Wild, Wild Country
From my estimates, three out of four American adults have watched the Netflix documentary “Wild, Wild Country”, which extensively explores the rise and decline of the community surrounding Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Due to the fact that I live and work at the location of their Oregon community, which is now a Young Life Camp, many people have recommended it to me. It seems like this documentary has hit a chord for some people, as the Washington Family Ranch has seen a dramatic spike in the amount of people “dropping in” and “swinging by” the property – which don’t exactly seem like the best terms to use in light of the secluded nature of the place.
In order to be a student of the times and of our place, my wife and I watched it. Many things about it were striking, but the most profound thing was the dichotomy between what the community tried to embody, and what ended up being the systemic fruit present within the community.
The Rajneesh community tried to exemplify a Utopian community that is entering into the next order of men, however jealousy, pettiness, hunger for power, iniquity, and sin brought down the community.
A few years ago, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic meditation on living in community, Life Together. The pages contain countless face-melters on what it means to live in community, especially with fellow Christians. Don’t read it unless you’re in the mood to contemplate how you can approach community in a better, healthier way. Out of all the book’s gems, one quote especially hangs with me. In the midst of discussing how we should approach the expectations we have of “community”, he drops this bomb:
“He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”
Living the Dream?
The Bon is saying that we must be careful to not allow our ideals and dreams for our community to get in the way of our ability to love our communities. If we instead idolize our communal ideals, it can destroy the elegant and complex gift of this community that transcends our narrow understandings of how community should be.
This dynamic is all too common; how many of us allow our expectations of community to impact how we assess the all-too-real daily mess of community? This force contributed to the downfall of the Rajneesh; it also led to the downfall of pretty much every communist regime; leaving a trail of both metaphorical and actual bodies in their wakes.
However, there is a reason the Bon mentions this temptation in a book on Christian community; it’s prevalent in those communities as well. I remember reading an account of long-time Catholic monk who was reflecting on how new monks would integrate into the community. He said that the new monks struggled the most with how the monastery was so normal and ordinary. There were excessively crabby monks. Other monks were gossips. Some monks argued almost incessantly about sports, and some monk’s lack of personal hygiene offended other monks.
The new monk’s frustration of someone chewing with their mouth open, or the surly nature of a supervisor quickly smashes the new monk’s expectations of some kind of ethereal and utopian community where everyone was in a rhythmic state of perfect agape. It is at this impasse – and every similar impasse after – where the monk is faced with a decision of what they will allow to win in their minds and hearts: is it their spiritualized utopian ideal, or the gritty, and messy group of broken humans that daily greet them.
Dog Poop and Small Groups
This same thing happens out here. I have seen a dizzying amount of people come into this community, with some idealized expectations of what this kind of close Christian community should embody. Maybe it’s the belief that they should resonate with most – if not all – of the people out here. Perhaps it’s the expectation that the minutia of life together should disappear in Christian community. Possibly it’s the thought that living in this community would just be easy.
At some point they have to ask their neighbor to pick up their dog’s poop for the thirtieth time. Someone may not invite them to a group function. They could struggle to find a small group. What they are daily experiencing is not congruent with what they were expecting. This unforeseen struggle is jarring and frustrating.
The Downward Spiral
All too commonly the next step that people make is to conclude that the community is dysfunctional and broken. Sadly, many of these people become jaded and choose to leave disappointed with unmet expectations. Now, to give them some credit, the community is indeed dysfunctional and broken; however, so is every other community in their own ways on this side of eternity. We face the same question as the new monk. Which community are we going to love: our ethereal ideal, or the one that greets us in all the untidiness of life together.
Thomas Merton, a twentieth century Trappist monk, said that a monastery is an earthly paradise because it is an earthly purgatory. This concept should blow the doors off of how we should instead approach community. The monastery – and any other community of Christians – is a taste of the world to come because of how it purifies us through the friction and struggle. In our limited and hedonistic perspectives, we tend to think that a community is a taste of paradise when it is easy and enjoyable to us. However, through the Lord’s transcendent desire for us to grow, He elegantly allows us to experience the beautiful grind of the communal mess.
So how will we respond in the face of humanness in our communities? Can we embrace the idea that the tough aspects of community help us become more like Christ? What will we love more: our dream of community, or the people around us?