Current Events Monday: The Quest for Authentic Community

James Hassell   -  

Nearly every story in the first pages of today’s Austin-American Statesmen deals with the human quest for “authentic community.” Consider, for instance, an article concerning an uproar at UT regarding the possible hiring of a pro-life evangelical to run a new thinktank on campus called the Liberty Institute. The candidate in question is regarded as a great fundraiser, but the potential hire is under immense scrutiny from students and other faculty who have doubts about the candidate’s ability to fit in to the campus culture at UT. He may well be regarded by others as a threat to the UT community.

Another frontpage headline decries the potential removal of books from the shelves of Granbury public school due to LGBTQ characters and stories. The superintendent of the district prefaced his remarks to librarians concerning the controversial books by saying, “I want to talk about our community.” This story takes up nearly the entire first section of today’s morning paper.

These headlines and articles point to a generalized consensus about the definition and nature of “community.” Our contemporary (Western) society typically defines community as a group of people who live in the vicinity of one another and have some characteristics in common. Some people however want to take the definition a bit further by advocating for what is known as “authentic” community, meaning that people in a group do not just share things in common, but they are to highlight their self-perceptions even if such is considered immoral, atypical, or just flat wrong. We are told to let our freak flags fly, so to speak. Anyone who is said to disagree with or question our uniqueness within the community is therefore deemed unfit for such a community and must be either reprimanded or discarded. For instance, the most recent Supreme Court justice nominee came under particular criticism last week for sheepish answer to the question, “What is a woman?” Her anxiety about the question was obvious, because a “wrong” answer jeopardized her position among her peer community. Isn’t it interesting that one would put an appointment to the Supreme Court in jeopardy in favor of being accepted by his or her peers?

The biblical teachings of Jesus run rather counter to both the old-school definition of community and the new-school attempt at achieving authentic community. For instance, Jesus taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves. This type of love extends beyond the kind for which our society usually advocates. Our culture, basing its thinking more in the heritage of Aristotle, thinks of community in terms of love among equals. This kind of love can therefore only be pure if the two or more equals in relationship become so-called virtuous people. The love of Christ however not only considers another person as an equal in terms of being created in the image of God, but it goes a step further in caring for those who are not virtuous. The agape love of Christ is not based on some sort of feeling, special interest, or human accomplishment but upon the love of God perfectly expressed through the Lord Jesus’ death on the cross for us, unvirtuous sinners. The aim of Christian love is reconciliation between both people and God and between people with their neighbors, a fellowship which has been broken by sin.

In fact, we could probably argue favorably here that what our society calls “community” is more associational than anything else. H. Richard Niebuhr proposed that the healthiest relationships built on the truth of Jesus’ teaching should be called “communities,” while those relationships built on lesser important common causes should be called “associations.” Associations are organizations which deal more with interests rather than neighbors actually being in personal relationships with one another, foibles and all. Communities are distinctive in that they are organized around people instead of interests.

For instance, it would be much more helpful to understand the actions of UT students and faculty in terms of their associations rather than community. A faculty member who doesn’t fit their associational interests is much more expendable for his pro-life views since he will not be a means for their ends. The faculty member may be seen as an equal, but certainly not a virtuous one in the minds of the association. Therefore, he’s out.

The same could be said of the Granbury public schools. The association bristles at books written about those who do not fit into the virtuous party of equals. Thus, the books must go.

Communities, rather, are distinctive in that they are organized around people themselves instead of interests. In fact, we could say that communities have more internalized relationships as opposed to associations which would be more externally focused on interests. In other words, associations concern themselves more with things while communities focus on people. Keep in mind, as well, that there is a rather simple way for discerning whether a community is becoming an association. If a community begins to mistake covenants for contracts for the sake of limited ends, then an association is blooming. Yet, a community stands strong when its participants remain so focused on truth that, even when conflict arises, they remain diligently committed to their fidelity for one another.

So how could an association become more of a community in the example of the conflict mentioned above at UT? One could start with breaking the vicious cycle of aggressive behavior. Our culture still reacts to others who are different through aggressiveness and retaliation. The social causes of one association produces anxiety in another, so much so that an association defends its unity by enforcing their rights through claims and counterclaims. Ethicist George Thomas says it like this: “Aggressive egoism is pitted against defensive egoism.” Our refusal to retaliate against either aggressive or defensive egoism in an association reflects the love of Christ to turn the other cheek and walk a second mile.

But what if my enemy is indeed morally and ethically wrong? Can I not do something about it? Condemning and judging others often does little to help. When we condemn, we essentially forego our responsibility as believers to care even for our enemies. It becomes a rather foregone conclusion at this point that the one who judges will become self-righteous in his/her own eyes, if they have not already. Since Christ came not to condemn the world but to save the world, it is incumbent upon us to follow in his footsteps. In fact, one of the greatest actions we can take is first to pray for our enemies. Then we love them through non-retaliation and a call to repentance and saving faith in Jesus Christ. If they want nothing to do with us, then shake the dust off your feet and move on.

Authentic community is more than an association. It is an outcome of a people who realize that they are sinners saved by grace.