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Beyond Babel Prioritising Community

Beyond Babel Prioritising Community

by 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.”

Stanley Grenz

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.

Patronage and the State Capture Report: A critique from the Gospel of Luke

Patronage and the State Capture Report: A critique from the Gospel of Luke

By Theuns Jacobs

Our humanity is corrupted when we abuse power; our humanity is diminished when we are rendered powerless. [1]  Daniel Migliore

The phenomenon of patronage has become a hot topic. Locally, the State Capture Report unleashed stormy weather in the South African political arena.[2] In it, allegations of what many suspect are put forward — that perhaps the organs of state have been captured by outside forces whose sole aim is to make immense profits out of the very institution meant to serve all South Africans. It invokes the nightmare of a deep-lying, and secretive, corruption in the very offices that should be most trustworthy. Globally, the American election cycle pushed the topic of the intersection between patronage and presidential candidates to an international audience. Some estimates put the total costs of the 2016 presidential campaign at $5 billion![3] Although this funding comes from donations large and small, there is a growing unease at the huge amounts given by the financial elite and their proxies (such as lobbyists). Surely the elite expect something for such vast investments in their preferred candidates. Maybe good governance is being circumvented as rich donors demand preferential treatment and favours for their donations.

Patronage is hardly a new phenomenon.[4] For long periods of time it was the way things were done. In the absence of sophisticated bureaucracies, rulers held power by means of patronage. Here is how it works: a person of great means gives tangible resources to a person of lesser means. Resources may be money or a position in government or business. This exchange of resources occurs because of an exclusive personal relationship between the giver (called the patron) and the recipient (called the client). Because of these favours the client is bound to the patron. The client is under an immense obligation to show loyalty to his or her patron. Mostly this loyalty is expressed by advancing the personal interest of the patron among a wider network of people. This consolidates political power in the hands of the patron. Clients are often appointed into high positions and told what to do in order to serve the personal interest of the patron. Patronage tends to flourish in environments where there are great discrepancies between the rich and the rest of the population, as well as in environments where social conventions tend to elevate personal relationships (such as kinship) above the rule of law. South Africa is an excellent environment for patronage to flourish in.

In the Ancient World, the Roman Empire came to embody the social power of patronage. The Roman Empire, and office of the Emperor, converged as one entity. The Emperor was the Empire. There was virtually no governance through bureaucracy. Rather, the Emperor personally appointed officials into positions of power. These officials (and client kings) served the personal interest of the Emperor, and were personally responsible to him. Here, Herod the Great is a prime example of a client ruler. The Romans appointed Herod the Great as tetrarch over the Jewish people because they did not trust the ambitions of the actual Jewish royalty. Because Herod was given this position (which he would not have received otherwise), he was under an immense obligation to serve the personal interest of his Roman patrons. Herod proved to be brutal, savvy and irrepressible within the confines of patronage, and became one of the great client-kings of the Ancient World. He managed to shift his loyalty across four Roman patrons during the Roman Civil War, and became fabulously rich and powerful. Naturally, the highest priority for Herod was to serve the interests of his Roman patrons, not the well-being of his Jewish subjects — and he soon became one of the most despised kings in Jewish history.

Which brings us back to the importance of the recent State Capture Report. If it’s true that the office of the presidency (and some of the other ministers) has been co-opted by a third party by means of the exchange of money or favours, then these organs of state do not serve the interests of the people of South Africa, but the interests of a few powerful people. Patronage in such a case might start with some reciprocal political favours, but easily spiral into corruption. This is despicable in modern political systems. The state exists to serve the people, not the president. On face value then, the expectation is that the New Testament would condemn patronage in the most severe terms. Surely patronage is a form of injustice.

As usual, the Bible answers the issue in a deeper, and far more profound, manner. Here is the headline: patronage might be a social custom that is easily abused, but the real problem is our relationship with power. Consider the following passage from the Gospel of Luke:

Then a dispute also arose among them about who should be considered the greatest. But He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles dominate them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and whoever leads, like the one serving. For who is greater, the one at the table or the one serving? Isn’t it the one at the table? But I am among you as the One who serves. You are the ones who stood by Me in My trials. I bestow on you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one on Me, so that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom. And you will sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel. (Luke 22:24–30, HCSB)

The language in the passage is strikingly one of patronage! The apostles argue about who should be considered the greatest. Jesus compares their jostling to the bitter competition among the elite of the world. Rather, the apostles are to follow the example of “the One who serves”. Jesus proceeds to explain the basis of this command to serve. This moral weight of service is based on the theological truth that God the Patron bestows the Kingdom unto the Son, who, in His turn, bestows this Kingdom to His followers. His followers are given illustrious positions and vast resources they would not have otherwise. They eat and drink at the table of the King. They are given thrones. They turn out to be the recipients of the patronage of God! Indeed, we all become clients of God the Patron. Therefore, the moral imperative to respond to the Great Patron rests upon us all. Luke then makes clear that we respond to the patronage of God in a surprising manner. God is honoured not by the acquisition of more power. All power resides within Him already. Rather, God the Patron is honoured when we serve other people in His name. We must follow the example of Jesus as “the One who serves”. The Great Patron is not like earthly patrons. Where earthly patrons “dominate” and abuse their positions of power, the One who has true Power is also the One who serves. The value-set of God is vastly different from “the kings of the Gentiles”.

