When I was in seminary, my best friend and I got in a huge fight. Or maybe it wasn’t much of a fight as much as we didn’t really talk. There were a hundred reasons for the fight, none of which are really important at this point. Here’s what it looked like though: for months we didn’t talk, we avoided each other and when we couldn’t there would be snide, passive aggressive comments said at shared tables, because we shared friends. I remember we were at community meal, which happened every Wednesday night, and my friend was leading the prayer that evening and every word about the importance of community and lifting each other up and it rang with such hypocrisy I wanted to throw my plate of food at him.
Then there was the day when we sat down, in a coffee shop, and for the first time named all the hurts and cried, and took the first steps of forgiving each other. It was painful and it took time, like all healing does, but we’re still friends, still caring for each other through the years and thousands of miles. But it took an afternoon of sitting down, and forgiving, reconciling and renewing.
Forgiveness is a difficult thing. We’ve asked, like those that approached Jesus, how many times do I have to forgive? I’m sure we asked when we were children and our siblings did something to hurt or offend us, unprovoked. Really not our fault, we were prepared to only forgive the necessary times. Jesus wasn’t often one to answer a question clearly, so, while he said 70 times 7, it seemed that he might have thought “I can do better.” So he told the story we had just heard, of debt and forgiveness and lack of forgiveness. But there is something you need to know about the world Jesus lived in, because this story isn’t really about money. It’s about Honor and Shame.
Success for someone in the ancient world, was not found in accumulation of the best things or the most wealth. It was found in others. Success was found in being seen as honorable in the eyes of other people. Sometimes it’s being part of a household that had honor, connections that were nurtured and cared for, or by being compassionate with another, like forgiving a debt that one could never repay.
The opposite of Honor is Shame, which isn’t the same definition that we would use today, because again, this is related to how the community views and responds to you. The first slave in our story failed to understand the role of community. Responding with such lack of compassion when he had received so much would have been seen as self-interested, self-directed, unfavorable, shameful. He failed to understand that honor is about how we treat each other.
We are a culture of self-interest. We earn and collect to serve ourselves. We’re told not to even care what others might say or think about us. Which, in many ways is important, but it also seems to breed this idea of radical independence, clinging ownership that makes sure what is “mine” is mine and everything else is less, like community is something we can take or leave. And not something that we need to nurture.
There are some consequences to our commitment to independence, to our collecting, to the creating of ownership. In 1964, Garit Harin wrote: “Tragedy of the Commons.” In it he describes 2 plots of land, one privately owned and one community. The owner of the private plot understood how to care for the plot, limit the animals, rotate the fields. The common plot, everyone was out for their own and the consequence was the plot was over grazed, over planted, and ultimately useless.
We have a surprising amount of communal resources in the United States, and sometimes we treat them like that common plot. When COVID-19 quarantine started and government workers were asked to stay home, many residents decided that that was the moment to access state and national parks, and while I’m sure there were some who cared for it as they ought, but for those who didn’t what was left behind when the quarantine lifted, were trampled plants, piles of garbage, and graffitied rocks, bridges, buildings. These are the most obvious commons that we have and it became very clear, we aren’t good at it.
And the destruction of the commons leads to all kinds of tragedies. The oceans are our common and yet they continue to be filled with debris and becoming more acidic, forests are being felled, grasslands are becoming subdivisions, waterways are drying up, arable land is becoming desert.
And the suffering as a result of the lack of care for the commons is not usually by those who have done the damage., but some of the fires in California are in areas that naturally burn, that are designed to burn some but have been exacerbated by climate change and development. Destruction of habitats drives animals and insects more actively into the lives of humans and will result in more pandemics like COVID.
But sometimes the commons aren’t so accessible, and aren’t really on tv reminding us of the damage, but the suffering is often more extreme. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last natural spaces left in the world. And some could say it’s untouched by humans which isn’t really true. There are Native Nations and Tribes like the Gwich’in people who have lived on that land for 30,000 years. Can you even comprehend what that looks like? 30,000 years of living with the land, in harmony, in communion with the commons. And after 300 centuries, starting to watch the world around them change in the last 3 because of the introduction of ownership of the land, “rights” to the animals, living against the commons. And fighting against the huge companies and the government’s decisions to own the land and the oil below it because if that happens: the caribou’s mating land will be destroyed, the permafrost that holds Carbon Dioxide will be released into the atmosphere and quicken the struggles we see on TV, and a people and culture that lasted 30,000 years will be destroyed. There is fallout when we don’t care for the commons.
My friend and i could have stayed on our own sides and committed to our being right, but the space between us was filled with the damage, not just to each other about also with everyone who loved us, who had to make conscious decisions so it didn’t look like they were choosing sides, who had to listen to our complaints or pettiness. In the commons around us, was the fallout for those we loved.
This is not the end of Jesus story and it’s not the end of ours. True honor is how we treat each other–how we treat the common. And Jesus calls us and reminds us that the way back is forgiveness, forgiveness that cares for the community, that restores relationships, renews relationships, that heals our relationships to each other and to the commons. Our story does not end in separation, it can begin anew at restoration.
And despite all our desires to stay separate, community is vital, it’s pivotal, it’s how we understand the world around us. My communication professor suggested that we don’t even know if something is a good idea without thinking that someone else would agree with us, without running the idea by another, be it in person or the person in our imagination. We live in community, we are part of community and family, whether we are talking with them or not. We are not alone. The space between us is just as important as the space under our feet. And it needs more intention and tending to because we are so quick to believe that where we stand, physically, emotionally, politically, metaphorically is the most important place and we need to defend it. But it’s the spaces between us where grace can be found, and where the damage can be done when we double down on the one spot where we stand.
It’s unfortunate that in the midst of ugent tragedy we are able to see most clearly how we are caretakers of each other. Folks came out to clean the parks, restoring as best as possible the careless damage done. In the midst of these horrific fires, fire departments from other states have come to save lives and to heal the land. In the midst of illness we have seen caring for each other is caring for our air and our common spaces, how we live and function in them, is how we live in community together, how we keep each other safe. You can call congresspeople and senators to talk about the importance of not drilling in ANWR, to stop the “leasing” of the public commons that will end in destruction and steal from our children’s future.
We do not stand here as islands, but as part of an ecosystem of other humans and all of creation. The ground under our feet is not the only important place, and what we do here has an impact on the rest of the world. The commons are spaces between us and above us and all around us, the spaces that need nurturing, that need healing, reconciling, restoring, renewing.
May we be people of the commons.