Alcoholics Anonymous, Unconscious Model for Ideal Community
Thanks much for your piece on AA…I learned a great deal from your paper,
and will use it if I ever write on this topic again—Philip Yancey
Thank you for your writing on AA as a model for Christian community. I think it is simply magnificent…
I love what you have written and have benefited from it‖—Eugene Peterson
Alcoholics Anonymous, Unconscious Model for Ideal Community
Draft, June 27, 2000
ote: Much has been written about AA, its principles and people. Hundreds of books, pamphlets N
and articles have been written about the movement and how it works. It is not my attempt, nor am I qualified, to add to this gigantic informational database. My fascination lies in another area. As a Christian, I am very interested in how community should work. Henri Nouwen, author and Catholic priest, spent the last years of his life seeking the community priority. Living with handicapped people, he attempted to capture a glimpse of community through shared experience within ―lateral,‖ ―reciprocal‖ relationships. Lateral diversity working in true unity.
My best experience of community has been within the meeting rooms of AA. Why is this? What is implicit within this society—one having no rules, regulations or penalties—that grants so
many thousands such peace of mind and quality of life? I believe AA has been gifted with some principles—exclusive to none and available to everyone—that produce an atmosphere of true grace
and a close ideal of what, I think, the Christian community should be. It is another ―divine paradox‖ (Karl Barth) that such an unlikely group of people as that of former drunks should share in the knowledge of these principles (I‘ve never seen a more grandiose and narcissistic bunch of people
anywhere, and that would include myself). These observations I share from my own experience.
―Come, Lord Jesus‖ –St. John the Apostle
In what spirit did the apostle John speak these words? Did he speak them with the sentiment of a Zionist Jew—or were they said in the spirit of a recovering Christian?
There is great affinity between Zionism and fundamentalist Christianity. Both groups are future focused. Both desire to see Messiah King return to earth, right all wrongs and finally establish justice and peace on earth through the administration of a powerful, law-based ―kingdom
of God‖. It is a power stance and the great focus is an outward one. For this economy to work, ―the spirit of absolute moral perfection‖ (Oswald Chambers) must reign everywhere. In this system it is
imperative that we judge, condemn and reject the ―bad‖ parts of our selves (psychologist John Bradshaw calls this a rejection of the self). To facilitate this we must take our dark, dysfunctional parts and project them in merciless judgment on others (this never really works and we end up beating ourselves up anyway). This is the stuff of which ethnic cleansing and genocide are made.
This system is the epitome of the ―us and them‖ mentality: the heathen must either be
conquered or saved. Zionism sees saints as Israel ruling with Messiah on the earth; Fundamentalism sees saints as Christians ruling with him. To this end, these odd bedfellows have an almost fanatical interest in seeing the Jewish Temple rebuilt. Temple mentality represents the apex of illegitimate hierarchy—a power system the apostle Paul called the ―administration of death.‖ God may allow such a thing to occur, if only to let it break down—as all judgment must eventually do—under its
But Jesus also spoke of another administration—this one based, not on power, but on
poverty. This kingdom operates in the ―now.‖ It is the ―I AM‖ God with whom we each have
personally and internally to do. No legalism or priest-craft economy permitted to block vital one-on-one relationship with God and our dysfunctional selves, this group of recovering people is held together by the spirit of powerlessness and poverty (we authentically relate within community at our points of weakness, not our points of power and grandiosity).
Living a better balance of inner Recovery and outwardly expressed Service, recovering people have always been a scattered and marginal group. For two thousand years a minority but growing view, it has existed in antagonism with the outwardly focused, organized spheres of power. This is the kingdom ―within‖ Jesus spoke about, motivated by the Spirit that like the wind, cannot be pigeon-holed, controlled, systematized, or organized. For such an economy to work, an atmosphere of absolute grace must reign everywhere, within our selves and without.
Actually, both ―kingdoms‖ are at work in all of us and none of us can boast. Unfortunately, while human, we are ―split.‖ The unhealthy, unsanctified parts of our selves remain exclusive and
alien to our fellow man. We naturally isolate from the rest of our fellows, sometimes to the extent that our sentiment is: ―Jihad!‖—―Crush the enemy‖ (focusing on the enemy without is a great
defense against dealing with the chaos within). Or, at the very least we live in a mood that says, ―May God come and crush the enemy.‖
But the healthy, sanctified parts of our selves resist, continue to search inwardly, desire that God would search ―us‖ instead of ―them‖, strain to hear the voice of God and determine to know of
his personal will for our lives. Hopefully, within all of us, this second kingdom Jesus spoke of will increase (and that other kingdom will decrease). In either case and in accordance with the sovereign decree of the Emmanuel God—who is not only God with us, but also God in us—we learn lessons
in the dark as well as the light.
