Amoureax by Eve Arnold

A sane space is something which forms us in the rhythms and patterns of the Kingdom of God. Of course, the premier examples of such spaces are liturgical and sacramental, although these are not my concern here. The eucharist, its associated practice of fraternal admonition, footwashing and baptism form us in sharing, in peacemaking, self-emtying love, and love relations which are extended to neighbour and enemy and are not dependent upon blood, nationality, race gender, sexuality or any other such arbitrary distinctives. I would like, now, however to focus on more banal examples, ones which we may find less easy to assimilate into our modern lives. These banal examples are dependent upon a liturgical formation for their practice and are an integral part of liturgical practice. A sane space is one which is fertile and which generates fertility and so is creative of independence, moves us into satisfaction, is communal and draws us further into the rhythms of sanity. Geoffrey Lilburne writes:

“Place is not conceived as a mere point, a location, but as an arena which partakes of the qualities of that which dwells there ... space is charged with qualities, is able to shape and transform us as we come to know it and enter into relationship with it.” - Geoffrey Lilburne, A Sense of Place: A Christian Theology of the Land, p82

A sane space is a space ’charged’ with the qualities of sanity. Every task we perform is expressive of and formative of who we are. Particular spaces are expressive and formative of us. We have allowed most spaces to be ’mapped’ and colonised to such an extent that there is little of the gospel expressed in them, few of the patterns and rhythms of the Kingdom of God, and so little sanity. This includes the aforementioned liturgical spaces. We thus undergo an alternative formation, one characterised by the rhythms, patterns and disciplines of an industrial consumer society. A sane space is one which is expressive of our gospel hope and moves us into it.

3.1 Keeping Rabbits

Did I mention banal? Perhaps for some such an example is plain distasteful. Nevertheless, the husbandry of rabbits has been in my mind as something exemplary of the kind of space I am attempting to describe. William Cobbett writes of keeping rabbits that:

“Of all animals rabbits are those that boys are most fond of. They are extremely pretty, nimble in their movement, engaging in their attitudes, and always completely under immediate control. The produce has not long to be waited for. In short, they keep an interest constantly alive in the little chap’s mind; and they really cost nothing; for as to the oats, where is the boy that cannot, in harvest time, pick up enough along the lanes to serve his rabbits for a year? The care is all; and the habit of taking care of things is, of itself, a most valuable possession.” William Cobbett, Cottage Economy, p141

If the gendered nature of this excerpt may be excused for the purpose of being able to use an historical source, other noteworthy elements become apparent. The last point is of particular interest to us here. What Cobbet proposes is a task that forms a part of the domestic economy of the cottage, which does not afford mere amusement. This productive task is itself interesting as well as making a certain kind of boy (or girl or anyone, for who does not need to learn care). For Cobbett, keeping rabbits forms the keeper in care. The activities of that care extend beyond the immediacy of the rabbit hutch to involve collecting food for their upkeep and so it is an extensive care.

The task of keeping rabbits has its own structure, its own ecology. It is a task chosen because it is productive and, once chosen, it also structures the lives of those who participate in it. Intrinsic to that structure is the pattern of care. As I have been thinking about these things, one of my fellow communards and I have been in the process of building rabbit hutches in order to keep rabbits for our community, the Peace Tree. This complex of hutches should provide the community with as much meat as we need (which is almost none presently). The act of building the hutch builds our relationships and skills. Very likely, my co-worker will take responsibility for the care of the rabbits once we have them. This is a deliberate attempt on his part to begin to participate in just modes of gaining sustenance. We will also attempt to grow or gather as much of the feed as we can and so participate in the natural rhythms of planting and harvesting and observation of where and when the best wild feeds are to the found. This latter portion of the task ensures that other people and places are not exploited for our benefit.

Keeping rabbits, in ways we do not yet know about, will demand things of us which, I submit, are significant acts of non-conformism to ’the patterns of this world’. It is one task representing participation in a sane ordering of things. I am not, of course, suggesting that readers of this essay must all keep rabbits but I am suggesting a certain way of thinking about the tasks that we presently consider most important for our response to climate change and a low energy future. To my mind, the priority tasks are those which form us in fertile and just rhythms and make us more sane in the way that keeping rabbits does.

