Many models exist that purport to describe the structure and functioning of a healthy community. To some degree, the diversity in the models can be attributed, at least in part, to the point of view of whoever has the power to define health and success for community participants. The preponderance of existing models are grounded in hierarchical structures, so that the accepted view is typically from the top down.
To illustrate: Much of religious thought posits a god “above” who determines what is best for all “below.” Such a god’s earthly representatives assume the superior position and promulgate the terms of morality and social success to those deemed inferior. That inferior group would include the rest of us. I might add, parenthetically, that these earthly representatives of the divine also assume the right to determine the use and fate of our planet, too.
Persons and groups with economic, political, or social power tend to replicate the top-down pattern of authority. (Corporations and super-wealthy individuals, kings and others with political power, and strict fathers, respectively.)
All who inhabit these superior positions assume as truth that they actually possess the vision, knowledge, and even wisdom to determine what is best for everyone else. With few exceptions, this model continues to hold sway in the present. Any person or group that attempts to challenge or de-legitimize this hierarchy of “benevolent dictators” is in for a fight.
There are many examples of creative, grass-roots movements and activities that have challenged the hierarchical status quo. Sadly, for the most part, they have ended up, either defeated, or more typically, co-opted into the prevailing model. Early Christianity, for example, was a threat to the culture of the Roman Empire, not because it represented some rival dominant power, but because the egalitarian nature of its community structure rendered unnecessary the prevailing pursuit of upward mobility. Because the Empire traded in coercive power, it could not countenance any system that devalued its might. The Empire eventually prevailed, not by destroying Christianity, but by embedding its own hierarchical power structure into the organization of the Church.
Several centuries later, The Protestant Reformation effectively challenged the Church’s presumption to divine power, and instead located that power in the faithful relationship between the the individual and the divine. Still, the system maintained the power structure by establishing the Bible as the incontrovertible word of the divine Father (up there!). The dominant power of interpretation simply re-rooted itself in new ecclesiastical structures.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the college-educated (G.I Bill?) middle class challenged the political and economic power structure of the “military-industrial complex,” particularly around the questionable morality of the War in Viet Nam. So, what subsequently happened to the energy of that extraordinary era of political activism? It appears to me that it got “bought off” by the lure of a kind of consumerism that kept people so focused on making money for their increasing standard of living (meaning, toys?) that there was no longer time left for nurturing or developing the capacity for ethical reflection. Wealth tends to speak with arrogance, teaching all other people and cultures that their cultural inheritance is less important than what they should be able to buy. At the same time, the power structure has put relentless pressure on our educational institutions, making them function more as skilled worker generators and less as places where people learn to think (or reflect on practical applications of ethics and morality).
For a time in the 20th Century, liberation theology and feminist theology began to have growing influence on public opinion with regard to the needs of historically disenfranchised groups. But the prevailing power structure continues to work very hard to undermine the legitimacy of such a position (no matter what Jesus said about faithful responsibility to the poor). There still exist creative proponents of these unorthodox positions, but world events in the realms of economics, climate change, and natural disasters have served to distract us all from the deeper issues that might turn out to be more relevant to our long term well being and even survival.
Each of the above examples has articulated a perspective different from the hierarchical model of dominance. The power of love in community, the spirituality of the individual, the moral and ethical perspective of those who are forced to pay for wars that do not reflect their personal ethics, and the valuable experience of the world’s disenfranchised groups each give us unique and useful ways to determine and assess the elements of healthy community.
In short, it appears that radical creativity is the enemy of compliance. I wonder, given the state of the world, if we will teach our children simply to comply and fit into the existing system or if we will encourage their creativity and capacity for a healthier vision.
What do you think?
Wayne Gustafson
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”

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