If you study the New Testament and, for that matter, the Old Testament, too, you will find a strong concept of community. We use the word community rather strangely. We hear reporters talk about the “gay community” or the “anti-war community” like people who share one value or attribute all live in the same place. Churches can be just as strange in their use of the word since, in our contemporary culture, churches have become buildings where Christians, a few times or maybe only once in a week, come together to sit and listen to a program that they could almost as easily view on a TV or computer screen. Are people who relate to each other occasionally and in limited circumstances really a community?
As I spend more and more time with students from diverse cultures, I notice that they possess values that we have lost, if we ever had them. One of those values is community. People who come from places like Afghanistan come from a culture closer to that of the Bible. Whether it is the lack of Western wealth and
technology or a more direct tie to Middle-Eastern traditions, I wonder if they still have something we have lost but need to find, once again.
We believe in one holy, universal, and apostolic Church. Its calling is to worship and witness concerning its Head, Jesus Christ, preaching the Gospel among all nations and demonstrating its commitment by compassionate service to the needs of human beings and by promoting righteousness and justice. Its central calling is to become a spiritual community where people profoundly connect with God and each other.
Sadly, we have lost that connection and the importance of actively and compassionately relating to each other, as believers in particular.
Everything in our American culture, including Christianity, tends to center on the individual—individual choice, each individual’s work and family, individual recreation. We struggle with relationships because we have spent so little time in authentic community. Family may define our values and experiences if we have had the good fortune to come from an intact family, but even cohesive families are becoming a rarity, so much so that many in the broader culture are attempting to change the definition or pronounce the death of the family altogether. Where we have enjoyed the blessings of a solid family, we still often lack the skills to “connect” with those from different families and, more often than not, no family at all.
Many years ago, I thought I had made a decision to give priority to relationships; at the time, I meant to choose people over schoolwork. As time has passed, I have intended to maintain that choice whether it was over work or responsibility or something else. Yet, I too am a child of my culture, and I realize that I have achieved my goal poorly, at best. I suspect I had a measure of the desire to be relational, but I lacked the knowledge and the skills, perhaps even the context. In a sense, I was trying to give priority to people who weren’t necessarily giving priority to me. Not only hadn’t they made the same decision, but they also lack the knowledge, skills, context, and even a sense of the need. At least, I thought I understood the need.
For some time, I have taught and emphasized New Testament concepts such as brotherly love, unity, mercy, reconciliation, and fellowship. I have taught the “one anothers”–love one another (love covers a multitude of sins), honor one another above yourselves, live in harmony with one another, (STOP) passing judgment on one another, accept one another as Christ accepted you, greet one another with a holy kiss, agree with one another
(.no divisions), serve one another in love (but (DON’T) indulge freedom), bear with one another, be patient with one another, be kind and compassionate to one another, forgive each other, speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, teach & admonish one another, submit to one another, encourage one another, be encouraged by each other’s faith, build up each other, spur on (stimulate) one another to love and good deeds, (DON’T) slander one another, offer hospitality to one another without grumbling, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, wait for each other, have equal concern for each other, (DON’T) keep on biting and devouring each other, (DON’T) grumble against each other, (DON’T) provoke or envy each other, carry (bear)
each other’s burdens, (DON’T) lie to each other, live in peace with each other, confess your sins to each other, and, last but not least, pray for each other.
I don’t know what it might be like to live in an authentic Christian community that really did what these verses require. I fear that we Westerners are so far removed from them that we can barely comprehend their meaning. We guard our privacy; and, in my lifetime, we have turned privacy into a right, if not an idol. Verses like these threaten us although I don’t believe they should. Their purpose is not to intrude but to remove the walls that insulate us from enjoying relationships with each other and, ultimately, with God.
I am writing this, and I confess that don’t really know what this means. Over the years, I have noted bits and pieces of the damage our insular, individualistic lives create. I think of the elderly, mostly women, who live alone for years, deprived of companionship, settling for the little bit their children and grandchildren may provide, because we value our own independence more than community. If only those women could combine their resources and live together. I remember younger women who had such difficulty sharing an apartment because each felt the need to be “mother.” I think of the growing number of young men and women forsaking both moral purity and marriage to find a pitifully small amount of connection in sex, only to discover that most of those connections are fleeting and painful.
American men have trouble with friendships with men and relationships with women. Perhaps, women
have similar difficulties, but I am not in a position to evaluate them as well; I do know that many women are committed to becoming more like men, in the name of feminism and gender equality. At the same time, many insist men should become more like women. What is lacking is the cultivation of the understanding and skills that community brings.
At best, even for believers, one man and one woman may learn to understand each other, a little. When
children come and mature, they may learn a bit more, as they discover how different their own offspring can be.
They will also discover how compelling the false kinds of community of their teenaged peers and, sometimes, gangs can be. Each generation seems to be on a course to move further from a genuine sense of community, of Biblical fellowship, or of anything remotely resembling unity and harmony.
With that as background, my refugee students give me glimmers of hope, but only if we learn from them and not the other way around. Perhaps, that might be one bright spot in a future of millions of immigrants overwhelming the native-born American population. As my Afghani student often describes the interactions of his people, “Come to my house, have tea, and say, ‘Bless you my brother.’” I have been impressed, repeatedly, by the hospitality of my students from the Middle East, who always offer me tea, coffee, or food. Indeed, most of my third-world students tend to be hospitable.
Instead, we have a people who rarely practice any kind of hospitality, for whom hospitality means little more than potluck dinners and funeral dinners, and who are often as xenophobic as the rest of the culture. We rarely
reach out to each other, and we avoid reaching out to outsiders because we fear them. Our friendships tend to be shallow and superficial, and we give token consideration to verses like “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:18) or “(M)ake every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these
qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Peter1:5-8). Do we really “Love (our) neighbors as (ourselves)”?
I just finished reading A Raisin in the Sun because one of my refugee kids needed help with it (Imagine trying to
relate to 1950’s ghetto culture as a Somalian with less than a year’s worth of English). The family in the story deomonstrates a kind of cohesion that that subculture has mostly lost, since then. Too bad! Here was an earlier case of where the rest of us might have learned from them, and instead they learned the wrong things.
That community is even more fragmented today than the dominant culture.