Discovering Our Common Purpose

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. – Philippians 3:15-16

I was sitting recently in a meeting of Occupy Our Homes DC (OOHDC), and things were getting rough. We were having an epic meeting in which we were airing a lot of the conflicts and struggles that had been quietly brewing over the past several months. The emotional intensity was palpable, and at first it seemed like the group was on the verge of ripping apart at the seams. Some of us felt the need for a broad ideological framework that could provide a basis for our shared labor; others of us just wanted to get busy with the work of stopping evictions and to dismiss wider philosophical considerations.
I was one of those who leaned towards focusing on action. I wanted to work on practical strategies for how we could prevent residents of our city from losing their homes. I did not see the need for anything much deeper than that. Let’s get the work done, I thought, impatiently. Yet, there was something important being lifted up by the folks on our team who urged us go deeper in our shared understanding. They perceived that without vision the people perish; without a clear sense of what our shared purpose is, our group would have no cohesion.
We had a breakthrough when we realized that our shared purpose was not a cause, or an idea, or a program; rather, we were brought together by a person. We are working to ensure that one particular woman – Deborah Harris– is able to remain in her home. She is our basis for unity. As we gather together, to walk with her in the struggle to save her home, we find a concrete, human basis for our work together as an organization. With our focus on Deborah and her particular circumstances, we can allow everything we do be tailored to the goal of defending her home. Tactics, strategy, decision-making structures – all of these can be flexible as we adapt our community to focus on our singular goal, rooted in our commitment to a particular person.
Our life in Christian community is like this. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not primarily drawn together by a shared set of rules or values. We certainly share many of these things, but they are the fruit – rather than the root – of our common life. Our life as a community flows out of our shared relationship with a particular person, a loving Teacher who guides us and forms us as we choose to walk with him.
The ground and source of our life together is our shared commitment to a particular person: Jesus. Our allegiance is not primarily to a particular set of ideas about Jesus, nor even to a specific code of conduct that must be performed by rote. Instead, we are invited to give all our attention to Jesus himself, and to allow his very substance and character shape the direction of our life as a community. What we believe and what we do as a community flows out of our living relationship with him.
We will always find something to disagree about, and that is OK. Unity does not mean unanimity. As a matter of fact, superficial unanimity can sometimes mask a deeper disunity that is festering within the community. Our shared silence, rather than containing a rich vibrancy where the Spirit can move, can become a place of unspoken tension and deadness. Christ’s light is the great Revealer, and we hestitate to approach God together when we are hiding our deeper feelings from one another.
When we are united in a particular person, we find the common purpose that allows us to break down the walls of niceness and to be real with one another. When we find our common ground in spirit and in truth, we are able to penetrate the walls of false courtesy that divide us. We are able to be true and honest, to really come to know one another in our common struggle for liberation.
As a Quaker, I find it deeply liberating to re-focus in this way. Rather than putting my energy into figuring out “what do Quakers believe?” or “what do Quakers practice?” I can instead set my sights on the most important matter at hand: “Who is this person, Jesus, and how is he calling me to live?” When I am gathered in a community that is actively asking this question, there is the real possibility of revolutionary transformation.
How do we find our common purpose in the concrete reality of another person? Do we allow ideas or rules trump the reality of the lives of those around us? How can we ground ourselves in the experience of the Risen Lord Jesus, allowing him to become the focus that orders and directs our lives as a community?