3.2 A Hotbed

If you will permit me another banal example, perhaps my meaning will be clarified, for it is not only care that I am suggesting we must be formed in. There is a whole range of disciplines now foreign to us which are a part of the joyful patterns of sanity. The Shaker Gardener’s Manual mentions that keeping a hotbed:

“... is quite particular, and requires you to be thoughtful and regular; but this is only promoting a good habit and if you were inclined to forgetfulness, it would almost justify keeping one expressly for that purpose.” quoted in Rita Buchanan, The Shaker Herb and Garden Book, p18

A hotbed doesn’t make as much sense in Perth, Western Australia as in, say, Peasant Hill, Kentucky or Lebanon, New York but it is another good example of a sane space. A hotbed consists of a large wooden container which can be half filled with composting horse manure and covered with glass. Seedlings are grown in soil above the manure, which provides heat from below. The ’particularity’ in the management of hotbeds is in regulating its heat by removing and replacing the glass at the right times to keep a good temperature for the growing seedlings.

I suggest that, like the Shakers, we must be more aware of how particular activities form us and our loved ones. What kinds of activities move us into the compulsion and forgetfulness of consumer society where we recall and are recalled primarily by advertisements and what kinds move us to be ’thoughtful and regular’ in the production of healthful produce for communal enjoyment?

Sane spaces such as these are creative of independence in our communities - they are productive They are fruitful in ways which are not exploitative, use available resources and build fertility. The Shakers used horse manure because that’s what they had. On the other hand, I can go to a suburb on Perth where race horses are kept and find bags of manure lining the roadside. This is characteristic of an insane space - the fullness of the task is denied and waste and expense are created.

As we approach the fullness of the task we enter into its satis-faction and ours. If we accept the fullness of the task of keeping rabbits, for example, we will not buy (much) food but grow it or seek it from ’wild’ places and so learn care. The same act of accepting the fullness of the task makes it a just act, for we do not exploit others to do what we will not, nor use energy or resources we are unwilling to expend or which are not ours to use. We do not create ’waste’, which is in fact fertility for the sustenance of our land and lives.

Each of these tasks can (or must) be done with others or with reference to others and so they are personal, or communal, tasks - they are tasks that children can play at and join in.

These are some of the characteristics of sane spaces. Changing lightbubs in comparison, while important, is more an act of consumption than it is productive of real change and greater sanity in our selves and communities.

A sane space is also one that sweeps us up into sanity, a space which draws us ever deeper into itself. The generative and creative nature of sane spaces is what I would like to address in the next section.

3 Mimesis and the Messiah

The missionary capabilities of groups which are habitually small and obscure might be doubted. Perhaps, however, a Messiah-shaped missional mode is the reason for these 'problems' of size and public profile. Troeltsch writes of the sect-type that:

“The sects take the Sermon on the Mount as their ideal; they lay stress on the simple but radical opposition of the Kingdom of God to all secular interests and institutions.” - Ernst Troeltsch

While Troeltsh’s comments obviously do not apply to all groups bearing the name 'sect' they do, however, describe the capacity for 'sects' to take seriously the teaching of Jesus, even when they are incommensurable with the dominant society. To be missional like Jesus may not be popular. To be missional like Jesus takes a cruciform shape; it includes a baptismal willingness for a non-conformist posture to the dominant society.

It is precisely the vulnerability entailed in the rejection of dominance and acceptance of Jesus' teachings as normative for Christians which, I believe, constitutes a precondition for mission and it is this which I think 'sects' have the potential to embody and exemplify. It is out of this shape that the kind of creativity which Jesus embodied arises and it is this creativity which makes for the formation of compelling contrast societies, ie. missional communities. These communities do not attempt to be creative but are so by virtue of their mimesis of the Messiah. It is a mimetic relationship with the Messiah which makes a group compelling. It is often the same trait that makes them minorities. They are not less effective or relevant for this, however. It is this shape which births their creativity.

3.1 Mimesis of the Messiah as a Non-Coercive and Catholic Relation

For Toynbee, the sign of a creative minority’s decline is its adoption of coercive power. (A Study of History, vol. VI, p176). If this is true, it suggests that creativity is itself intensely linked to the unwillingness to use coercive power. To be missional is to be potently vulnerable. To be potently vulnerable is to cultivate creativity. The active rejection of force breeds creativity7. Jesus' creativity resulted in the Sermon on the Mount. We must take up the burden of embodying the same creativity in the present, not through slavish devotion to the Sermon on the Mount as principles for action (pace Tolstoy and Gandhi) but through a relationship to the Spirit which moved the Messiah in first century Palestine.

Each particular embodiment of the creative Spirit of the Messiah is not somehow becoming more parochial in being concrete but is taking the local shape of something universal, or ’cosmic’, as my fellow communard Jarrod McKenna would say.

