The Lost Community

La communauté perdue, ou rompue, peut être exemplifiée de toutes sortes de manières, dans toutes sortes de paradigmes : famille naturelle, cité athénienne, république romaine, première communauté chrétienne, corporations, communes ou fraternités — toujours, il est question d’un âge perdu où la communauté se tissait de liens étroits, harmonieux et infrangibles, et se donnait surtout à elle-même, dans ses institutions, dans ses rites et dans ses symboles, la représentation, voire l’offrande vivante de sa propre unité, de son intimité et de son autonomie immanentes. (La communauté désoeuvrée, 29-30.)

The lost, or broken, community can be exemplified in all kinds of ways, by all kinds of paradigms: the natural family, the Athenian city, the Roman Republic, the first Christian community, corporations, communes, or brotherhoods—always it is a matter of a lost age in which community was woven of tight, harmonious, and infrangible bonds and in which above all it played back to itself, through its institutions, its rituals, and its symbols, the representation, indeed the living offering, of its own immanent unity, intimacy, and autonomy. (The Inoperative Community, 9.)

I think Jean-Luc Nancy, the author of this quote, is fundamentally wrong—at least on his characterization of the first Christian community. A reading of Acts and Paul’s letters will show far less than a “lost age” of “tight, harmonious, and infrangible bonds.” The idyllic passage in Acts 2:44, “All the believers were together and had everything in common,” the height of community and communication of goods, comes before the community is, properly speaking, “Christian.” And by the time the church of Antioch arises and the designation “Christian” is given for this strange mix of Jews and Greeks (11:26), the Church is in serious disarray: the baptizing of an Ethiopian, conversion of Saul the murderer, persecution in Jerusalem, Spirit-filling of Cornelius the Roman, and Peter’s vision regarding the abrogation of kosher laws all contribute to a great commotion that demands the calling of the first council at Jerusalem (Acts 15). However, lest this little act of community politics be thought to restore order, Paul writes Galatians (esp. 2:11-14). The Christian community is always already a disorderly community, a broken body. In the end, the Church is the community of the Eucharist.

Nancy on Individualism

Jean-Luc Nancy, a French philosopher, writes these provocative words on the impotence of individualism:

L’individualisme est un atomisme inconséquent, qui oublie que l’enjeu de l’atome est celui d’un monde.

Individualism is a thoughtless atomism, which forgets that with an atom, a world is at stake. (La communauté désoeuvrée, 17)

The political thought of our age, the theories that led to the founding of the constitutional democracies we enjoy (more or less) as citizens of Canada, the US and other western nations, assume individualism. Nancy suggests, in other words, our own societies are castles in the sky, they rest on air.

The Gift of Community

Since chapel yesterday I’ve been thinking on the life of Christian community. Whenever I get to thinking about this, my mind goes to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together. In particular, I often think of this passage, which I’ve shared before:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with them a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams [….] Whoever loves their dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. (26-27)

I was reminded of this passage again as I was reading Henri Nouwen on solitude:

In solitude we become aware that we were together before we came together and that life is not a creation of our will but rather an obedient response to the reality of our being united [….] In solitude we indeed experience that community is not made but given. (Clowning in Rome, 14, 13.)

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Day 4

Community. It’s interesting the way these themes fit in with the things of my day. Long story. Join me in prayer:

Father, from whom all families on earth take their name, forgive us for our constant disputes with our brothers and sisters. Forgive us for pitting Your family against itself—three against two and two against three; mother against daughter and father against son. Let us learn instead to more perfectly imitate You, who are Yourself community—Father and Son together in the love and unity of the Spirit.

Teach us by Your Spirit to imitate the community of the least and the marginal which You appointed to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth. Let us seek not the powerful and influential, but rather the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, inviting them from east, west, north and south to the great kingdom-feast of God. May this be the vision of our community toward which we strive and into which we hope and live.

