Parker Palmer on “true and false community”

Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer (b.1939) is an author, educator, activist, and a member of the Religious Society of Friends – which emphasizes both community and silent contemplation.

We seem to need other people in our lives, for all kinds of reasons.  Given that fact, are there healthy and unhealthy ways to associate with groups of people?

Yes, there are, says Quaker sociologist Parker Palmer, who wrote about the difference between true and false community in the late 1970’s:

In the midst of mass loneliness people yearn to identify with something larger than themselves, something which will redeem their lives from insignificance.  They yearn, that is, for community, for that network of human associations which enlarges the individual’s life.  This hunger runs so deep that even the appearance of community will feed it, and totalitarianism always presents itself as a communal feast for the masses….

In false communities the group is always superior to the individual, while in true communities both individual and group have a claim on truth.  False communities tend to be homogeneous, exclusive, and divisive, while true communities strive to unite persons across socially fixed lines…

But beyond all these sociological distinctions between true community and false, there is a theological way of expressing the differences.  False communities are idolatrous.  They take some finite attribute like race, creed, political ideology, or even manners, and elevate it to ultimacy.  They seek security by trying to make timeless that which is temporal; by pretending that which is shaky is firm; by worshipping that which should be viewed critically.  They confuse their own power with the power of God…. False communities are ultimately demonic, which is not to say that true communities are divine, for both retain their human character.  But true communities take the form of covenant.  They will experience both God’s mercy and God’s judgment in their lives.

false community

Devoted but idolatrous community members shown in a Mummery Book enactment.

These categories are not fixed, for a false community can turn true, and a true community can turn false…  A true community is a self-critical community, always ready to deflate its pretensions before they balloon up to deity-size.

[Excerpted from A Place Called Community, by Parker J. Palmer.  (Wallingford, Pennsylvania:  Pendle Hill Publications, 1977.)  As listed is The Basket of Tolerance by Adi Da Samraj.]


  • What does Parker Palmer mean when he says “False communities tend to be homogeneous, exclusive, and divisive”?
  • What does he mean when he says members of a false community “confuse their own power with the power of God”?
  • Do you think it’s possible that false community automatically and inevitably occurs, without exception, (though perhaps on a massive, impersonal scale) in the absence of true community?
  • In what areas of your life can you see signs of true and false community?
  • Do you agree that all human beings yearn for true community?

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2 comments · now closed

  1. Parker Palmer is a hero – has had a deep influence on many.

    Chögyam Trungpa once commented on “sangha” that sangha members do not lean on one another: they rely on their own practice. At the same time this means that they are in a better position to offer support for each other; when one falls they do not all fall. This somehow brings together openness to one’s own fundamental loneliness (which ultimately traces back to even absence of our own solid selves), which then can accommodate that of others.


    • Thanks Mark. Interesting what you say about relying on one’s own practice, and how that allows one to offer better support to others.

      P.S. I happen to know that Mr. Szpakowski has been a student of Chögyam Trungpa since 1972.

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