John Howard Yoder writes of the parochial nature of the state’s claims:

“The universality of Christ’s reign is replaced by the particularism of a specific state’s intentions.” - John Howard Yoder8

It is not the ’sect’ - ongoingly seeking to embody the Messiah’s universal reign of love - which is parochial, but rather any organisation which has no such universal to embody but seeks, from its own power, to make itself universal. 'Universality' is a quality which is given, not taken. The Church-type of Troeltsch falls into this later category. Unless there is someone truly universal to call us it to ’be’ from without, no matter how large we are, we are parochial. 'Relevance' is not mitigated through a group being a minority. In fact, the willingness to adopt coercive modes of relating in order to become either more numerous or to enforce an ethic on others is an admission that the 'good news' is not potent of itself. The gospel is betrayed through the use of coercive power; its power to bring people into it's life by its sheer goodness is denied. Non-coerciveness itself is essential to that goodness.

3.2 Mimesis of the Messiah as Non-Rivalrous

"... we are being given the sort of desire that will enable us not to be moved by the social other but instead empower us as creators of a quite different social other."- James Alison9
Mimesis of the Messiah, because it is an imitative relationship with someone outside of mimetic rivalry, begins to distort the relation into something more than the creation of mere formal likeness. It becomes what Toynbee calls Transfiguration (see section 4 below). A mimetic relationship with the Messiah begins to transform us totally in the way that imitation of social forms cannot. James Alison calls this of the utter gratuity of the resurrection. Jesus is resurrected as someone who is totally beyond the systems of rivalry which ordinarily constitute us. He returns to his disciples without resentment, without a victimhood with which he may berate them. This being-beyond-rivalry is the kind of being we are being given when we imitate the Messiah. The relationship is turned around from one in which we are somehow in control of what we imitate to one in which we are transformed by one who is beyond ordinary mimetic relationships. This begins to suggest the impoverished nature of the mimetic relationship and that the only desirable kind of mimesis is that of the Messiah, which distorts the relation's ordinary dynamics. It is this which the Quakers quoted in the first section understood well:

“We do not want you to copy or imitate us. We want to be like a ship that has crossed the ocean, leaving a wake of foam, which soon fades away. We want you to follow the Spirit, which we have sought to follow, but which must be sought anew in every generation.” - First generation Quakers a Balby, York, late 17th Century1
It is only through an immediate and personal relationship with the Messiah that any group can become anything worth imitating. In as much as they are worth imitating, they will continually point to their relationship with the Messiah as the source of that imitability and the only possibility of its proliferation. Because they are caught up in imitation of one who is beyond rivalry and so are being given a non-rivalrous identity which appears as something potent amongst relations which necessarily descend into rivalry and violence. This same non-rivalry means that a group may be something different to the dominant society without gaining its identity through being against it. There is a nonchalance in their posture. This nonchalance does not suggest a lack of care, a lack of concern that the powers in rebellion be brought into justice, peace and joy. This nonchalance is that of the servant Messiah in John chapter 13, who took up the towel, the mark of a slave, to wash his disciple's feet because he knew 'he had come from God and was going to God'. Peter protests:
‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’
Jesus was able to be a scandalous other because he knew 'he had come from God and was going to God'. Through his non-rivalrous practice, Jesus brings his disciples into that same relation: ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.’ Unless you are not scandalised by the fact that I am driven by a Spirit which not that of any which drives this world, you cannot yourself enter into the Spirit which will move you into non-rivalrous self-giving love.

'Sects', while all too often driven by a spirit which is against the dominant society, have often displayed a practice which is unconcerned by what is happening around them. The Amish, for example, are now becoming the paradigmatic of the life of care which we must all begin to move in (Casaubon's Book: Production, Consumption and Amish Economics). They have become so not be desiring it but by simply getting along in a life driven by a care for Creation which they have learned from the Creator and from the Messiah who said "Love your neighbour as yourself". As Wendell Berry says:
"I do not think that we can make sense of Amish farming until we see it, until we become willing to see it, as belonging essentially to the Amish practice of Christianity, which instructs that one's neighbours are to be loved as oneself. To farmers who give priority to the maintenance of their community, the economy of scale (that is, the economy of large scale, of "growth") can make no sense, for it requires the ruination and displacement of neighbours." - Wendell Berry10

The mimesis of a Messiah who is beyond rivalry frees us from being against and allows us to embody a reality which is quite different and yet gratuitously rather than resentfully so.

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