In the previous post I looked at the apparent need for a community to gather around a common purpose, and how the beauty of Christian community is that it paradoxically gathers round an absence – thus both preventing those in the community from having a purely inward focus, and driving them to encounter and engage those who are other.
This form of community, as people have noted Bonhoeffer discovered, is so challenging that it has rarely been manifest. Most churches, in the absence of being able to gather around a physical Christ, create another gathering point, whether that be Alpha, the Toronto blessing, the Mass sung in particular way, or even sexuality.
There is a more intriguing side to community though. As Gerry Aitken pointed out to me in Durham – which I then followed up with a classics teacher here in London – the root of the word community may possibily go back – via the common Indo-European root to a gathering around in order to attack a common enemy. Breaking it down to co + munition makes the point.
This is interesting because even though few people would take community to mean something that aggressive, the expression of it can often be a gathering around something we oppose, in order to fight against it. Community can thus be seen as an expression of violence.
A better word might be, ironically given our reflex aversion to commercialism, company – its meaning rooted in the sharing of bread. Either way, the key point is that the distinctive thing about Christian gathering is that it gathers around an absence… and to use the bread metaphor (as I explore in The Complex Christ / Signs of Emergence) the bread that is centralised is then broken, internalised (and thus becomes visibly absent) and take out. This is the mystery of the present/absence of Christ – a physical presence would be a huge distraction, and an actual absence leaving us without hope. It is only be being there and not being there that a community that empathises with the other can be built.