. . . That’s what most people know about bonobos: they have a lot of sex. That’s not what’s interesting about them. The No. 1 reason they are interesting is that they don’t kill each other. . . . The chimps, it turned out, would only cooperate if they were teamed up with others of equal status. If you put them with subordinate or superior status chimps, they became intolerant. When you had equal-status chimps together on a test, they were able to solve conflicts of interest, negotiate successfully and recruit collaborators. But when we changed one simple thing, we’d crush their ability to cooperate. . . . Later, when we were in the Congo, we posed the same question to the bonobos. The piles of food were merged. No problem. Everyone shared. My doctoral thesis adviser at Harvard, Richard Wrangham, thinks this may be because chimpanzees evolved in a situation of food scarcity while bonobos developed in the giant salad bowl of the Congo basin where there was abundance.1
I remember the first time I heard about the differences between our two closest evolutionary relatives: chimpanzees and bonobos. I was listening to an episode of the Ask Science Mike podcast and he was trying to describe humanity’s proclivity for violent retaliation, explaining how our conceptions of reality could lead to the flourishing of our species . . . or extermination at our own hands. He humorously reported that, while chimpanzee tribes will go to war over just about anything (even more than humans), bonobos will instead share their resources and, when tensions grow beyond the ability of simple sharing, yes, will engage in social-sexual activities to release the anxiety.2
So what do bonobos have to do with the ongoing discussion of why, after all my family has been through, I stay in the church. What is it that brings me back, week after week, and even to pursue a second career in ministry? I’ve already spoken about how the shared story and community of the Church provides me the space to weep and to long, but it another gift I receive from engaging in this collective myth of the Body of Christ is the opportunity to serve.
Now, I recognize “service” is a loaded word that, for many of my fellow “exvangelicals” conjures up reminders of spiritual abuse, from the relatively light guilt we feel when an overworked pastor begs us to volunteer for this or that, to the burnt out who have seen their families drift apart due to church communities demanding too much time or exerting too much moral authority, to the deeply painful experiences of some people who have been emotionally or sexually used by a person in power. I get it.4
But that’s not what I’m talking about here and obviously is not what I’m thinking when I speak of the reasons I stay in the Church. What I want to pursue here is an idea of “service” as a sort of gravitational force that draws me back into community every time I begin to orbit away; a force drawing me to listen and then act on behalf of those whom I might normally expect to listen and serve me.
But especially, I want to think of service as a force that draws me through participation into an abundant view of reality–one that can help me be part of the ongoing manifestation of peace, wholeness, and holistic well-being in this world. Also known as the Kingdom of God.
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My doctoral thesis adviser at Harvard, Richard Wrangham, thinks this may be because chimpanzees evolved in a situation of food scarcity while bonobos developed in the giant salad bowl of the Congo basin where there was abundance.
Humans (and, it seems, our nearest relatives) are communal creatures whose societies function best when we serve each other’s interests selflessly, sharing our resources and drawing one another into safety nets of care. But this can be incredibly difficult when our society has evolved in an environment of scarcity where there is only so much to go around; when we believe the pie is finite and our personal slice expands or contracts based directly on our (or our government’s) generosity.
It can be difficult to imaginatively live in a world of abundance when our capitalist culture ingrains scarcity into our psyches from an early age, telling us we must always take care of ourselves and our own first.
That we must stand up for our rights to protect ourselves.
That we must stop them from accessing benefits they didn’t “earn.”
That they are taking away what is ours and giving it to them.
Is it so surprising we developed into the anxious, bellicose, and grasping people we have when our very way of life is built on a system of scarcity–of fear and consumption? Is it so surprising our country struggles to create local and national safety nets when the economic-social theory upholding us is premised on creating shortage out of abundance?
Is it so surprising we are so grasping when our founders and leaders believed it is our manifest destiny to march around the world, staking their flags in the soil of every country who could not muster sufficient opposition? Who saw and have taught us to see creation (and each other) as commodities to exploit, draining our collective well to its dregs before moving on to dig (or steal) others?
Perhaps you balk at this, believing that our leaders had and have the best interest of their people at heart and simply want us to live as well and as free from care as possible.
And I would agree. Provided we are their people.
But what if we instead decided to identify with a different people? To be a different people?
But what if, at least once per week, we chose to inconvenience ourselves by showing up to a community confronts our advantages, privilege, and biases?
What if we spent an hour or so every week participating in elaborate rituals intent on inviting us to serve those we would typically expect to serve us?
What if this community proclaims that our strength is found through identification with the weak; that it is the lame, the blind, and the deaf who can most accurately display the Divine for us and teach us to walk, see, and hear?
What if we put ourselves in the service of a movement that reminds us on a weekly basis that it is the haves who often miss the point of God’s work, that it is Good News to find yourself sitting under the authority of the have nots?
What if we spent time away from the push of scarcity’s dividing force and instead investing ourselves in a story that draws us together in a fool’s vision of abundance? A story that proclaims “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”; that, like Jesus, the “true manna,” all things are given as part of one cosmic eu-charist, one Good-Gift. A Gift that, when received with hands open in thanksgiving, never fails to provide just enough for all.
For people in oppressed and forgotten communities, the Church (particularly the very white church in which I participate) may seem an odd place to be confronted with these issues, but I believe that just as the Christ Story can and has been used to enforce traditional power structures, it can and should be used to tear them down–and it is within those walls I have received critiques of my own proclivities and privileges.
It is in the Christ Story that I am confronted with my addiction to power and the respectability being a religious leader brings.
In the Christ Story I am confronted with my bias for masculinity; for my implicit belief that the best leaders are those who speak and act forcefully, leading from strength and certainty.
And it is in the Christ Story that I am confronted with my acceptance of the lie of scarcity–of not enough-ness–and am invited weekly to stretch out my hands and see Divinity in the simplest of substances, to receive the Gift and recognize the abundance all around.
If we are to move forward, bringing the Kingdom of God that is within us into reality around us, we must honor the silent, quiet voices of peace and plenty. We must step off our stages of power into the congregation of the powerless. And we must receive the Gift, sharing it freely, and look around to see our entire world as “a great salad bowl,” brimming full of the abundant Divine.
1. Dreifus, Claudia. “Bonobos Don’t Kill Each Other.” The New York Times, 5 July 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/science/06conv.html.↩
2. I know, right? Where do I sign up?↩
4. Yes, for those who know my story, the irony is not lost.↩