Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence

By Peterson, Christiana N. | The Christian Century, January 17, 2018 | Go to article overview

Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence


Peterson, Christiana N., The Christian Century


Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence

By A. Whitney Sanford

University Press of Kentucky, 302 pp., $50.00

For nearly a decade, my family lived in a Mennonite intentional community on a 180-acre farm in the Midwest. We worked together with the members of our community, lived as close neighbors, shared meals twice a week, and worshiped together. Since we've moved away, I've missed the noises of the farm: pigs squealing, our children playing with neighbors in the shared backyard, and the determined whisper of a hoe hitting the soil. But most of all, I've missed the neighbors and friends who taught me about radically following Jesus. It was a transformative way of life that pushed us to rethink our consumption of the world's goods and helped us to learn to love others better.

A. Whitney Sanford's book came to my doorstep just as my husband and I were struggling over how to hold on to the values we'd learned in community. The book, which chronicles the 15 intentional communities Sanford visited over a four-year period, offers some suggestions--if not answers--about what many of us can learn from those who live in intentional communities.

Depending on how broadly intentional community is defined, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of them in the United States and across the world. Sanford defines the term as "residential communities with a shared vision, ... shared purpose, some kind of common living space, some shared resources, and critical mass."

To narrow the field for her study, Sanford evaluated communities through the lenses outlined in the book's subtitle: democracy, simplicity, and nonviolence. She sought out places that share values like consensus decision making, a striving toward simple and sustainable living, eating together, and practicing peace in everyday life. Sanford privileged communities that seek to live holistically in nonviolent ways, whether through food practices, clothing choices, or approaches to conflict resolution. These criteria brought Sanford to many different kinds of groups: from Catholic Worker houses based on the movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the early 20th century to eco-villages, communes, and co-op housing developments.

Sanford's descriptions of her short time in each community remind me of my own idealistic notions of life in community in our early years. From the beginning, my family noticed some of the challenges that Sanford periodically points out--the "emotional burden" of repeatedly hashing out ideas, rules, and policies through consensus decision making; the difficulty of nurturing a vision across multiple generations of community life; and the "significant time cost" of trying to do everything sustain-ably. It's possible to overlook these difficulties in the effort to strive for a noble, beautiful, and worthwhile way of life.

The things that community members idealize are often the most difficult parts of life together, and community life can get very hard. A resident of the Los Angeles Eco-Village explains that in the earlier years of consensus decision making in that community, residents spent "seven or eight years of hell" because those who were untrained in that model were "controlling the community" by blocking decisions they didn't like. …

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