Most of us, whether we are conscious of it or not, operate somewhere on the continuum between an assumption of abundance and an assumption of scarcity.
An assumption of abundance is a way of living with a healthy amount of trust that everything we truly need to become the people we were created to be will somehow be given. It’s a way of living with trust that everything that happens to us — even the things we never would have chosen — can somehow be used for good and as part of our becoming.
The scarcity assumption tells us that there is simply not enough to go around; not enough resources, not enough attention, not enough love, not enough opportunities, not enough forgiveness for us truly to be forgiven and not enough acceptance for us truly to be accepted, etc.
The scarcity assumption tells us, maybe on a subconscious level, “if that person is loved, I must be less loved; if that person gets attention, there won’t be enough attention for me; if that person is special then I must be less special; if that person’s basic need for health care, housing, education and employment are met, there won’t be enough to meet my basic need for housing, education health care and employment. The scarcity assumption is at the heart of the ban on refugees, and the building of a wall.
The truth is there really is the possibility of there being enough for everyone; enough love, enough attention even enough resources to provide for every one’s basic needs. But when we operate out of the scarcity assumption, when we act as if there is not enough to go around and we act as if we are not all part of the same human family and we create policies and tax codes that reflect those assumptions, we in fact create scarcity for millions of people.
Loaves and Fishes
One of the miracle stories in the New Testament addresses the scarcity assumption that is part of the human condition.
It’s the story of the loaves and fish found in the gospels of Mark and Luke.
Jesus and his disciples, his beloved community, have gone on a silent retreat. They are tired and in need of some r and r. But when they get to the site of their retreat they discover that a huge crowd has followed them. So Jesus reaches deep within himself and discovers the energy and compassion he needs to teach the people who are starving for spiritual nourishment.
Naturally, at the end of the day the people are physically hungry. The disciples come to Jesus and say, “Jesus, send these folks away into the next town so they can get some supper.”
Jesus said, “You feed them.”
Operating out of the scarcity assumption the disciples asked, “ Seriously? Do you know how much it would cost to feed all these people?”
And Jesus who always operated out of an assumption of abundance, asked, “how much food is there among us?”
Again, operating out of the scarcity assumption the disciples replied, “ Only five loaves and two fish filets. Clearly not enough.”
So Jesus said, “Have everyone sit down in small groups on the grass.” And then he said a blessing.
Now most of us who were raised in the church were taught that the miracle that happened that day was that the loaves and fishes literally began to multiply so that everyone was able to have a fish filet sandwich and there were even lots of fish sandwiches left over.
But I think it is possible that the miracle that happened that day was this: Once everyone was seated in small circles, like the small, loving accountability groups everyone participates in at Recovery Café, everyone began to see each other, really see each other.
When we really see each other something amazing happens. We are able to see past the labels we tend to place on each other and we begin to see that the person sitting in this circle across from me is more like me than different from me. We begin to drop some of the stereotypes or judgements we hold of others. We begin to embrace as our family member the person we once saw as “the other”.
So perhaps the more profound miracle that happened that day was that once people were sitting across from each other, truly seeing each other as one’s family — instead of “ the other” … perhaps the miracle that happened was that everyone began to dig a little deeper into their own backpacks and pulled out whatever gift they had to share. What we know for sure is that there was an abundance of food; more than enough to go around.
A question that is helpful to work with is: “Where in my life do I operate out of an assumption of scarcity and where do I operate out of an assumption of abundance?
For what the world desperately needs are communities that are operating out of an assumption of abundance; communities that are embodying an “alternative” to the values and assumptions of our dominant culture. And when I refer to the dominant culture I am not referring to any political party. By dominant culture I mean the power structures and scarcity assumptions that are in contrast to the way of sacrificial, self-emptying Love. I am talking about power structures and scarcity assumptions which are at work in every historical period and every political party.
Traits of Alternative Communities
I’d like to name some of the characteristics of “alternative communities” which point to and embody an alternative way of self-emptying Love.
One characteristic of alternative communities is they practice truth telling. We must be willing to speak the truth lovingly to each other as a means of holding each other to our deepest, truest selves-and we must be willing to tell the truth to our larger society about the suffering and exploitation of the most vulnerable which we witness or experience first hand. We must tell the truth about what happens when people are denied decent education, housing, physical and mental health care and opportunities for employment. We must tell the truth about what happens when people are incarcerated instead of treated for mental illness. We must shine the light on the truth that black males continue to be incarcerated at six times the rate of white males.
Another practice of alternative communities which this beloved community could embody if a handful of us are called to it is the practice of radical hospitality. Radical hospitality is an alternative to the exclusionary practices of our larger society. Radical hospitality is characterized by an embracing of those who are different from ourselves. Radical hospitality involves creating space where everyone can be their authentic selves
Radical hospitality is also characterized by an assumption of abundance that creates joyful generosity and sharing like what I imagine happened in the groups in the New Testament story of the fish filet sandwiches.
And radical hospitality is characterized by the hard work of forgiveness. Alternative communities must constantly work at and practice forgiveness for forgiveness alone can break the vicious cycles of resentment and vengeance. Nelson Mandela said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom (after 27 years in prison), I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Closely related to that practice of alternative communities is the practice of dying before we die. If we are to be a community that embodies an alternative way, we must practice dying before we die; in fact we must practice dying constantly. Our egos, or false selves, are always looking for ways to build ourselves up, to protect ourselves, to promote ourselves, to acquire privilege, power and security — even at the expense of others — and to consume more and more of what doesn’t meet our deepest longing for community and will never really set us free.
If we want to embody an alternative way we must help each other practice dying before we die, or, in other words, the practice of daily letting go of the need for power, control, security, approval and anything else that prevents us from seeing the “other” as our brother and sister and seeing their need as our need.
Richard Rohr wrote: Once you have allowed yourself to be vulnerable and received infinite grace, you will find ways to let the love flow through you, serving others. People filled with the flow will always move away from any need to protect their own power. They will be drawn to the powerless, the edge, the bottom, the plain, and the simple. They have all the power they need; it always overflows, and like water seeks the lowest crevices to fill.
Which brings me to the final characteristic of the kind of alternative community I am called to and that I hope some of you are called to help build. The kind of alternative community so desperately needed in these times is a community that is absolutely clear of its call to stand with those who are being excluded, oppressed, left out or denied justice. I know I’ve hinted at this in naming some of the other characteristics, but I think it is important to be crystal clear about this characteristic.
Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries which provides community and job training for former gang members in LA and author of Tattoos on the Heart put it this way:
“In the end, what needs to get disrupted will find its disruption in our solidarity and in our intimate kinship with the outcast … if we choose to stand in the right place, God through us creates a community of resistance without our even realizing it.”
“Our locating ourselves with those who have been endlessly excluded becomes an act of visible protest. For no amount of our screaming at the people in charge can change them. The margins don’t get erased by simply insisting that the powers that be erase them. The trickle-down theory doesn’t really work here. The powers bent on waging war against the poor and young and “other” will only be moved to kinship when they see it. Only when we can see a community where all that is excluded is valued and appreciated, will we abandon the values that seek to exclude.”
Kathy Killian Noe | May 12, 2021
Killian Noe is the founding director of Recovery Café. Before starting Recovery Café in 2004 with Ruby Takushi, Killian co-founded Samaritan Inns, a non-profit in Washington DC which provides transitional and longer-term drug and alcohol free, community-oriented housing for women and men recovering from homelessness, addiction and other mental health challenges. She has written about Samaritan Inns in “Finding Our Way Home” and about Recovery Café in “Descent Into Love.” Killian is passionate about authentic community and its power to transform.