There is no condemnation to those who have received the good news and now experience the powers of this better ―inner‖ kingdom Jesus spoke of (they no longer beat themselves up as much). In reality, there is no condemnation, period, of anyone from the God view. Feelings of condemnation remain only the perception of those not yet called to recovery.
Recovering people experience true empowerment and integration: the joy of accepting all the parts of themselves, good and bad. No more need to condemn and to project that condemnation on to others. The gospel proclaimed by such recovering people is always an attraction, never a promotion. Covert and subversive by its very nature, the authentic good news is graciously and relentlessly conveyed to hurting people everywhere. Of this kingdom there is no end.
Love bade me welcome;
Yet my soul drew back.
Built of dust and sin.
But quick-eye‘d love,
Observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me,
If I lack‘d anything.
Irresistible, Emerging New Government
―…I will build my church‖ –Jesus
―When He (Jesus) ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men‖ –St.
The society of Alcoholics Anonymous is not the church. It is not the community. But it‘s a
part of the great, cosmic Christian church that Christ established, a resource and a gift to it. No single organization has a corner on the market when it comes to God‘s gifts, and that includes AA (I enjoy other gifts of his in the different organized churches; varied styles of worship, etc.). But there is a concentration of many of these gifts in AA that, I think, make it worth writing about. These gifts fall under the general subjects of Recovery, Unity and Service, the ―Three Legacies‖ of AA.
The model of AA to the church is an unconscious one; that is, AA does not project itself as being the ideal model I think it is. Were there to be a conscious understanding of this virtue it would be all over—it would no longer be a virtue or ―gift‖ in the biblical sense. Such gifts are
spontaneous, natural, spring from the heart of God and do not require the ―bearer‖ of the gift to
strive or work in any way to produce their manifestation. Inclusive by nature, AA makes no exclusive claims that would spoil its attraction and thwart its primary purpose. Its loose ―government‖ is comprised of alcoholics, non-alcoholics, psychologists, pastors, priests and most
every other kind of community member.
―Then the righteous will answer him saying, ‗when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?‘‖ –Jesus.
The striking thing is the dumbfounded response to the praises of Jesus. Key to service within community is its unconscious out-workings. Program and agenda are mostly power things; spontaneous sacrifice is heart motivated. If we are calculated in our giving, it‘s all over. ―Don‘t let
your left hand know what your right hand is doing.‖
On the other hand, it is impossible to serve in community without some level of self-awareness of that giving. So what does this mean and how does it fit within AA? My experience is that AA members serve in community, openly and unashamedly selfishly; that is, as a part of their ―program.‖ Often it is heard, ―My service and twelve-step work (offering ones experience, faith and
hope to still suffering alcoholics) is helping me stay sober.‖ So, where‘s the unconscious stuff? Individual acts of service are not unconscious. The salient point is that the AA community as a
whole doesn‘t understand the significance of its unique gifts, the model it portrays to the Christian Church and to community everywhere.
The church is not fundamentally an ―official‖ organization (but many ―official‖ churches comprise it)—but rather, a spiritual organization, united by the unseen Spirit of God. It is a Spirit that ―blows where it wishes…you cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes‖ according to Jesus. This is a warning against control, exclusivism and illegitimate hierarchy.
As in any ―official‖ church, the Spirit of Christ unites AA members, in varying degree, according to ―a measure of faith‖ (Romans 12:3). And as each distinct corporate part of the church has its gifts to add to the greater cosmic church, so also does AA have it‘s to offer the ―Body‖ as
well (Romans 12:4-6a).
―Church‖ simply means, ―called out ones.‖ I like the term ―Body‖ that St. Paul alone among the Bible writers‘ uses. The other apostles and prophets speak of the ―Bride‖—using
bride/groom, or husband/wife figures. ―Body‖ is a much more intimate term. ―Body‖ suggests
implicit relationship, its various members relating by nature, diversity working in unity, even as do the various parts of the human body. It is in this sense that I use the word ―church‖—called out
ones, united to some degree by the Spirit of God providing to it the nature and character of Jesus.
―It is finished‖ (John 19:30), and because the true gospel by nature is inclusive and not exclusive, many AA members revel and wallow in a gospel they know nothing about. They enjoy its benefits, even while not knowing the theology of it. According to Saint Paul, these relate to Christ, the Head of the church ―Body‖, by nature (Romans 2:14-15).
The Spirit, or nature of God expresses through we humans in terms of ―gifts‖ and ―fruit‖.
These are given to the various parts of the Body, or church. Each corporate part or ―official‖ organization in the