I am at a gathering of Christians. It doesn’t matter which one, because this has happened to me at many of them. Maybe it’s a conference or prayer summit; maybe it’s a fundraising lunch. The room is full of spiritual energy. We’ve just heard intense prayers, sung songs with uplifted hands, and been told that new spiritual levels are within our reach. Looking for new friends, I approach someone I just heard speak, or whom perhaps I know a bit about, and introduce myself. In the Hallelujah of the day, the other’s face is glowing to meet another Christian. That is until I say, “I’m part of a Christian community that is modeled on the early church.” The typical reply is “Oh, interesting,” often delivered in a bored and slightly threatened-sounding tone of voice. The conversation dwindles to a few polite closing words before we move on to other topics (or other friends), but the message comes across loud and clear: “I am already a very dedicated Christian. Don’t tell me there’s more I need to do.”
An evening gathering and sing-along on the rooftop of Harlem House, a Bruderhof in Manhattan.
Each time this happens, I can only surmise that the word community seems to threaten people. Which leaves me feeling sad but also confused, because there is no threat. To me, living in community of goods is a great gift; not a demand from on high that all must answer in order to be “super Christians.” You don’t need to feel bad about not accepting that gift, but feeling left out would be understandable. It’s a freewill offer, just like every other command of Jesus.
To give some context for where I’m coming from: I grew up in a Bruderhof community. I left right after high school, because I wanted to get away from what I saw as the needless and annoying demands that living in community placed on my life. There was no doubt that I wanted to follow Jesus, but I also wanted the “freedom” to do what I wanted and to have the pleasures that other Christians had. I lived on my own for a while, trying to do the good work of caring for the elderly and those affected by disabilities. My goal was to get into the right group in the sheep and goat parable, but I was also thinking about what my next step in life should be.
It was my seeking for what following Christ would actually mean for my own life that finally brought me back to the Bruderhof. Seeing the same place in a completely new way made me so happy that I remember thinking then that if each person in the whole world truly understood what community of goods meant, everyone would want to live like that. To refuse the call would, I felt, be like refusing a free new Mercedes so that I could keep driving a rusty pickup.
To refuse the call would, I felt, be like refusing a free new Mercedes so that I could keep driving a rusty pickup.
The reality, of course, is that my dedication to this way of life dipped very low at times, as I struggled with – and often gave into – the selfish drives that pull in the opposite direction.
I don’t see community as a way to become a great Christian. Neither did my grandfather, Hans Meier, who joined the Bruderhof after a long search for a communal life of peace and justice. I know he wasn’t trying to perfect his Christianity by making this choice, because at the time he wasn’t even a Christian. My grandfather’s search started when he was in his teens. Having been in prison twice as a conscientious objector to military service in Switzerland, he was aware that this way of life, if it even existed, would not be easy. When he walked into the community at the Rhön Bruderhof in Germany in 1928, he knew it was the pot of gold he was seeking. But before he joined, he had to work through the Christian thing, which was severely tainted for him by previous displays of the faith. The Christians he’d met so far seemed to limit their attempts to help others to what fit into their free time. This, he said, was showing “the worst possible example to the whole world.”
Over time he saw that the only way such a life can work is through the leading and strength that Jesus gives – a Jesus who was completely new and now very real to him to him. Many years later he said, “I decided to stay forever, since, through a mysterious leading, I had found the fulfillment of my wanderings and seeking.”
Tim and a friend hang out on the front stoop.
I often see signs that everyone has a built-in tendency to community of goods. Even the most secular people will delight in a moment of shared property or time and seem to gravitate to simple fellowship. Since 2005, the New Year’s Eve revelers in Times Square in New York have paused just before the ball drops to listen to the song “Imagine” by John Lennon. I watched them on the screen as 2019 ended some weeks ago, and it stirred my heart to see the now-quiet masses swaying and mouthing along with the words. Critics can go ahead and call it sentimentality, or even hypocrisy, but I’ll go with the thought that deep down each person is actually longing for the day when we all live as the last verse describes:
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man.
I’ll say this to Christians wondering whether they really have to live in community of goods: no, you don’t. But when I read Jesus’ words about how often he would have “gathered your children together” (Luke 13:34), his advice to “sell all that you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21) and the kicker, his praying to the Father “that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:11), I want to be part of the joy of what actually doing this brings. I don’t know how else it’s possible except in full community. I am still often a poor practitioner of full sharing, but I know enough of what it does that I have no trouble resolving to do better. And by that I don’t mean to strain myself more, but rather to live in active peace and love with my brothers and sisters.
In John 1:12, Jesus says that he gave us “the right to become children of God.” Let’s use it.