It seems that our language changes rather rapidly and frequently. There are words we use commonly today that in my childhood 50-60 years ago were never really heard. I’m talking about words like ecology, internet, media, and community. Today, the word community comes more to the forefront of my mind than the others, although there is a relationship between community and media, community and location, community and association, and so on.
I think about our culture. Where I live, we have a plethora of gated communities, where more affluent people live in an atmosphere that seems to be a bit more exclusive and a bit safer, as it were. We have community churches, community hospitals, community banks, or even community parks, kindergartens, community HOAs and clubs.
Culture uses the word community as a great thing, that is, if the insiders get to define what “community” is. I realize that not everyone would agree with me, but I see community as a group of people who are interested in being connected to neighbors, coworkers, fellow church members, people in the neighborhood, and even people we encounter in the neighborhood like shopkeepers, barbers, and service workers. Granted, I am not sure I would consider a garbage collector to be part of my community, but he, or possibly she, really is, as they provide a service that benefits the community I live in. Once I think about it, community is more than just people I know and/or associate with.
There is a negative side of community that we see on almost every newscast, and that is the community of violence, gangs, bullying, drug abuse, and slavery (usually sexual). These communities are exclusive but want to make sure everybody else understands their superiority. It’s a difficult situation, and it isn’t limited to the lower income areas of a city or suburb. It exists on street corners and school grounds, and among both rich and poor, just not in the same groups. Still, it’s a kind of community we need to be conscious of, and remember that these too are children of God, even if they don’t acknowledge it themselves (and often we don’t acknowledge it either!)
Thinking of tradition, I wonder how the Israelites would have seen community. I wonder, would there have been a community each of potters, brick makers, weavers, farmers, or the like? Living in a community of people with similar backgrounds or jobs would be beneficial, and there would be a sense of commonality and camaraderie based on a similar occupation. On the journey from Egypt, would each of these individual communities have stayed with their group as the entire Israelite nation left Egypt for an epic journey to which, for them, was God knows where? The priestly class was more prominent, and so I’m pretty sure they would have stuck together, usually around Moses and Aaron, but as for the common people? Who knows.
In the New Testament, Jesus set up a community of disciples, a community which included people who were not simply students, but were supporters, and people needing help that Jesus could provide. After healing, most went back to their original communities and were restored to full membership in those communities because their disability, their disease, or their afflictions, had been relieved and they could now assume a viable and active presence in community life. There were Gentiles who formed their own communities in the land of Israel, and the Romans certainly held themselves aloof from the conquered people, excepting the highest level of Jewish hierarchy.
When Paul and Peter went out into the lands of the Gentiles to preach and convert, Paul dove in, having an understanding the Greek culture and being able to teach in such a way that Greeks could learn from them about Judaism, Jesus, and the Jesus movement. Peter was still somewhat of an impetuous figure. So long as none of his contemporaries from Jerusalem were around, Peter accepted the Gentiles and interacted with them, particularly at meals; but as soon as someone from Jerusalem showed up, suddenly eating with the Gentiles was forbidden, and disapproval of even the more social of contact came into play. How quickly impressions of community can change.
In the present, we who call ourselves Christians attempt to practice our form of community in various ways. Some churches and denominations are very open, welcoming, and inclusive to those who are in some way different, while others want to maintain their separatism as a way of proving that they are following Christ. It causes a lot of misunderstanding, distrust, dislike, and even verbal bombs such as heretic, spawn of Satan, unchristian, or unbeliever.
Some communities have begun and continue to take action, looking to and studying continuing icons such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi, César Chavez, and many others, all the way back to Jesus himself. For instance, look at the people who, whether Native American or not, joined those who protested the pipeline across Native American land and desecration of Native American holy places. Look at the children who marched just a couple of weeks ago for gun control so that they might have an opportunity to go to school without worrying about whether someone was going to enter their school and take their lives. What about the African-Americans who joined Martin Luther King and others on their marches for equal rights, just like the women who, early in the last century, did their own protest marches to call attention to the fact that they could not vote. Each one of those communities took it upon themselves to bring attention to things that were wrong, things that went against the very idea of community. There are many other illustrations, too many to name here, but if I think about it, I’m sure anyone could come up with a lot more.
Community demands action. Like a marriage, it can’t be static. There are always ups and downs, and those ups and downs that must be worked out and compromise arrived at to strengthen the bond and to work communally for better life. In Education for Ministry (EfM), we are reading a book by Verna Dozier in which she puts a perspective on community that would do for most of us to take to heart and really contemplate.
The very essence of God’s gift is community — a people called out to witness to the dream of God. The rejection of community is individualism, deified in the American ethos as “rugged individualism.” *
Community, the dream of God, was the reason God created Adam and Eve, the original community that God made to provide help and support. I think the quote is one that I really need to think about even as I continue through Dozier’s book and beyond. I wonder, does that quote say anything to one who is seeking to understand community?
Something to think about this week.
I also wonder—if Heaven has gates, does that make it a gated community?
* Dozier, Verna, A Dream of God. New York: Seabury Press, 2006. Digital.
Image: Harmony day in Australia
Author: DIAC Images, found at Wikimedia Commons.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.