Imagination and Community

Marilynne Robinson’s book Gilead is an excellent work of fiction. The basic plot– a dying man writes to the young son he will never see grow up– is engaging. Robinson finds appropriate sympathy for all her characters– good and not-so-good alike– and traces the texture of their feelings with the wisdom and imagination that come from deep living.

Consequently, I was happy to run across this essay by Marilynne Robinson, “Imagination and Community,” in Commonweal [excerpt and link below]. It’s not a great essay, truth be told: unlike her fiction, it is loose in both conception and execution. Still, it is worth attention, because Robinson raises up the importance of imagination for the health and humanity of a community.

One idea worth exploring: for Robinson, imagination is always a good. “I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global,” she writes, emphasizing the idea that community exists because of our ability to imagine loving people we don’t even know. The question occurs to me, however: isn’t the demonization of other groups– other races, other religions, other cultures– also an act of the imagination? Doesn’t the building of enmity also depend on an imaginative projection onto others, of a threatening, life-choking power that is out to get us? If this is so, then it’s not imagination per se that builds community, but a certain kind of imagination– a certain way of exercising the imagination. Robinson hints at this when she writes about the generous imagination which allows for expansion and possibility.

My point is simply: not all exercises of imagination are generous. The imagination that is soaked in fear, for example, is an imagination that is ready to circle the wagons, pack the muzzle-loader, and cock the trigger. What’s moving out there is not the possibility for new and deeper life through encounter and dialogue, but threat, plain and simple– threat to be eliminated.

Any religion in balance will be a school for the imagination– to train it to turn from fear to trust. Not naively, not thoughtlessly, but certainly faithfully.

Here is an excerpt from “Imagination and Community”:

I would say, for the moment, that community, at least community larger than the immediate family, consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly…

[T]he definition of community [can] harden and contract, and [it] becomes violently exclusive and defensive. We have seen Christians against Christians, Muslims against Muslims, fighting to the death over distinctions those outside their groups would probably never notice and could certainly never understand. When definitions of “us” and “them” begin to contract, there seems to be no limit to how narrow these definitions can become. As they shrink and narrow, they are increasingly inflamed, more dangerous and inhumane.

They present themselves as movements toward truer and purer community, but, as I have said, they are the destruction of community. They insist that the imagination must stay within the boundaries they establish for it, that sympathy and identification are only allowable within certain limits. I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global….

via Imagination & Community | Commonweal magazine.


The Pope Receives Fragrant Offering

Does New Cologne Increase the Pope's Appeal?

Benedict XVI is getting a custom-blended scent from Silvana Casoli. “The Guardian” reports that the Italian perfumist has filled a commission to create a unique cologne for the German pontiff.

Casoli, who has made special fragrances for Sting and Madonna (the singer), refuses to disclose the recipe for her pope concoction, although she did say it included the fragrances of lime tree, verbena, and grass.

An excerpt and link follow here:

He is picky about his robes and his red shoes are tailor-made, but Pope Benedict has taken the meaning of bespoke to a whole new level by ordering a custom-blended eau de cologne just for him….

via Pope commissions custom-blended eau de cologne | World news |

Have You Met World Peace? Let the World B. Free

Rondo Drives on World Peace

Professional NBA basketballer Ron Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace in 2011. Last night, the Celtics played World Peace’s team, the Lakers. This morning’s game notes, appearing in “The Boston Globe,” had the following account of World Peace:

Paul Pierce and Metta World Peace were assessed technical fouls after mixing it up under the Lakers’ basket with 7:57 left in the third period and the Celtics leading, 53-51. World Peace and Pierce began shoving each other and World Peace put his forearm into Pierce’s chest. Kevin Garnett responded by pushing World Peace but was spared a technical. It might have inspired World Peace, who followed that dust-up by scoring 7 of the next 9 Lakers points. He once again burned the Celtics with 14 total points and lockdown defense on Pierce in his 31 minutes, 27 seconds. When asked if he enjoyed playing against World Peace, who while with the Pacers in 2004 pulled down Pierce’s shorts during a game, Pierce said, “It’s OK,’’ with a wry smile.

via Celtics’ Wilcox out indefinitely with potential heart issue – The Boston Globe.

