive community is next to impossible because people are so busy.
But, my friend said, there is one group of people who seem to have communities that are not just surviving but flourishing.
Holy People, Holy Time
The orthodox Jewish community in Chicago is a very tight knit society. Why? Not because they all believe similarly, my friend pointed out Christians also have that. Not because they all go to the same school or work in the same profession. It’s because they all celebrate the Sabbath. And since they don’t drive on the Sabbath, they all have to live within walking distance to the synagogue, and coincidentally, to each other.
And it turns out that by celebrating the Sabbath together, they actually have oriented their lives more around being together.
So I’m in the middle of a series reviewing A.J. Swoboda’s great new book Subversive Sabbath, on the need for the people of God to reconsider their commitment (or lack thereof) to taking a Sabbath in light of the Bible, Christian history, and their own life experiences.
Because, c’mon, don’t we all realize something’s not right about the way things are going these days? We’re hyper-entertained and yet always bored. We’re always “connected” yet perpetually lonely, we’re always busy overwhelmed and exhausted even while we feel we’re still falling behind.
We’ve been given the same amount of hours in a day as our ancestors, with great tools for time-management and vastly superior tech for efficiency and yet would any of us say that our lives are content or satisfied?
Barbara Brown Taylor once commented on our modern age that we have, “made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we’re running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see least.”
And the greatest casualty of all? Community.
A couple of years ago, I read an article in the New York Times called You Don’t Need More Free Time by the Sociologist Cristobal Young. The article was a summary of the research Young did that surveyed over half a million people about how they use their time.
And the result was surprising.
The problem in Young’s words is not that we don’t have enough free time:
[it’s] that our free time, in order to be satisfying, often must align with that of our friends and loved ones. We face a problem, in other words, of coordination. Work-life balance is not something that you can solve on your own.
They discovered that people’s happiness was closely correlated between not just time away from work and expectations to be productive, but between being able to be around other people who were also enjoying free time. This is the real reason we enjoy the weekend so much, because we are able to share free time with other people.
The article went on to say the problem we are facing cannot be solved by work-place solutions, but could be improved if we all had some shared sense of time, and rhythm to our lives.
Again, this is the New York Times, they’re not some religious magazine arguing for Sabbath or higher church attendance, but what the authors are noting is that we are organizing our lives in the wrong direction…one weekend at a time.
Peg Communities vs. Ethical Communities
But it’s not just that our communities are suffering. It’s also what those communities can do for the world.
In one part of his book, Swoboda points out the research of the cultural philosopher Zygmunt Bauman who has described the different kinds of communities that we are faced with in the modern world. Bauman categories them into two different groups that he called “peg communities” and “ethical communities.”
Here’s Swoboda on this:
Peg communities, Bauman writes, are communities forged by disconnected spectators around a mutually loved experience like a rock concert or a sporting match. Their participation is a feeling or a sense around something shared. Ethical communities, in stark contrast, are long-term commitments that are marked by the giving up of rights and service. In short, ethical communities are built on relationships of responsibilities. These are relationships formed by commitment, love, covenant, and even familial fidelity. One of the fundamental shifts in our social matrix is that our relationships are increasingly made up of peg communities rather than ethical communities. The latter, Bauman articulates, do not play the role they used to in the making of human society.
Let me contrast these two kinds of community. A book club is a peg community. In this community, we gather with others around a shared commitment to something we all enjoy. As long as we like books and feel that the book club is delivering something beneficial to each of us, then the community will continue. A marriage, however, is an ethical community. I am in it “till death do us part.” If my wife were dying of cancer, I would stay. When things are hard, we work them out. We continue even when it is not the best emotional option.
Because the majority of our communities are now based around shared likes and not a deeper commitment, we aren’t regularly called on to love and care for people who are different than us. This leads to echo chambers, tribalism and superficial relationships.
It may sound grandiose, but our loneliness problems, the moral decline of the West and even our health.
Once more, here’s Swoboda:
Years ago, one researcher discovered something interesting about Sabbath in Jewish communities: mortality rates plummet on the Sabbath. How could it be that fewer people die on the Sabbath? The researcher concluded that even the sick and terminally ill “rallied” for the Sabbath day because it was a chance to be with family and friends. Sabbath creates a kind of community that we can look forward to.
The kind of community we can look forward to…I like that.
I’d like that.
We can’t fix our lonliness by watching Friends, but we can by learning how to be friends, and we do that with a shared commitment to each other with our time, and by setting some of that time apart as Holy.
In other words, by learning how to keep Sabbath.
While the first Christians weren’t legalistic about when to keep Sabbath, no one can question their deep commitment and fidelity with each other with their money, lives and time. They met and broke bread daily, they shared a deep kind of fellowship with one another and learned to love those who would otherwise be their natural enemy.
And their secret? The Holy Spirit working on their hearts while they shared their lives together.
Which of course, means sharing their time.