Community is one of those words. It is rich with meaning and depth. It is also ambiguous, sometimes even illusory. For the Christian tradition the word community is often tied to identity. The experience of community stands as a mirror reflecting affirmation or challenge to those who live the faith. Perhaps, just as importantly, the experience of a church community by those considered outsider also echoes beyond its walls: whether that be physical or liminal.
“It’s complicated …” Let’s claim that truism for this conversation about community connexions and how Christian experience wrestles with a history filled with paradox. This both/and journey is filled with tensions between pluralism and purity, welcome and rejection, invitation and denial, expansivity and tyranny. I wish I could tell you each of these pairs exist in either/or relationships. It’s never that simple, however, and it is often complicated when faith swirls to knit people together. Sometimes people are liberated by a community and other times they are oppressed. Sometimes it happens at the same time, sometimes even to the same person(s).
I do not think that it is just faith that brings people together. Interest, ideology, music, play and game bring us together. And in each manifestation in which connexion is nurtured there is a push-pull of right thinking and Other-making. In church language this is called orthodoxy (right) and heresy (wrong). Communities can – when insular and isolated – nurture a soil that only a select kind of person is wanted and cultivated. Anyone else becomes a weed and – depending on the health of the community – eradicated.
In the Christian tradition the New Testament community of John is an example of a group of people under siege, who were experiencing internal and external threats. In this place of crises, language reflected poles such as us and them, right and wrong, holy and evil. Unlike the Johannine community, which did not possess authority or influence beyond its generality, when power slithers into the Christian tradition, bad things can happen to those people who are deemed bad. Whether one looks to the Christian crusades or the nurture of a theology that preferenced settler culture, certainty of being right carries with it weapons that scar the land, mar the beauty of the Other and severs trust between people and Creator.
Lest we leave ourselves looking into that one mirror, the Christian tradition also evidences communities grounded in egalitarian ideals, such as some of the Early Church experiences, the justice and advocacy that arose during the civil rights movement, which is often associated with the work of Martin Luther King Jr., and the various religion orders, formal and informal. Whether that be the Beguines and Beghards or the L’Arche movement, Christian communities have celebrated that our dignity is only fully realised, that our inherent and shared Belovedness is only attained when diversity is seen as blessing.
Community: it’s complicated. For Christians and those who endeavour to live from a place centred in faith it is no less confusing. Framing the tradition as being good or bad is unhelpful and silences the learning that millennia of choices have left as a testament. I do not deny the horror perpetuated in some of those choices … there has also been beauty found on its own or sprouting in the midst of oppression. What is important, when we take seriously this testament left to us, is that choice becomes not just a gift of Creator, but a responsibility.
Knowing that the way we talk about and to one another affects lives – literally – becomes import-filled. Recognising that our species is social and political demands of us to acknowledge this is lived out in community, in relationships. How we respond to that, as certainty and doubt dance is perhaps, ultimately, our gauge, the metric, the plumb line. What might it look like, if rather than feeling those two things – certainty and doubt – had to be resolved and reconciled, we imagined that, as long as they exist in cresting balance, wisdom’s dawning beckons …?