It appears that Luke approves of a form of patronage. The question is why? Three reasons spring to mind. Perhaps, in the first place, patronage is more inherent to the human condition than many would like to admit. Resources tend to follow relationship. And we are very relational beings. Consider this: patronage might be frowned upon in modern democracies, but no one frowns upon networking in the same democracies. Is networking not a basic form of patronage? Patronage is more lasting, and subtler than we realise. Rather, Luke does not simply advocate the abolishment of patronage, but subverts it in unexpected ways. This brings us to the second reason: The usual point of patronage is to secure power in the hands of the privileged few. The aim of patronage is primarily to acquire even more power, not to distribute resources to those who have less. In the process, patrons become more powerful because of their networks of clients. “The kings of the Gentiles dominate them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’” And this is exactly the issue then. The actual issue that Luke identifies is power, and especially the use of power in a political sense. A network of patrons and clients often leads to a toxic environment of power and the abuse of such power. But the acquisition and dispensation of power is hardly something we can avoid. This brings us to the last, and perhaps most important, point. Patronage is but a social convention that is employed by Luke to illustrate something of the grace of God. God, the true High Power, bestows an everlasting Kingdom on the least worthy. We inherited thrones we do not deserve. We take a seat at a table at which we do not belong. Patronage — exactly because it is so suited to the acquisition of power — reveals more of the moral compass of the actual patron than the convention itself. In the hands of God, patronage becomes a tool for grace. In the hands of the “Gentile kings”, patronage becomes a tool for domination.

Here, the Gospel of Luke and the example of Jesus stand in stark contrast to the “kings of the Gentiles”. Halvor Moxnes[5] argues that Luke is making a profound argument in his Gospel on the connection between patronage and the use of resources. Instead of merely denouncing patronage as a social evil, Luke inverts the custom and makes an astounding argument of the use of resources in the light of the revelation of the Kingdom of God. The argument goes like this:

God is the True Patron. All resources belong to Him. He gives to human beings whatever resources they have.

Those who have more than they need (whether they are rich, or merely have surplus) received what they have because of the patronage of God. They are the clients of God. They are under an obligation to serve the personal interests of the Great Patron.

Those in need are also clients of God. They may not have surplus — or even enough to live on — but the Kingdom is also bestowed on them. They are the personal interest of God.

Those with surplus must serve the needy. They give to the needy not because it offers an opportunity to become more powerful, but because they are serving the interests of God.

Those who are recipients of such help should not give power and allegiance to the powerful, but rather they are to worship God — who has provided for them through His servants.

Therefore, the patronage of God undercuts human power relationships. Power becomes a platform for service and not for self-interest. This holds serious ethical implications, and a drastic change of lifestyle, for those who have and those who have not. To those with surplus, a lifestyle of service is a given in the Kingdom. Power and resources are not granted by the Patron to self-aggrandise, but because they afford them the opportunity to follow the example of the One who serves. By serving they become like Jesus. For those who do not have, a life of dignity is imperative. They are not to be co-opted into the power struggles of those who have. They are not pawns in the power games of people. They too have a Patron. They too may receive the Kingdom. They too may take a seat at the table. Serving them reflects their true status in the Kingdom to come.

Now, to be clear: it is not argued here that patronage ought to be condoned in a democracy. It is not supposed here that patronage is some ideal custom. Rather, it is argued that doing away with patronage is not enough. It will not solve the actual problem. The problem is not a social convention per se (however prone it is to abuse). The root problem is the type of relationship political leaders have with power. Any political system, and social custom, can be abused in order to place undue power in the hands of the few. Jesus forces us to reconsider the purpose of power. Resources and power ought to be used to develop a life of dignity for all. Political leaders must be held accountable for the manner of their service to the people of a nation. But then, the Sword of the Word cuts both ways. It is easy to give parting shots to political leaders without asking the same questions of business, church and other civic entities. All believers need to ask themselves the same tough questions concerning their aim in using the resources God has bestowed upon them. The Great Patron hears the cries of the poor.

[1] Migliore, DL 2008. The Power of God and the gods of Power. Louisville: Westminster John Knox
[2] http://www.groundup.org.za/article/simple-explanation-state-capture-report
[3] http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/03/daily-chart-1
[4] Good reading material concerning patronage in Biblical times: DeSilva, DA 2000. Honor, Patronage and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove: IVP.
[5] Moxnes, H 1988. The Economy of the Kingdom: Social Conflict and Economic Relations in Luke`s Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress.