Beyond BabelPrioritising Community
Dr. Theuns Jacobs
Pastor of Shofar Cape Town City
This blog was originally posted on christian-thoughtleadership.com. Theuns holds a doctorate in New Testament studies, and does research on the Gospels and contemporary social issues. He is a pastor at our Cape Town City congregation.
Our basic attitude towards community either pollutes or heals the experience of belonging within community. We can view community as an opportunity to something beyond itself, or value community for its own intrinsic value. When we approach community as a means to an end, we diminish our sense of belonging. When we approach community as a valued end within itself, we contribute to a greater sense of belonging.
Belonging as the essence of community
Then they said, “Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower that reaches Heaven. Let’s make ourselves famous so we won’t be scattered here and there across the Earth.” God came down to look over the city and the tower those people had built. God took one look and said, “One people, one language; why, this is only a first step. No telling what they’ll come up with next—they’ll stop at nothing! Come, we’ll go down and garble their speech so they won’t understand each other.”
Genesis 11:4–7 (MSG)
“God’s ultimate intention for creation is the establishment of community.”
Isolation and loneliness are a scourge of modern existence. Much has been written on the detrimental impact of loneliness. Virtual communities are continuing to hamper actual connection. Mobile technology tries in vain to satisfy our relational needs. The more we seek community, the more it slips through our fingers. Community has fragmented into numerous solitary pieces. This fragmentation can be seen in how community is often reduced into something less.
Community may be reduced to silos. Various sectors in community separate and start operating independently. Businesses, schools, government and social services all run in their own lanes and develop their own goals. They avoid interaction with each other. Community becomes a loose consortium of independent entities jostling for its own place in the sun. Even churches are guilty of this problem. Some churches use community as a feature to attract and keep potential members with little to no intention of contributing to the larger community. In the long term that church just becomes another feature of an isolated landscape.
Community may be reduced to networks. Networks attempt to source and connect the right sort of people; those who might come in handy. Only the seemingly clever, strong and beautiful are admired and sought after. A moral crisis rages in diverse segments of society (like the patronage scandals of the political elite and the #metoo scandals among the entertainment elite) exactly because people are arbitrarily reduced to their talents and features. Objectifying people eventually leads to abuse.
Community may be reduced to fortresses: The wrong ‘sort’ of people must be kept out at all costs. Gated communities thrive. Social media algorithms embed the separation of people and ideas into society. Echo chambers rule the internet[i]. It is becoming increasingly hard to find common ground in even smaller communities. Fear becomes the driver of a cycle of isolation and communal distance. People may live in close proximity in urban centres, yet be worlds apart from anyone.
The causes of the reduction of community are numerous, but two are worth mentioning. On a cultural level, the current mantra of individualism and consumerism is devastating. Consumerism has reduced people to the exhausting pursuit of self-improvement and selfish material excess. This chase after the pot of gold mostly ends in isolation. Francis Schaeffer observed that the meaning of life in Western cultures has been reduced to the twin creeds of “Give me stuff” and “Leave me alone”. This inevitably leads to a tragic existence. On a political level, the devastation of socio-political engineering can scarcely be comprehended. In South Africa, spatial and socio-economic apartheid (which is the very essence of fractured community) continues.
In the wake of the fragmentation of community, developing an intuitive grasp of what community is, is becoming more and more important. Peter Block hits the nail on the head when he observes that community is not primarily about geography, proximity or ideology, but “about the experience of belonging. We are in community each time we find a place where we belong”. If the fragmented nature of communities is to be solved, then the experience of belonging becomes paramount. Community is where I feel like I have found my place. I am part of a larger community. It is where my neighbours become friends even though we are different and distinct. It is where the Good Samaritan is the norm and not the exception. Belonging is not finding the right sort of people in the right sort of place, but the experience of being home where I am.
Community and friendship
Before we proceed further, a word or two on the differences between friendship and community is necessary. Both friendship and community are equally important for the human experience, but friendship and community are becoming noticeably conflated. Often circles of friends label their friendship as community. My suspicion is that this is happening because we are giving up on the more difficult task of building the broader community. It is easier to see a group of agreeable and like-minded friends as my community than building common ground with neighbours who are very different from me.
The difference between (and the importance of) friendship and communities lies in two areas: Friendship is built around relational intimacy, and community is built around relational dignity. Friends know one another intimately; they share their lives. In a community, it is not possible (or even wise) to share such a level of relational knowledge with everyone. But community offers another powerful ingredient to the human experience. In a community, I belong because I am part of it. There is dignity in my existence because I am wanted and I am part of the community — even though not everyone may become my friend in the community. Furthermore, good community serves as a foundational matrix from which friendship develops. Good community is filled with the potential for making friends exactly because I am seen as part and because I want to belong.
