Utopian Dreams and Cold Realities: A Thanksgiving Homily

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds to all, according to what each one needed. They went as a body to the Temple every day, but met in their houses for the breaking of bread, sharing their food with glad and generous hearts.

–– Acts 2:44-46

 

In November of 1972 I participated in an Episcopal Church project to engage with American communal movements in a process of dialogue and mutual learning. For three weeks in the snow and cold of New England, five people and a couple of dogs wandered the back roads of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont in a 1953 school bus with a rebuilt, unreliable engine. Amid occasional breakdowns and blizzards, we visited a series of communes, ranging from an upscale geodesic dome to an isolated farm with neither plumbing nor electricity. The nights we spent on the bus were cold, and we were one dog short!

As people of faith, committed to watch the horizon where divine intention meets human possibility, we wanted to learn from the modern pilgrims who were making their exodus in search of a new society. What did they hope for? What had they learned? Did their utopian experiments in communal living bear any resemblance to the gospel message?

The Rev. Bill Teska, the priest behind the project, saw in the communal impulse an apocalyptic rejection of the political and economic structures which have been so fatal for both love and justice. The communards, he believed, were saying NO to this world for the sake of something better.

“By thousands, and tens of thousands, they are walking out of this world into a new one. . . In their capacity of standing as living examples of communities whose lives are ordered according to values entirely different from, and in many ways opposed to, the values of this world, the new communes fulfill for our society the same role which monasteries have performed in past centuries.”[i]

Exploring new worlds isn’t for the uncommitted. The trash bin of history is full of failed utopian quests. Even in Eden, there is always a snake or two. And the work can be strenuous. The transformation of consciousness is as daunting as the reformation of society. Every exodus feels the gravitational pull of the “Egypt” in its rearview mirror. But the biblical God has always encouraged the risk-takers: Do not be afraid. I will go with you.

And as Teska wrote at the time about the redemptive hope shared by both church and commune: “The future which the communards envision is one in which triumphant and transfigured Humanity reigns in Love.”

That was many years ago, and I have no idea whether any of those collectives still exist, or to what extent they made a difference in the lives of their members or in the world around them. But I have never forgotten their idealism––or their courage. Blessed are the pure in heart.

At a fairly new communal farm in Maine, I asked someone how their experiment was going. “Ask us in the spring,” he said. “We haven’t gone through our first winter yet. A commune hasn’t proved it can survive until it’s been through a winter.”

In the Plymouth Colony of Puritan immigrants to Massachusetts in 1620, only half made it through their first winter. The ones who survived threw the famous feast of Thanksgiving legend in the fall of 1621, with some combination of European wheat and native corn. About ninety locals––the Wampanoag people––showed up for the potluck, which included some deer meat but no turkey. They outnumbered the immigrants by two to one, but everyone seemed to get along. It would be an example too little followed in the years to come.

However tragic the subsequent history would prove, the early Puritan immigrants idealized their story as a great communal experiment, a chance to revise the tired narratives of the Old World in “a second Eden, rejoicing and blossoming as a Rose, Beautiful as Tizrah, Comely as Jerusalem.”[ii] In that sense, the New England communes we visited in 1972 were heirs of that Pilgrim vision. Liberated from the structures of the past, they hoped to forge a new kind of society and perhaps a new kind of humanity.

But America has always had its dissenters from the glowing narrative of a new people in a new Eden. As Alexander Hamilton would grumble in November of 1787:

“Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses and the evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age?”[iii]

In an America now ruled by a billionaire oligarchy, a raging lunatic, and an unprincipled Congressional majority verging on treason, Hamilton’s cynical doubts would seem to carry the day. The utopian dream of the Pilgrims, or the 1970s communards, has no where to take place in a land so polluted by ignorance, hate and greed. From sea to shining sea, where is Eden now?

For those of us who still dream of a just and loving society, this is a winter of the utmost testing. Many may wither in its icy blast. And yet, come what may, I still believe in divine imagination and human potential. God has a better idea than our despair.

