Life in Community

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Life in Community

Community Strikes Back

September 8, 2016 by

What are Jesus’ most basic commands? They are that we should love the Lord with all our being and essence, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s that second part that’s gotten me thinking lately: we all want food, clothing, shelter. But beyond those outer needs, there are inner desires for fulfillment, companionship, peace of heart and mind. While we’re all good at scratching and clawing to obtain those first items for ourselves and our families, historically the human race is not so great at providing the second set – because to really find those, we need each other.

But perhaps some of that is changing this summer. David Brooks certainly thinks so. Writing recently in his column, he suggests that “Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, I get the sense a lot of people are actually about to make the break and immerse themselves in demanding local community movements.”

I get more than a sense; I see people actually taking the plunge. Of course, it’s to be expected that some of these plunges are misguided, and are likely to end up in chaos. The attempt featured in the Atlantic’s recent video on communities in New York City seems shallow; a community based solely on economics will ultimately fail, every time – witness the history of world socialism and communism. As someone who is committed to a life of community far more rigorous than what was examined by the Atlantic, I’m not sure their foundation is built on the rock it needs to be in order for their experiment to be more than a flash in the pan.

And for other committed communitarians, various legal and municipal impediments can be insurmountable. Slate highlighted an effort at group living in Colorado (the quaintly named Picklebric) which was ultimately shuttered due to neighborhood opposition. But at least there are people trying to scratch that innate itch we all have to be together.

That desire is the subject of Sebastian Junger’s recent bestseller Tribe, about belonging and communal purpose. In it, he highlights the historical importance of the communal urge (“humans are . . . strongly wired to help one another”), and projects that importance into the present day. He compares “intrinsic” values (for competency, authenticity, and connection with others) to “extrinsic” values (beauty, money, status), saying that as modern society has gotten better at providing for our extrinsic needs, we’ve neglected the intrinsic ones, with devastating results. (You’ll have to get the book to glean his startling insights into the mental health aspects of this issue.)

a photograph of people enjoying community with one another superimposed on a picture of credit cards, money and a wallet.

If you haven’t read Junger’s slim volume, it’s well worth a few hours of your time. With eminently quotable prose (“The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good”) he makes a strong case that because we no longer really need to stick together, we are missing out on a vital aspect of our existence, replacing – even negating – healthy community with selfish individualism.

But if you’re interested in digging further into the nitty-gritty of this topic, there’s a new collection published by Plough, Called to Community, with essays from a spectrum of writers who have been there, done that, and want to help you do it too. It will take you more time to wade through than Tribe, but rather than providing mere inspiration, it delves deeper and is ultimately more useful; call it a user’s manual for actual communities based on something more than economics or sociology.

Read it, whether or not you think you’re looking for a better way to follow that simple yet profound dictum of Jesus. And let’s celebrate that fact that, as the book’s editor Charles E. Moore put it to me some days ago, it looks like “community is striking back” this summer. Don’t let its arrows miss the mark.


About the author

Red Zimmerman

Red Zimmerman

Red Zimmerman lives at the Woodcrest Bruderhof and is the editor of

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