[Cornerstone Archives, Issue #44 – 1978]
[Wilson Station editor note: This article is a snapshot in time more than most… the communal movement has gone through a very lean time since then — the “me” decade of the 80s saw communes fade — but more recently a resurgence seems to be happening. Perhaps for economic reasons, and perhaps in the face of ever-more-alienating individualistic loneliness. -jt]
Communes: Where You Throw It All Together and Hope for the Best
(by Chris Ramsey and Cornerstone Staff)
Communes. The word strikes a different note In every heart. Some think they are the “great missing truth,” or “man’s only hope,” some think all communards are nudists, some have had bad experiences with them, some don’t know what to think. The misconceptions and misunderstandings are many and varied. However, one thing can be said with certainty; If you are looking for a “typical” commune, you won’t find it. There are thousands of communes, and they are all different. A commune really is nothing more than a bunch of people who for one reason or another got together under one roof.
Whether It’s simple country living that one seeks, or an extremely organized utopian ideal, like a big all‑inclusive father, the commune houses everyone. This universal dream takes as many forms as there are conflicting opinions from “outside.”
The commune explosion has been generally agreed to have started In a goat posture in Colorado, where a bunch of college dropouts built dome‑shaped structures out of junk car tops and named It “Drop City.” From then on, everyone had to try It, and between the years of 1965 and 1975, It has been estimated as many as 5,000 to 10,000 communes formed. This Is startling compared to a total of 600 communes In the entire history of the U.S. before 1965.
There Is an explanation for the communal explosion. The Great American Dream was not only being challenged but rejected. It was the communal experience which sheltered and represented much of counter‑culture revolt. It was these pioneers going “back to the land who created such a wave that Human Behavior, March, 1978, said that the trend of population movement from country to city has been reversed just during this, the “commune era.”
Author Hugh Gardner writes‑ In his article, “Dropping Into Utopia”: “They did not often succeed as communes, but they did succeed in Initiating and Inspiring a now Interest In rural living that will be with us for a long time to come.” According to the Chicago Tribune (3/12/78), up to 70% of the 60′s communal experiments failed. Gardner comments on this also. “By refusing to accept their own social conditioning and taking a blind leap of faith into the unknown, they captivated a nation’s attention and even changed its direction. But they also showed how deep our social conditioning can be [by their Inconsistencies], and how fragile the American capacity for community.”
Yet, in spite of many failures the Popularity of communes has spread In an ever‑widening circle. In fact, U.S. News and World Roper# In Feb. 1974 saw “group living catching on and going middle Class.” Arid Money Magazine, In November, 1976, saw communal living as “coming in from the woods.” They quoted Rabbi Martin Siegel of the Columbian, MD, Jewish Congregation In their closing statement: “This Is where the Important experimentation in living Is going on. These may be the laboratories for the new social values of the next century.”
Psychology Today (July, 1970) says that communes “have been started by political radicals, return‑to. the‑land homesteaders, Intellectuals, Pacifists, hippies and drop‑outs, ex‑drug addicts, behavioral psychologists following S.F. Skinner’s Walden Two, humanistic psychologists interested In environments for self‑actualization, Quakers In South America, ex‑monks in Now Hampshire, and Hasidic Jews In Boston.,, In other words, communal philosophy is fairly ambiguous.
The Shakers, early religious communalists once numbering 6,000, Were famous for their strict lifestyle, the Hutterite people from North. western U.S. and Canada form one of the oldest and most substantial communal systems with total membership of over 20,000. Israel bases a substantial portion of her economy on the communal “kibbutzim,” scores of communes founded on the work force theory. A questionable practice among “kibbutzniks” Is the separation of mothers and Infants at birth so that “a young Communard’s primary focus, and his overall allegiance was to the kibbutz.” (Psychology Today, Feb. 1976)
Lasting from 1847‑1880, the famous Oneida commune of upstate New York, with about 300 members, organized a form of “complex marriages.” The entire community was regarded as one family with everyone “married” to everyone else. The commune lasted, however, not because of its unusual approach to sex (sexually free communes are the minority), but because Of a solid system Of authority. Even prospective nightly “mates” had to be submitted.” Twin Oaks, a thirty‑member commune In Virginia, patterns itself almost entirely after S.F. Skinner’s book, Walden Two. Attempting to Produce a model community after Skinner’s behavioral engineering ideals, they believe these techniques have the Potential to create a real utopia.
The Farm, In Tennessee, is the nation’s largest single commune, holding about 1200 people. Their undisputed spiritual leader, Stephen Gaskin, direct their basically eastern religion, with meditation, vegetarianism and marijuana. They are known for various humanitarian services.
Making the scene also are many Christian communes.
ALL IS NOT GOLD
The title of a Chicago Tribune article summed It up, “When Utopia was a commune.” It didn’t take long for the glitter to wear off. The Problem surfaced when after every. one was Moved In and the ideals were agreed upon, the question of the art of, living arose.
Communes that failed do not report afterward of wrong values and goals generally, but of simple inability to cooperate as People. Representative of this is the Freefolks commune whose optimistic beginnings were printed In Vol. 1, No. I of Mother Earth News. After their folding a year and a half later, their fate Is told In Vol. 3, No. 1. A melancholy member reports, “Each of us had a vision‑really amazingly similar about the way we wanted to live. But because we weren’t there yet, it was the small things that caused friction.”
Their arguments weren’t about the larger Issues of life. but over such things as, “should we eat all our honey In the fall or ration It through the winter?” and “should we tether the cow or let her move around In the barn?”