Havel on Hope

Vaclav Havel

This is a found item that stands on its own. To distinguish hope from optimism is to distinguishing Christian realism from all banal naivetes, religious or otherwise. There is no reason whatsoever to be optimistic; there is every reason– in the world and beyond– to be hopeful. (From “Pro Ecclesia,” reprinted in “The Christian Century”):

The late Václav Havel… differentiated between hope and optimism. Hope, he said, “is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, and orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. . . . It is an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. . . . [Hope] is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

via Search | The Christian Century.

In Solidarity: Sharing Suffering

Aziz Abu Sarah co-directs The Center for World Religions, Citizen Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, blogs at +972 (, and appears periodically on CNN to offer opinion on current events in Israel/Palestine. We welcomed Aziz here in New Hampshire in the fall of 2010, along with Kobi Skolnick, for their presentation “From Revenge to Reconciliation.”

Below, Aziz tells the story of being stopped and searched, recently, at a checkpoint near Gaza. He was co-leading a tour group of 36 American students and professors; at the checkpoint, he and the other Palestinian in the group– the bus driver– were asked to step off the bus for extra checks. What followed was a conversation between the head of security at the checkpoint, and Aziz’s colleague and tour co-leader, Shira Nesher, an Israeli:

“Shira, our Israeli guide, asked the soldiers about the details and reasoning behind this selective treatment…

Security: We need to check Aziz and the driver. Both of you, take off your shoes, jackets, belts, and bring your bags.

Shira: Fine. [Starts taking off her shoes and belt]

Security: What do you think you are doing?

Shira: I am going through the same security checks they are going through. Is there a problem with that?

Security: What reality are you living in? You wouldn’t have done this if you were in a New York airport and the security pulled a Muslim guy in front of you for extra checking, would you?

Shira: My reality is different than your reality. These are not strangers in the airport. They are my coworkers. I didn’t ask you not to check them; I will not interfere with your work. However, you should check me too. I don’t accept you racially profiling my colleagues. We are one team, we spend 15 hours together every day, we work together, eat together and at checkpoints we should be treated similarly. We are equal in everything we do, why not here?

Shira then underwent the same security checks that me and the bus driver had to undergo.”

I love this story because it is a picture of what solidarity looks like: a person with relatively more power and higher standing (Shira, the Israeli), volunteers to stand with those with relatively less power and lower standing (Aziz and the bus driver, the Palestinians). As a Christian minister working for a renewed understanding of Christ’s healing power, this is it: Christ heals the world by consenting, out of an extravagantly generous love, to be in solidarity with suffering humanity.

Below is the rest of Aziz’s entry:

What she [Shira] did was a brilliant way to force the security officer to reconsider his actions. She could have yelled at him and spilled tons of accusations that would have made him angrier, but she chose a different path. She decided to force him to think about the objectives and practices of his work. Why did he racially profile the Palestinians? She showed him that she considers herself equal to the Palestinians in every way, and that there is no difference between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one can lose sight of what this struggle boils down to. It is not about what solution will work at the end – one state, two states or a bi-national state. Eventually, one of these options will be implemented. But what’s more important is the relational aspect of any solution. All these potential solutions will fail if they are not built on the notion of equality and human rights.

Shira Nesher demonstrated a new way to struggle for justice, human rights and equality. She didn’t just demand better treatment of Palestinians from afar, which is an easy thing to do. Preaching ethics and morality to others is not costly. When Shira couldn’t guarantee that her Palestinian colleagues would be treated equally, she gave up her privileges in a show of equality. That’s how this struggle for human rights in Israel/Palestine can be won.

via Aziz Abu Sarah.