This eschatological idea has been described with biblical eloquence in a poem by Judy Chicago.[iv] May it be sacramentally reimagined at every Thanksgiving feast, and then fulfilled in fact through our daily prophetic acts of compassion, justice, and hope:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again.

 

 

Related post: No Place Like Home

 

[i] From a report on the project, written in Advent, 1972, by the Rev. William J. Teska, Eleanor Leiper Hall, and the Rev. Jim Friedrich.

[ii] Sacvan Bercovitch, The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 71.

[iii] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers No. 6, “Concerning Dangers of Dissensions Between the States.”

[iv] Judy Chicago, “Merger Poem,” 1979.

Border crossing

An hour before the 1960’s ended, I left a noisy party in L.A. and headed for the ocean, craving some solitude where I could reflect on a memorable and formative decade before it passed. I drove into a large asphalt lot next to the beach, parking in a pool of light beneath a street lamp. There were no other cars around. The surf broke faintly in the blackness beyond the sand. Just before midnight I would walk out far enough to peer beyond the waves into the horizonless dark and wait for the future to roll on in. But for the moment, I propped my journal against the steering wheel and began to write.

I wasn’t alone for long. After about twenty minutes, a police car pulled up beside me. The patrolman got out and walked over to my window. He asked me whether I had heard of the Zodiac serial killer, who had been terrorizing northern California for the past year. Police were on statewide alert, and a single male, parked alone in a deserted spot around midnight, had aroused his suspicion. He wanted to know what I was doing there. I told him I was journaling. He asked, politely, if he could take a look. Instead of asserting my First Amendment rights, I was delighted to have found a reader! I handed over my notebook, and he began to murmur aloud from the first entry, written months earlier when the Clyde Beatty–Cole Brothers Circus came to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The magic of that circus – a tent of wonders suddenly erected in an empty field, only to disappear and move on the next day – had been, for those of us doing campus ministry at an Episcopal coffeehouse, a vision of the Kingdom of God. It arrived with little advance warning, defied the dominant order of gravity, hierarchy and death, then moved on to somewhere else before we could possess it for ourselves.

And so it was that on a bare asphalt stage at the edge of the sea at the end of the Sixties, a policeman performed aloud my whimsical musings on a day at the circus:

And those still endowed with the gift of longing caught another glimpse of the darkness and the dance. But the kingdom is not yet … The circus priests of pain and laughter remain on the other side, though for a day and a night they seemed near enough to touch.

These were not, in his judgment, the ravings of a serial killer, so he wished me ‘Happy New Year’ and departed in peace.

That surreal night comes to mind because I now find myself at the end of another sixties – my own. Tomorrow I turn 70. That seems officially old in a way that 65 did not. Of course I don’t feel old in the way my younger self once imagined life’s third act to be. “Old age isn’t for sissies,” my mother and her friends would joke in their nineties, as they struggled bravely with failing bodies. But I’m not there yet. No one rises to give me their seat on a crowded bus. I can walk 500 miles in a month. My work isn’t done. I am not tired of life.

But “70” feels like a border crossing, though the change may not be immediately apparent. When you travel Highway 5 from California into Oregon, the rainy land of evergreens is still far up the road. The dark green oaks scattered across the arid grasslands of southern Oregon look just like the landscape in your rearview mirror. It’s easy to imagine that you haven’t really gone anywhere. But somewhere up the road it will finally hit you: you aren’t in California anymore.

It still seems premature to brood on mortality. The question posed by one’s seventies (at least while good health lasts) is not so much about death as it is about time. How much time do I have left? How shall I spend it?

“Have you lived here all your life?” asks the Arkansas traveler in the old folk song. “Not yet,” the farmer replies. Exactly. My story is not yet done. But the number of pages preceding “the bookmark of Now” are far greater than the ones remaining. As always happens when the unread portion of a novel shrinks to a fraction of an inch, I wonder how much incident can possibly be crammed into the remaining pages. How will the author tie up all the loose ends in so brief a space?

I could panic over the ceaseless erosion of future; I could rue my wasted past. Or I could just keep on walking (as in this video from my Camino), thankful for a refulgent sun and fruitful earth, mindful of the privilege, for a time, of casting one’s own shadow upon this sweet old world.