Parker Palmer and the Company of Strangers

I read Parker Palmer’s The Company of Strangers last summer. It was a powerful read that opened up to me the theology that was underpinning my pastoral encounters with loneliness and isolation. No other pastoral issue comes up as often as this profound sense of being alone. I have been trying to get a theological handle on this for some time. Parker Palmer puts the language of loneliness into God-talk and leaves us to ponder where our Christian witness goes from here.

Sarah Howell is a Methodist Minister in North Carolina. She blogs about books and in 2011 she focused on Palmer’s The Company of Strangers. I cut and pasted it below and hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I believe Palmer’s view of how faith and community connect is critical to the times we live in.

Palmer emphasizes the importance for the church and the world of public life and interaction with the stranger in ways that challenge some basic assumptions about how one lives a good life. Especially in today's culture, we value privacy and intimate relationships. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but Palmer admonishes the church not to devalue the public life and relationships with the stranger in the meantime, even and especially where we find those things threatening.

Although Palmer insists that a robust private life is vital to the health of the public life, he stresses that the former will suffer without the latter. He writes, "The word 'private,' which we often use to denote the opposite of the public realm, literally means 'to be deprived of a public life.'" For Palmer, the public and the private are interconnected and interdependent. A healthy private life enables people to live publicly, while a healthy public life gives meaning and context to the private. Problems such as crime and safety are often approached with private solutions such as home security and gun ownership, but in reality, a public solution—making the public more connected and aware of itself and all of its members—better ensures private well-being.

Another interesting point Palmer made is that our obsession with intimacy and warmth can become problematic. If we only value close relationships, we jettison all other associations, which almost always has a homogenizing effect, especially in churches. It also puts enormous pressure on any relationships we do have, because if they are not conducive to intimacy, we assume they are not valuable and abandon them. The stranger, Palmer says, is precisely where we learn things about ourselves that we do not like, or learn things about others that can help us grow. The stranger could be someone of a different socioeconomic class or of a different political persuasion, and without such interaction we become insular and self-satisfied. Moreover, we see in the Bible that God identifies with and comes as the stranger (Abraham and the three men/one man at the Oaks of Mamre in Genesis 19, Jesus on the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24, etc.). God not only meets us as a friend, God confronts us as a stranger, as the "other." If we forget that, we run the risk of domesticating God and making God in our own image.

Of course, it is in the public where we meet the stranger, and so Palmer insists that the church must be concerned not only with what goes on within its walls but what goes on outside the walls. The church must find a way to be in public ministry, not to increase its numbers or to make itself look good, but because it is in the public and among strangers where we meet a God who is bigger than ourselves.