|A Review of
All That We Share:
A Field Guide To the Commons.
Jay Walljasper, Editor.
Introduction by Bill McKibben.
Paperback: The New Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
An essential part of following in the way of Jesus is koinonia. This New Testament word is often translated as “fellowship,” which in many contexts dulls the pointedness of its meaning. The Greek root of koinonia is koine, meaning common, which is the same word that is used to describe the dialect of Greek in which the New Testament texts were written. Perhaps a better translation of koinonia than fellowship would be “sharing in common,” and a familiar biblical image of this would be the early church in Jerusalem who shared all things in common. Walter Brueggemann’s recent book Journey to the Common Good (reviewed here; one of our best books of 2010), uses the Old Testament texts to explore – in essence – what a community that really cared about koinonia might look like. Brueggemann’s book is essential reading for rooting a theological understanding of why koinonia should be a defining characteristic of our church communities, in both the life we share together within our congregations and the manner in which we engage our neighbors in our particular places. However, for exploring the practicalities of what a community defined by sharing might look like, Jay Walljasper’s new book All That We Share: A Field Guide To the Commons, would make a perfect complement to Brueggemann’s work.
All That We Share is undoubtedly bound to become the introductory text on the commons, explaining clearly what it is and isn’t and collecting the stories of many people around the globe who are working from many different angles toward greater levels of sharing. The book consists of a host of short pieces (1-3 pages each) by many authors, both living and historical, that have been compiled by Walljasper and woven together to create a poignant case for the commons. The book is, in its form, precisely what it is proposing to nurture in particular places and in society at large, a diverse mix of voices each sharing from their own stories and experiences. The book begins by tackling the question of what the commons is. Walljasper himself has the key piece in this opening section; in it he observes:
The commons refers to a wealth of valuable assets that belong to everyone. These range from clean air to wildlife preserves; from the judicial system to the Internet. Some are bestowed to us by nature, other are the product of cooperative human creativity. … Anyone can use the commons, so long as there is enough left for everyone else. This is why finite commons, such as natural resources, must be suitably and equitably managed. But many other forms of the commons can be freely tapped. Today’s hip-hop and rock stars, for instance, “appropriate” the work of soul singers, jazz swingers, blues wailers, gospel shouters, hillbilly pickers, and balladeers going back a long time – and we are all richer for it. That’s the greatest strength of the commons. It’s an inheritance shared by all humans, which increases in value as people draw upon its riches.
The book not only works to correct misunderstandings about the commons, but also to help us imagine new ways in which the commons might be expressed, tackling such questions as:
- Is this a new version of Communism?
- What’s the commons worth?
- Is the commons un-American?
- Who’s responsible for Google’s success?
- Can private property be a commons?
- What would a commons-based society look like?
Over the course of the book, the writers take on the various facets – economic, political, environmental, etc. – that will need to be addressed to revive a healthy commons. All of the pieces are short, but engaging. All That We Share is definitely an introductory text, serving well to initiate a host of conversations about the importance of the commons and how it can be revived in a world that is suffering deeply from the ways that commons have been drained in order to benefit private interests. At some point, I’m sure there will be a need for a deeper exploration that probes the nature of the commons further and builds that case for it that is initiated here.
The latter parts of the book are intended to spur our imagination about ways in which the commons could be nurtured in our own particular places. Walljasper offers “Fifty-one (Mostly) Simple Ways to Spark a Commons Revolution,” which are very helpful suggestions for getting people engaged in thinking about the commons and helping it to flourish. The book concludes with another creative piece by Walljasper that imagines a world in 2035 in which the commons has flourished to the benefit of all people.
All That We Share is the sort of book that invites conversation and what better place is there to have conversations about seeking the common good and the common wealth than in our church communities in which we have been called to a life together that is marked by koinonia. May we, in reading, discussing and embodying the commons, become – in Bill McKibben’s words from the book’s introduction “much more alive to the world as it actually is, not as it exists in the sweaty dreams of ideologues and economics professors”!