Following Jesus

Peace Church or Peace Palace?

Which are we called to and what is the difference?

April 14, 2021 by

As someone who reads several books at once and occasionally finishes one, I found myself paging through God’s Revolution, a collection of Bruderhof founder Eberhard Arnold’s writings, outlining his vision for a radical Christian lifestyle in today’s world. Restless paging became intense reading and reflecting as I realized I was holding a book that could change my life. The title is no understatement. Arnold describes a truly disruptive way of life, based on a clear understanding and application of the Sermon on the Mount and the Gospels.

abstract artworkEmbed"Mammotropism." Artwork by Ken Alexander

One of the first paragraphs to upset my personal Christian complacency was this warning against compromise.

Jesus concludes with the challenge: It is no use to hear these words unless you also do them. The finest peace palace will collapse unless it fully represents the will of Jesus. The call of Jesus goes to the core, to the very heart: Leave everything and go my way. ‘Sell all that you have and give to the poor. Go with me’ (16)!

I wonder what it takes to become a “peace palace.” Arnold doesn’t expressly state it, but I interpreted his words as describing a self-satisfied institution that prides itself with running smoothly while abandoning the original calling of a peace church. Palaces are places of rank and power, influence and prestige. Even palaces of peace can at best only rule kingdoms of this world. I think a peace church should be aligned with the common good of the common person in today’s world. Arnold hit on a dangerous truth when he observed that a key element of a real peace church is the sharing of material goods and money. Possessions, selfishness, and the privatization of resources are the seeds of so much violence in our world. The radical economy of a “common purse” flies in the face of human nature, and can only exist where people want to live out the whole of Christ’s teachings. For me, it’s the hands and feet of the Gospel message to sell our wealth and go with Jesus. At the Bruderhof, that means I don’t draw a personal income for my work in the community business. And it also means I don’t have a mortgage or car payment to preoccupy me. Sharing our resources is also a practical mechanism to prevent valuation of community members based on education or ability. In that sense, a common purse is my daily reminder of the common goal I share with the rest of my community.

Arnold’s words remind me of one of my “worst favorite” Gospel stories. It’s a story I like because the takeaway lesson is so clear, but one I can’t stand because acting on it always seems impossible. Meet the rich young man, or by some accounts, the prince. In a way, his story seems so simple. He was a good guy, but he was a slave to mammon. He diligently kept the commandments, and his wealth. And he went away sad. Did he blow it? Did he miss his one chance to stand face to face with Christ and make a life change? We’re all nodding and judging right now, fine. But I’ve wondered if that young man was also a victim of his own clarity of vision. He saw how impossible it was to sever all his connections to money and wealth. A prince does not simply work a job, collect his wages, and pay for his temporal needs. No, he has people on his payroll, people he invests with, people he is in debt to. Faced with the impossible, he turned his back in sorrow. The prince wouldn’t sacrifice his peace palace for a peace church.

Eberhard Arnold was also a rich young man, albeit in twentieth-century Germany. He saw this choice with a clarity of vision similar to that of his Gospel counterpart, but decided to commit to trying:

You will try to see that others have everything that you want for yourself. Do you need a house or a bank account? Then make that possible for all. Whatever you expect others to do for you, do the same for them. Love your neighbor as yourself – that is truth and reality; it is the reality of Jesus (16).

I think that Arnold gained the authority to challenge our lives today because he actually attempted the completeness of the teachings he read in the Bible. He may have acknowledged the seeming impossibility of it, but he would not be denied his vision to make it a reality. One hundred years later, we’re still trying to make it a reality. And it’s not always successful. I often wonder, if it couldn’t be done in first-century Palestine, how possibly in twenty-first-century America? I have to figure out daily how to square my current existence with Christ’s demands. Often I can’t. I have to ask myself if my life reflects my calling. Often it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s frustrating for a capable adult to feel poor and dependent, with no buying power in the modern world. I can be selfish, dishonest, ambitious even. Frankly, it’s like there is always a gap between where we are and where we should be. There is a conflict between the actuality and the possibility; the called and the calling. But maybe, recognizing that we are still waiting for the peace kingdom, our task is to find that gap and stand in it. We can’t close it, but I think we can shrink it.

Let me pause for a quick aside: I don’t have the exact words, but I remember my mother recounting a conversation between her father and a skeptical-yet-interested guest in his home. Observing the community’s dependence on the capitalist system to make a livelihood, Opi mused that if the disparity between the call and the reality was indeed reduced to zero, the kingdom of God would be here. This means that I can be convinced about something that may seem impossible. I can attempt something I can’t accomplish on my own. The actions required of me will be different from those required in Biblical times, and different again from those taken in 1920. But I’m going to look for them. Arnold gave our communities a clue:

God’s economy, his plan for the kingdom of God, must be given well-defined practical expression in the household of the church. Then even the blindest will have to realize that here is a place where they can find something of the love and joy that God’s kingdom will bring to all humankind at the end of time. To those who ask us whether this is the only way people can choose in order to bring down the kingdom of God, we say that it is not a way we choose. It is a way that comes down to us from God. His economy, the plan he has for the human race, is the highest and the only possible way. We human beings have no way that leads to the kingdom of righteousness. Unless God gives himself to us, there is no way for us to go (21).

I just started reading God’s Revolution, and I’ve already encountered demands that seem impossible. Get rid of your wealth, don’t let the church become a palace, do business within God’s economy. But most importantly: “leave everything and go my way.” Stand in the gap and let God illuminate the way across and provide the tools to shrink that gap. Believe the impossible. Then try to live it. In the thoroughness of his vision for a present-day Gospel reality, Arnold simultaneously addresses the most humdrum corners of life, and draws us out of our mundanity. I’ll sign off with one more demanding, hopeful thought.

Everywhere the world is going to pieces. It is crumbling and rotting away. It is going through a process of disintegration. It is dying. And in these fearsome times, through the Holy Spirit Christ places the city-church with its unconditional unity right into the world. The only help for the world is to have a place of gathering, to have people whose will, undivided and free of doubt, is bent on gathering with others in unity (28).

I believe that unity within a true peace church is not an option; it is a mandate. It must be unconditional in order to transcend the complications of our modern era. And it’s not for the few, but for the many, just as peace should be. Not behind the walls of a palace, but spreading out from a church. Not available to those who would purchase it, but offered as a gift to everyone, in exchange for everything.

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Peter Hinkey

Peter Hinkey

Peter Hinkey is a member of the Bruderhof, who enjoys reading and the outdoors.

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