Howard Thurman on the Primacy of Community

African-American mystic and theologian Howard Thurman speaks often and eloquently of the primacy of community. The loneliness of the seeker for a community is sometimes unendurable, he warns us.

“Garden of Eden.” The Genesis story of humankind’s loss of community with all of life. Painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder  (1472–1553). On Wikimedia Commons.

Thurman explains Adam’s fall as being his loss of a sense of community with the rest of creation. The fall is a fall away from the community of all Creation with one another. A fall out of community.

Thurman believes that both the Genesis Creation story and the Creation story of the Hopi people tell the story of the climate of community in which our species began and to which we yearn to return.

We are always seeking a return to our beginnings, a healing and redemptive community. But the community which we yearn for is a full community, one that includes all God’s creation, not just a segregated one of human dwellers alone. When this community is torn asunder, awful things happen within the human psyche.

Thurman actually defines sin as our being outside community.

Isolation. Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

In community, the citizen receives an integrated basis for his behavior so that there is always at hand a socially accepted judgment that can determine for him when he is lost, when he has missed the way—that is, when he is out of community. Humanity, he says, would never accept the absence of community as his destiny.

When community is missing, we are lost.  Community by definition includes all our kin and thereby embraces our relationships with all Creation. We seek to belong, we long to be with others and be part of their work, their drama. Thurman saw this when he warned that

the community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them—unknowns and undiscovered brothers…. What we have sought we have found, our own sense of identity. 

“Solitary” Sketch by ja’s ink on paper on Flickr.

Belonging matters and reaching out to others inviting them to belong matters. One wonders what he would think of the anti-immigration hysteria of some politicians in our day.

We have committed to heart and to nervous system a feeling of belonging and our spirits are no longer isolated and afraid…. [We need to resist the] “will to quarantine” and to separate ourselves behind self-imposed walls.  I this “will to quarantine” alive and well today? 

In its place, Thurman talks about finding why we were born and it has everything to do with community.  For this is why we were born: Men, all men, belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself.

The slaughter of Tatanka – source of food, shelter, clothing, and life to the indigenous peoples of the Plains. Photograph 1892 of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer. Photographer unknown. From Wikimedia Commons.

Thurman believed that the Native American’s sense of belonging to the land is primal—and that this relationship cannot be broken with impunity.

As the native peoples’ land was desecrated, the self was also, and a unique form of torture, a long, slow, anguished dying took place.  An ultimate abuse was enacted against the original peoples of this land.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, p. 85.

Banner Image: “Balcony Concerts to show solidarity, generosity, creativity between people even with social distancing.” Image by Catherine Cordasco for United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Community in Africa: Wisdom from Our Common Motherland

Much of the commitment to and analysis of community that we find in the work of Howard Thurman and Dr. King derives from their African roots.  As African scholar Dr. Molefi Kete Asante puts it in The Afrocentric Idea and African Intellectual Heritage:

prior to the interaction with the European and Arab populations that invaded Africa, the idea of race was nearly nonexistent; however, the concepts of community group, clan, family, and ethnicity did exist.

Mothers and children in Kargi, a remote nomadic settlement in Kenya. Photo by Ian Macharia on Unsplash

Values were grounded in community, including ancient beliefs in resurrection and life, reincarnation, matrilineality, the value of children, “and the ultimate goodness of the earth.”

Dr. Asante recognizes community as being at the core of African belief systems.  We are in the universe and it is in us; there is no separation between us and nature, between life and spirituality or spirituality and religion.

Asanti sees the deep teaching of community among African people as connecting to the principle of harmony. 

Among the Yoruba, the goal is always to restore harmony….Harmony and peace, societal and individual, come from the right ordering of the earth through an appeal to Ifa” (sacred texts).

Community embraces the ancestors–not only those from the past who are present as spirit but also those not yet born who are to come on the scene in the future.  That is why all ritual begins with libations to these ancestors.  They are part of any prayer service.  (Is this unlike the prayer “all our relations” that Lakota people pray whenever they pray?)

Parents and children of Kemgesi Village, Tanzania, celebrate the commissioning of their protected spring constructed by the village with the assistance of CARE Tanzania. Photo by USAID Biodiversity & Forestry on Flickr.

There is a personal harmony that must be developed “because an undisciplined person creates disharmony within the society.”

Becoming human is the task at hand, and “one becomes human only in the midst of others,” that is, in community.

The development of personal powers that are inherent in us means our harmonizing with and becoming “in tune with the rhythm of the universe.”  This happens, among other places, at community rituals and celebration.