When community falters the potential for new friendships falters with it. We become frozen in our existing friendship circles, and struggle to feel part of a community. Equally, when friendship is confused for community, we escalate the existing problem of community as silos and networks. A circle of friends becomes sharply marked and isolated from the rest of the community. Often such a circle ends in the worst possible position, as they adopt apathy toward the larger community, or even a sense of antagonism (an us-vs-them approach).
Community as a platform for gain
The story of Babel offers interesting observations of the nature and importance of community. Westermann comments that the Biblical narrative of Genesis 1–11 “always aims at explaining something that is a part of human existence, something that is always related to human existence as created existence”. The story of Babel (Gen 11:1–9) illustrates how community becomes a pragmatic tool to further a goal beyond itself. The narrative intimates that the Shinar community had great qualities of unity. Despite a strong quality of unity (they had the “same words” and possessed the potential to achieve whatever they wished), their community merely existed for selfish achievement and ambition. Community became an instrument to “make a name for themselves”.
Bonhoeffer gives an ominous warning about community and ambition. His words ring as true as they did in the previous century, when they were first penned:
He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.
His words are startling – and somewhat strange to us. To be fair, his comments are in connection with church community, but it has wider implications. We have grown accustomed to thinking of a thriving community as a place where stuff gets done and dreams are shaped. We wish to replicate the American Dream everywhere (even though the Dream is starting to become jaded). But the Biblical injunction is that community does not exist primarily as a platform for a group (or person) to achieve their ambitions.
Make no mistake, creating and maintaining sufficient opportunities for everyone in a community to be productive in work and relationship is crucial for human flourishing. But therein lies the rub. Why is it that inevitably only some get the opportunities and others not at all? I would argue because opportunities, though important, are secondary to the intrinsic value of community itself. When community becomes merely an economic tool for personal opportunities it dehumanises us. It reduces people to handy objects to be used and discarded. It opens us up for manipulation and inequality. Goals are elevated above the well-being of people. All kinds of wrong are justified in the name of personal achievement. Community turns into empire and, in the end, empire is always evil. Even the confusion of Babel is preferable to unsmiling progress of empire.
Community as human necessity
Rather, community exists because communal relationship is more important than any notion of success and achievement. The argument for this is simple: To be human is to have community. To debase community into a utilitarian tool is to debase ourselves. From a Christian perspective, this is supported with the notion that the ultimate reality is community. Within the Trinitarian nature of God, God is in community. Community is therefore prior to creation itself. But community is also the ultimate destination of creation. The eschatological visions of the finality of God are always communal in nature (cf. Rev 4, 7, 21).
Bonhoeffer takes it one step closer, from God to us: Not only is community part of the ultimate reality of things, but it is essential to being human.
The universal person of God does not think of people as isolated individual beings, but in a natural state of communication with other human beings… God created man and woman directed to one another. God does not desire a history of individual human beings, but the history of the human community. However, God does not want a community that absorbs the individual into itself, but a community of human beings. In God’s eyes, community and individual exist in the same moment and rest in one another.
For Bonhoeffer the basic features of personhood (which he qualifies as self-consciousness and the expression of will) are only possible when a person (the ‘I’) expresses self-consciousness and will to another person (the ‘Other’). Without the ‘Other’, the ‘I’ cannot express unique self-consciousness and will. The ‘I’ can never be received. Can self-consciousness and will exist in such a state? Can we be fully person in such a state?
This sounds extremely philosophical and abstract until we realise how often this exactly plays out in our daily lives. We long to hear the ‘Other’ and to be heard by the ‘Other’. We can’t wait to express ourselves in a myriad ways and to receive expression. We call, we do instant messaging, we post on social media, we create. We are getting more desperate for the message of ‘I’ out there. This is why the experience of loneliness is so shattering. And this is why community as a tool for ambition and opportunities is so dangerous. Community itself is prior to these things. We should start valuing it as such. To demolish community is to destroy parts of our own humanity. To demolish the selfish ambitions of Babel is to restore community.
[i] “In news media, the term echo chamber is analogous to an acoustic echo chamber where sounds reverberate in a hollow enclosure. An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a defined system. Inside a figurative echo chamber, official sources often go unquestioned and different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented. The echo chamber effect reinforces a person’s own present world view, making it seem more correct and more universally accepted than it really is.” – Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_chamber_(media)
Block, P 2008. Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco: BK.
Bonhoeffer, D 1930. Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Minneapolis: Fortress.
Bonhoeffer, D 1954. Life Together. London: SCM.
Grenz, S 1994. Theology for the Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Schaeffer, F 1977. How now shall we live? (DVD). Gospel Films Production.
Westermann, C 1994. A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–1. Minneapolis: Fortress.