What Exactly is Community? | Gathering Around an Absent Christ [2]

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.


8 responses to “What Exactly is Community? | Gathering Around an Absent Christ [2]”

  1. I think it is not so much an absence, as a presence who is there when the people gather. The Christ we are gathering around is present between us and in us. My take on the bread and wine is that the elements do not become the body and blood of Christ, but that as we share and eat and drink, we become the body of Christ. He is then present within and among us, and in us individually as we go out and live for him.

  2. The notion of community as being an expression of violence ties in with the ideas of Rene Girard. Whether or not this is the origin of the word, Girard suggests that most communities are (to some extent) held together by the unifying effect of communal violence against some scapegoat. He goes on to identify much of Christianity as a mechanism for freeing ourselves from the scapegoating mechanism, thus allowing communities not based on violence.

  3. Rich Wyld

    Community is a big word just now, but I wonder how accurately it reflects any word that is found in the New Testament? Ekklesia just means gathering of some kind, possibly (though probably not) an oblique reference to political assemblies in Graeco-Roman towns. There are other words etc that describe the early Church like followers of the way, but perhaps ‘community’ as a word isn’t that helpful, because we’ll spend time investing it with philosophical or etymological meaning, and not noting that Jesus might have something to say about the character of the renewal of human relationships.

  4. Rich Wyld

    Sorry to double post

    While company is etymologically better, I’m not sure it makes an subtantial difference, as I’m not sure to what extent the Church was ever called to gather round something, but rather to follow someone.

  5. I’d agree – as I said at the top of the first post, it’s not a word I like. But it’s used a great deal – and part of my reason for writing was to try to throw some light on it as a concept. As you say, there are other words, but I think they all have similar problems.

    However, we are left with this grand project: how do we live out what Jesus may have said about human relationships? And because of that, because we aren’t in this as individuals, we need to work out – and describe – some way of being together, so the conversation is important.

  6. Rich Wyld

    I agree the conversation’s important. I think perhaps there is a tendency generally in theology to define terms philosophically and then give them some Christian content, so the question of what is a Christian community follows from the question of what is a community. My suggestion is to ask it the other way round.

    In this sense, I think one of the problems with absence as a gathering concept is that both John and Paul have a big thing about being in Christ, and it is the participation in Christ that draws Christians to love the other – although this might be what you’re driving out with the Eucharistic metaphor?

  7. I agree with Rich on the issue of scriptural insight on the presense, on some level, of Christ. Does an issue of separation within the Trinity help in this discussion? Are we suggesting that, at the ascension, when Jesus told his disciples that he’d be with them always he was talking of the Holy Spirit and not him. This being altogether possible are we now discussing that where the Spirit is is not necessarily where Jesus is? That’s a genuine question rather than rhetorical!

    The other point I’d like to add is regarding the small issue of etymology…(sorry)

    Although Gerry’s, your classics lecturer friend and Girard’s etymological insight might be interesting and helpful; I’d be loathed to completely dismiss the more traditional interpretation of the Latin: com – together, munus – gift. This leads to an understanding of people gathering around a gift. Does this help in terms of our understanding of christian community, gathering round the gift of grace? Again, not rhetorical.

  8. Not a small point – I wouldn’t want to dismiss the traditional etymology either, and I’ve written extensively in The Complex Christ and Other about the importance of gift exchange to community formation. However, gift exchange is never straight-forward, (as I go into in Other) and can have undercurrents of power struggles too.

    What I find interesting about the roots of the word is that munus (gift) and munis (wall/barrier) may have a common root further back…which at least throws us an alternative perspective: community is a place of gift exchange, but is an enclosed place. It’s this idea of enclose that I think is powerfully critiqued in the concept of Christian community. The dividing walls are torn down…