There Is an almost universal inner struggling, not really different in spite of the effort of the commune venture from any other lifestyle. The failure of most of the 60′s communes can only point to the reality that simply living together does little toward supplying a person’s complete needs. Living together doesn’t necessarily mean being together or truly communing.
Communes are by definition not much more then “common bank accounts and bathrooms,” simply “the commonalty” according to Webster, but are In practice the confrontation of the human problem.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON
From surveying the scene, It is apparent that there are many groups trying something. There Is some humanism, there are sincere attempts at various eastern religions, group therapy and general Ideals, but not much Is actually happening. Communes seem still to dwell for the most part on the outer fringes of society, being more experiments than accomplishments.
Influencing the communal movement In a major way was B.F. Skinner and his book, Walden Two. The latest Issue of Communities. The Journal of Cooperative Living (No. 32), listed In Its communal review five communes founded partly or wholly on Skinner’s book. After studying his book, we came to understand how Skinner inspired so many experiments.
According to Skinner, “Any group of people could secure economic self‑sufficiency with the help of modern technology, and the psychological problems of group living could be solved with available principles of behavioral engineering.” With the creation of a perfect environment, made to meet every imaginable need, man is supposedly tamed. In effect, Skinner Is saying that man is an animal made of body and mind who, by being satisfied in this realm, neatly casts aside guilt In the corporate “animal.” Communes seem particularly susceptible to an unrealistic world view, the “castle In the air” syndrome. The hopes that are kindled are all, too often over believed in, forgetting or not knowing that communes are also bound by the limitations of human nature.
Unusual as It may seem, Christianity Is where communes are flourishing.
The Jesus Movement, awakening largely within the counter‑culture, gathered huge numbers as It swept across the country Including those still Interested in community living. With a “cleaned up act,” the Christian community seemed to solve the existing degeneration of communes.
While some warned of “flash In the pan,” large portions of the movement buckled down to business, locating In permanent communities and Inter‑house fellowships, patterning themselves after mature older Christian communes.
Dave Jackson, author of Coming Together, sums the present feeling of the Christian community.
“We are finding that the Lord brought us together for a larger purpose. He’s asking our communities to reach out and link up with other communities, form networks, understand our Identity, and become a people of God.
“This uniting theme Is an old theme In the church with a new urgency, an urgency that Is brought by the Lord’s call ‑and. confirmed by our circumstances. It Is the formation of a self‑conscious people distinct from the prevailing culture.”
Reba Place Fellowship is a Christian commune in Chicago made up of about 300 people. Begun in 1957, Reba is a showcase example of the Christian commune, and over the years has been a model for those with a similar vision.
Daystar has over 12 communities scattered across the country. Begun in 1964, they are a valuable source of teaching and leadership to the Body of Christ. Bethany Fellowship is a 490‑member commune in Minnesota begun in 1945 for the purpose of supporting missionaries. They now support 200 full‑time Christian workers in other countries. These are just a sampling of communes that have flourished. From the Jesus Movement. Gospel Outreach, based in California; Christ is the Answer, sending missionaries into India and Europe; Highway Missionaries, headed by Jim Polasarri, one of the elders of Jesus People of Milwaukee; the year‑old Last Days Evangelical Association, with elders Keith Green and Jerry Bryant in Los Angeles; our own group of Jesus People USA which started in the Jesus People commune lit Milwaukee … and many, many more. There are hundreds of Christian communities dotting the country. Hopefully their unusual beauty will continue to attract both Christians and nonChristians to a truly satisfying, and permanent way of life.
A Christian community not only provides the physical unity but makes the spiritual unity clearly available, both by common spiritual experience (salvation, and the continual personal revelation of the living Jesus) and by clear definition (the Word of God).
The building block of civilization, the family unit, has been the victim of neglect and abuse. Christian community, while a family in the natural, is also a spiritual family, having a common spirit‑the indwelling Holy Spirit‑and a common Father. Christian communities encourage and nurture family groupings within the overall structure. The result is a many‑layered family feeling, intensified by more people.
A loving God, manifested in His People, provides the inspiration and incentive to “commit and submit” one to another (trials included). In Christ there is no problem that is insoluble, so that peace between people is not impossible, and hope is permanent.
While a Christian commune may not be for everyone, the spiritual community of ‘Christians awaits sit ‘People.’ Here, the life of the living Jesus, the only’ true life, is actually realized, and need not be left behind “once it’s time to go home.” Personally, we have lived in community for over 7 years. We wouldn’t trade it for anything. Moreover, as we have traveled across the country with our band and evangelistic teams, we have found in town after town, Christians who desiring commitment are willing to sell out and form communities. We find it exciting. One, it shows the workability of what the concerned, from a good heart, would like to accomplish, such as sharing of the material, physical, and spiritual, conservation of the world’s diminishing resources, living an example of mutual respect. Two, we see it as a real growth in Christian commitment. All of a sudden the words seem to be jumping off the pages of the Bible and into our hearts.
Though a Christian community will face the same struggles that are faced by all communards … we have an answer, the sovereignty of God and His Fatherhood, allowing us not to quit when we stumble, but to learn, and walk on in humbleness. We have found that Jesus Christ is the only utopia there is, or ever was. *
We recommend the book, Coming Together, for further reading of Christian communities. Write to Bethany Fellowship, Inc., Minneapolis, MN 55438.
[written in 1978]