The Concept of Conviviality
Diakonia has always borrowed terms from the surrounding culture and discourse, just as has theology. When The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) European Solidarity Group and LWF’s partner International Academy for Diaconia and Social Action (interdiac) were exploring how to express the core meaning of diakonia in relation to today’s challenges, a key concern was response to the question: How can we live together?. This included not only interpersonal relationships across diverse people and contexts, it also raised the question about structures and political positions that make it difficult to live together in peace with justice. Not of course forgetting the pressing environmental challenges.
The answer the European Solidarity Group came up with was formulated as, “Diakonia, Seeking Conviviality, the art and practice of living together.” To include the word practice seems straightforward: it implies not only the practice of everyday life but also the professional practice of people and organizations doing diaconal work and especially the life of the diaconal church. But why ‘conviviality’?
The Latin root for conviviality (con-viver) simply means living together! In the noun form—convivium—it refers more specifically to common life around the table. This immediately brings to mind the fact that the central act of Christian worship – the Eucharist – is also about sharing food and how food is shared around a table.
In our thinking we have been inspired by a number of different streams of thought. The first is that in Spanish history there was a period when it seems that Christians, Jews and Muslims were able to live together in relative peace. This period before Christianization is known as ‘la convivencia’. The next impulse comes from nineteenth century Parisian culture of people meeting together over a meal and maybe a glass of wine to discuss the issues of the day. In such a discussion everyone was able to make their contribution and have it discussed. Nothing was ruled out. Of course, these tables were rather exclusive, but still there is resonance with the Latin root of the word and looking it up in a dictionary, this informs the present everyday meaning of the word.
The third inspiration comes from Ivan Illich, a Croatian-Austrian with Jewish and Catholic parents, who became priest of an immigrant parish in New York, then moved to Puerto Rico where he founded a training and research institute. The aim was to train people from the global north going to work in Latin America to work with sensitivity and not to impose their values. He used the word conviviality to mean the autonomous and creative relationship between people: people and their environment and people and technology. He considered conviviality to be the freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value and his fundamental theological motif was ‘incarnation’. The fourth inspiring reflection comes from Paul Gilroy who contrasted the everyday conviviality among migrant diaspora communities with the melancholia of the post-colonial white communities.
In the European Solidarity Group, we took this phrase as a way to interpret the context and to characterize diaconal action. In the first phase of our work we linked conviviality to the core concepts of vocation, dignity and justice out of which we developed some guidelines for practice. In the second phase we looked at work and economy, taking a convivial perspective and in the most recent phase, the group has been working on conviviality and the borders that run between us and through us, personally, professionally and as churches. As we see in the present context, the rapid changes and the mixing of people from different backgrounds means that people’s identities are not fixed. It also means that church communities have to reflect on their own identity, whether they see themselves traditionally in majority or minority situations.
With its basis on respect, relationships and reciprocity, conviviality is very important in reflecting on living in diverse and diversifying societies and in developing appropriate practice. These characteristics open the church and diakonia to the many diverse ‘life-worlds’ for shared life together on the basis of trust and dialogue.