Review: The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life, by Parker J. Palmer

[1] Parker Palmer is familiar to educators as a beacon of hope and courage.  His 1998 Courage to Teach articulated the dignity and even nobility of the profession to young instructors like me.  His 2000 Let Your Life Speak fearlessly recounted his own struggles to sustain a sense of meaning in his life.  Yet his 1981 The Company of Strangers might be his most relevant book for the pandemic we are living through.

[2] For the past thirty years, public intellectuals have chastised us for retreating from the public square of civic engagement into private retreats of our own making.  As our national politics has soured into partisan gridlock, many of us—I include myself—have narrowed our horizons, striving for professional advancement, cultivating friendships, nurturing family enclaves.   We sought to gain control of the narratives of our lives by reducing them to dimensions that we indeed control, by carving out zones of psychic comfort.  All with a sense of guilt, of course, that we were letting the world take care of itself.

[3] Now comes the pandemic.  We must shelter in place and nowhere else.   Our refuges have become prisons which we dare leave at the risk of our lives.  Mobility has all but ceased.  We must carefully meter our exposure to strangers—of necessity, to preserve our cocoons of safety.  Three months ago, adventurous would-be homeowners were flirting with tiny houses as the ultimate expression of private worlds; now we are stuck in tiny worlds, starved for social contact.  What could The Company of Strangers—from another galaxy even if only thirty years ago–say to that?

[4] With luck, new vaccines and testing within a year will bring us out of our shelters, blinking, and back into the social world.  By that point, our isolated existences likely will have dulled our social skills and even our appetites for connecting with strangers.  We may have to learn to be “public” all over again, much as I had to teach myself how to walk after being immobilized a few days by a knee operation.  Here Parker Palmer offers a bracing tonic.  “The word ‘public’ as I understand it contains a vision of our oneness, our unity, our interdependence upon one another.  Despite the fact that we are strangers to one another—and will stay strangers for the most part—we occupy a common space, share common resources, have common opportunities, and must somehow learn to live together.”(22)

[5] He writes explicitly for Christians seeking to renew public life.  Christian churches are tempted to turn inward, to offer their members a barrier against the world, but that is a misuse of their “greatest power of all: the power to infuse life with meaning.”(33)  What they should do instead is to help their members develop a “fresh and vital sense of the public and its life” and anchor it in their spiritual life (36-37).  To this end, he devotes three chapters to explaining what public life involves.  To my eyes, blinkered by an insulated retirement consumed with personal projects, these chapters explain with brilliant clarity why it is important to get outside my comfortable bubble.

[6] Public life takes place in public spaces: streets and neighborhoods; in voluntary associations; in forums and hearings—in all the venues where strangers encounter each other.  Palmer offers striking claims about the latent power of public life.  Strangers meet on common ground, where fear of the stranger is dealt with, where conflict occurs and we learn how to address it, where “life is given color, texture, drama and a festive air,” where people are drawn out of themselves and “mutual responsibility becomes evident, and mutual aid becomes possible,” where “opinions become audible and accountable”, where visions are expressed and fulfilled, or frustrated, where people accumulate power through banding together around common interests.(45-51)

[7] Then he plunges into the religious significance of encountering the stranger.  “Deeper still, the public life is an arena of spiritual experience, a setting in which God speaks to us and forms our hearts with words we cannot hear in the private realm.(63)  We need strangers as spiritual guides, for they open us to dimensions of truth we otherwise would miss, and bring novelty that staves off boredom.   I am reminded here of a story told by the Chicago theologian Langdon Gilkey, who during World War II was forcibly sheltered in a concentration camp in northern China.  The hundreds of inmates were not so terribly treated. But deprived of contact with the outside world, their social energies faded.  By the time the camp was liberated, Gilkey told me, the inmates had lost their momentum for living.  It was the fresh air of new human contact that revived them.

[8] For Palmer, we need public life not simply to turn our altruism towards the stranger, but to sustain our own private worlds.  Public life is therapeutic in that it “draws us out of (our) self-obsession into the lives of others.” (87)  And it sustains our politics.  Authoritarian regimes seek to imprison their citizens in private enclaves because voluntary associations and other public involvements provide the means to resist.  All this makes me eager to get out of social isolation!

[9] The text was of particular use to me as I was working with a consulting group to draft an ELCA “social message” on government and civic engagement.   I subscribe wholeheartedly to the American experiment in self-governance, but was struggling to see how that might be connected to the two-kingdoms thinking that is the traditional anchor of Lutheran political theology.  Palmer’s vigorous endorsement of the ‘public’ and the ‘stranger’ allowed me to think about the particular way we citizens can see fellow residents of this democracy as neighbors.  Strangers will remain strangers while becoming neighbors; we don’t have to pull them into our private worlds to respect them as fellow travelers on the same path of democratic engagement.  We can keep our social distance yet acknowledge and celebrate the basic equality of all residents that is so important to sustaining self-governance.

[10] Palmer offers wise words to those of us who are at risk of losing not only our skills but our appetite for public life—particularly to those of us committed to our congregations as voluntary associations of neighbors encountering strangers.  I have not done justice here to the skillful way that Palmer ties public life to Christian faith.

[11] This is a good book for congregations seeking rebirth after months of empty sanctuaries.  Jesus looms large as the stranger who enriches our lives by meeting us in public encounters with strangers.  Quiet, even mystical, reflection also looms large—no surprise, given Palmer’s Quaker faith.  He devotes several chapters in the second half of The Company of Strangers to the role of the congregation.  There is ample grist here for adult forums.  His writing is consistently lucid and accessible, and so rich that I’d recommend biting off no more than a chapter at a time.

[12] Indeed, after thirty years, The Company of Strangers has the feel of a budding classic, a text not only relatively timeless, but one that can be opened to any page for thoughtful insight.  Consider it a fine crutch for relearning the Christian art of engaging the public world.

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, after having retired from the religion department of Concordia College in 2015.  His Durable Goods (University of Notre Dame, 1997) offers a covenantal account of the relation between management and employees.