This we ask in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ—who for us and for our salvation became man—who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Longing for the Kingdom

The kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus’ teaching. His ministry began with the cry, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1.35). This theme resonated deeply with a dispossessed Jewish people under the cruel thumb of the Roman Empire. As NT Wright states:

Jesus was addressing a Jewish world in which ‘kingdom of God’, ‘reign of God’, the notion that only God must be king, was one of the most exciting and dangerous slogans. People had died in recent memory because of this slogan and the attempt to put it into practice … that is, to work for the holy revolution against the western imperial power, whatever it cost. (Paul: In Fresh Perspective, 157-8)

Of course, Jesus had other plans than political uprising. His use of the language of the kingdom of God fulfilled the longings of the Jewish people in a way so subversive and creative that we in our present day are not in a position to fully appreciate. The Zealots, planning armed revolt against the Roman world power to reestablish a Jewish kingdom, would not understand Jesus’ sayings that the kingdom would only come as they “turn … the other cheek,” “hand over [their] coat,” and “go with [the Romans] two miles” (Matthew 6.39-41).

But neither would the Pharisees, who held that the kingdom would come only to the morally pure and legalistically righteous, understand Jesus’ confrontational statement: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21.32). It must have seemed like nonsense at best—at worst, that he was “demon-possessed” (John 8.48).

His word to the Sadducees, those dirty conspirators and Yes-men of the Empire, was no more encouraging: “David calls [the Messiah] Lord” (Luke 20.44). Now, this takes a bit more explaining, but the Greek word for Lord used in the Old Testament (kurios) was used by pagans to refer to Caesar (NT Wright, Paul, 71). Jesus is here making the claim that Caesar is a false emperor, and that the true empire can only be established by the Messiah—Jesus himself, a peasant-Rabbi, demands the allegiance of all humanity. As Brian McLaren states:

This kingdom throws down a direct challenge to the supremacy of the empire of Caesar centered in Rome, for in the kingdom of God, the ultimate authority is not Caesar but rather the Creator. (The Secret Message of Jesus, 17)

Longing for this kingdom, the sort of political rule in which God reigned fully and directly, was the motivating hope of the early Christian community. Living under the persecution of an all-powerful, pervasive Empire, they lived under the promise that “here we do not have an enduring city [e.g. Rome], but we are looking for the city that is to come [the new Jerusalem]” (Hebrews 13.14). Of course, this expectation diminished when Christians, under the rule of Constantine, came to be the Empire.

Largely forgotten for over 1500 years, the theme of the coming kingdom of God has reemerged as Christians have lost their privileged, imperial status in the West. The rise of secularism and the American Empire, which seeks its own kingdom—a pax Americana, some would say—over against the rule of Christ, have rediscovered reflection on the kingdom of God. Intentional Christian communities, especially those that work in the “abandoned places of Empire,” have renewed their longing for a time and place when Christ will reign.

The kingdom has not yet come, though there are whisperings of the Spirit that intimate its presence even now. Thus, we live patiently, not despairing, but with a great expectation despite the cruel rule of the Empire. For “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14.22):

Longing becomes obsession when we behave as if our salvation depends on us ushering in the kingdom of God here and now. There is a desperation that undermines the gospel when we behave as if participation in the kingdom of God is our path to heaven rather than a foretaste of heaven …. Communities of the new monasticism must structure their common life in such a way that enables members to experience their longing for the kingdom rightly. (Schools for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, 103, 106)

So we exist in this tension, receiving the gift of God’s reign in whatever limited capacity it is given to us, ever being drawn by the Spirit toward the day when the “loud voices in heaven” will proclaim: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Caesar and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11.15). With this foretaste giving life to our active patience, we work and pray: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6.10).

Life-Giving Morality

It seems like an oxymoron, because morality is immediately perceived simply as a collection of “don’t” statements. But morality is really about allowing the life-giving presence of God to emerge in the midst of our life together. What follows is a beautiful quote from the bizarrely titled Womanpriest, by Alla Bozarth:

Morality in the Christian community flows spontaneously out of a shared perception of Christ’s love. It is a shared attitude of desire for the common good, an attitude of well-wishing toward life so forceful that it shapes the good it intends. Genuine morality is the actualized overflow of the love of Christ into the world; it is an acted yearning for the wholeness and well-being of others. It is, finally, a mutual empowerment toward wholeness in creation.

The source of this quote is a blog titled “Even the Devils Believe.” The article is found here.

“Grace Surrounds Virginia Tech Shooter”

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has written an incredible article on the Virginia Tech shootings. Volf says, “As scandalous as it might seem, God’s grace was immediately available to Cho [the shooter], his parents and family”. Find the article here.