Of all the bandied about words that from time to time annoy me by the lack of care taken in its use, perhaps community is the one that is most poorly defined, and I have spent hours trying to articulate this concept at a church level and at school level. The word is defined by a range of people, myself included, whose personal ideology or theology pre-defines what is meant by the term. Nevertheless, it is a vital term and remains important for our lives as a school, as a church and in our neighbourhoods, all of which require more depth in whatever experience they currently have of community. It is less helpful when used in the current EU/Brexit debate, because nobody really has done (or is prepared to do) the necessary work to build or maintain the community. The best work on this at a local economic level has been done by Wendell Berry in his essay Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. The heart of the issue, it increasingly seems to me, is that of community as a gift – and thus a state of harmony in which we are increasingly able to give to each other, not negotiate the best deal for ourselves as a start point. Henri Nouwen wrote this in his 1979 book, Clowning in Rome:
In solitude we can come to the realization that we are not driven together but brought together. In solitude we come to know our fellow human beings not as partners who can satisfy our deepest needs, but as brothers and sisters with whom we are called to give visibility to God’s all-embracing love. In solitude we discover that community is not common ideology, but as response to a common call. In solitude we indeed realize that community is not made, but given.
Part of living in any community is the acceptance of this gift as something which exists before us. We work hard in our classes at school to have daily community circles – the purpose is to create that level of reality in community, to deepen the relationships within it, so that if it is broken, it has significance to those that experience that brokenness. This in turn motivates the desire to fix it again through repentance and forgiveness. But, even though we work hard at creating and deepening the community, it was there before we joined and will continue after we leave. It is a gift.
Nouwen talks about a response to a common call. This presupposes a caller, of course, but whether we acknowledge God as the one giving the vocation or not, we are still responsive to a call.
Lastly, community is about giving visibility to God’s love. If a community does not do this for us, or if we cannot find a way in which to offer this love within a growing community, we are in trouble. Community is, ultimately, the social purpose of the creation of mankind. We were not created alone, but for one another. This aspect – koinonia if you will – is what gives context to the fact that we were created, and created beloved.