“Dancing.” Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Asante names a secret to African-American spirituality.  It is this:

While we recognize the individuality of the responsibility, we know that it cannot be carried out without others.  We can reach our own transcendence, but never without the help of other. 

In joining in collective expression of power, true spirituality is manifested.

I am no longer myself, I am a transpersonal being at this moment….It is joy ineffable, because I am in tune with the feelings of others. key points toward understanding the concept of Ma’at in ancient Egypt. Uploaded to YouTube by Voices of Ancient Egypt.

A key concept in African religion is Maat, which Asante defines as “the influence of right and righteousness, justice and harmony, balance, respect, and human dignity.” Maat is about living out the harmony or balance and shared interdependence we find in creation itself.  “In all cases the ideas of religion [in Africa] kept the societies close to the fundamental principles of harmony between humans, humans and the environment, and humans and the spirit world.”

In this rich term Maat, we can easily recognize the concepts of Justice,  Compassion and the Common Good that form the basis of authentic community and hold the key to common survival.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, pp. 89f., 392.

Science Tells Us about Community

Far from being a collection of dead and inert objects, the universe is indeed a community, a gathering of subjects. The new universe story from science very much confirms that truth. Mears, director of the Living Classroom Project and owner/educator at the Australian permaculture farm Lulu’s Perch, explores the sacred geometry of the universe to find the patterns that every living being shares. Uploaded to YouTube by Lulu’s Perch

As cosmologist Brian Swimme puts it in The Universe Story,

[Through] this story we learn that we have a common genetic line of development. Every living being of earth is cousin to every other living being. Even beyond the realm of the living we have a common origin in the primordial Flaring Forth of the energies from which the universe in all its aspects is derived. 

In the new cosmology, community is seen to be happening at all levels of existence–including the most minute. 

Water molecules arranged in liquid around a central reference molecule. White areas show the directional organization of water density in the structural “shells” arising from hydrogen bonds; the orange area shows where no water molecules can reside. Photo by IBM Research on Flickr.

Each particle is in some way intimately present to every other particle in the universe…. Hydrogen [was] a new identity that has the power to seal a proton and an electron into a seamless community.

We seek out a deeper remembrance of this “seamless community.”

It follows that humans are all embedded in a living, developing universe, and that we are therefore cousins to everything in the universe.

If we are cousins, we are already community.

Ecosystems are, as scientist Frijof Capra points out in The Web of Life, “sustainable communities of plants, animals, and microorganisms.” Our own human communities can be reinvented by learning how these more-than-human communities operate successfully in creation., systems theorist and deep ecologist Fritjof Capra delivers an introduction to the systems view of life, which “allows us for the first time to integrate the biological, cognitive, and social dimensions of life.” Uploaded to YouTube by politosystemsdesign.

The principles for living systems that Capra explicates include the following:

Interdependence.  All members of an ecological community are interconnected in a vast and intricate network of relationships, the web of life…. The success of the whole community depends on the success of its individual members, while the success of each member depends on the success of the community as a whole.

Non-linear relationships. The network pattern that characterizes basic patterns of life involves not so much cause and effect relations as multiple feedback loops.

Without Waste.  Cyclical processes of feedback loops lead to recycling. What one species produces as waste, another takes in as food. that the ecosystem as a whole remains without waste. Communities of organisms have evolved in this way over billions of years, continually using and recycling the same molecules of minerals, water, and air.

In contrast, the industrial systems we now operate under are linear and waste becomes endless.

The 12 principles of permaculture. Free download from

Solar powered.  Ecosystems run on solar energy. So ought we.

Partnership or pervasive cooperation. Since the first nucleated cells over two billion years ago, life on earth has proceeded through ever more intricate arrangements of cooperation and coevolution. 

Partnership is one of the hallmarks of life.

Diversity. Biodiversity makes a community resilient. Human communities can imitate this resilience through honoring diversity.

Flexibility. Fluctuation is found everywhere in an ecosystem. The web of life is a flexible, ever-functioning network. Adapting to changing circumstances is the key to the dynamic feedback looping that goes on. Paradox and dialectic are key to maintaining a community of any kind. There is stability as well as change, tradition as well as innovation.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells, pp. 82-84.

Banner Image: The mind-boggling biodiversity of the Ecuadoran Amazon, seen from the Sacha Warmi Center for Culture, Nature, and Health, dedicated to “support(ing) indigenous peoples and organizations in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the revitalization and strengthening of their cultural systems, particularly the education and health systems, for the improvement of their current life situation.” Photo by Phila Hoopes

Banner Image: A modern interpretation of the goddess Ma’at by Amaranta Celena ColindresPhoto by wiredforlego on Flickr.

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.

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