Loving Our Ideals of Community Will Destroy Us

by Mark Votava


Several years ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Shane Claiborne down in Alabama at a Lent retreat.  Typically, Shane speaks in front of at least five hundred people when he shares, but this weekend was different because there was a tornado warning on the day he arrived and only about twenty people showed up because of it.  I had never been to Alabama before, so to experience tornado sirens go off on the first evening of the retreat was interesting to say the least.  But because there were so few of us, I got to spend some good one-on-one time with him.

I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner next to him at the same table for several days.  Previously, I had read some of Shane’s books like The Irresistible Revolution which had had a dramatic influence on me.  So I really appreciated all the conversation that I got a chance to have with him that weekend.

I was really excited.  I had a hundred questions for him.  Back home, I am known for asking many questions and sometimes wearing others out if they are not in the mood for it.

After many hours of conversation with Shane, I remember asking him what he thought was the most challenging thing he had learned about living in community in his neighborhood of Kensington, Philadelphia at The Simple Way for the past fifteen years or so.  I will never forget what he told me that day.  He said the most important thing he had learned was that learning to love his community unconditionally is so much more important than getting caught up in the ideals of what he thinks the community should be.

I thought this was such profound wisdom and I’m thankful for having the chance to spend some time with him that weekend.  I have been inspired by Shane for many years through his books, so having the chance to hear him in person say these words to me was very powerful.  This conversation has had a profound influence on me to this day.  His words have always stayed with me and I think about them often.

  •  God’s grace shatters our dreams

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his insightful book Life Together, “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream.  The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it.  But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams …”

  •  Loving our dream of community more than the community itself

Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.  He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream…  Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.  The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.  A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community.  Sooner or later it will collapse.  Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive.  He who loves his dream of 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.”

  •  Facing a great tension

We always face a great tension between the ideal of what we want life to be like and the reality of life as it is.  The communal imagination is not built on a “wish dream” or an illusion, but on reality.  We will struggle sometimes to figure things out relationally in the parish.  It is not always easy and we might often fail.

  •  Learning to live with grace towards one another

But we need to keep trying to learn to live with grace towards one another.  Without grace, we will build our lives on a lofty illusion of how things ought to be with little contact with reality.  What we are building will not last very long without grace.  When we love our ideals of community more than the reality of the community, we will become disillusioned and bring an oppressive agenda into it that will quickly poison everything around us.

Do you get caught up in loving the ideals of community more than the reality of it?