Life in Community

The Three Dangers of Community Living

September 20, 2019 by

In the following paragraphs, Eberhard Arnold speaks about the dangers intentional communities face. His words, adapted from a sermon spoken in 1926, ring true today: many communal attempts, whether of 1920s Germany or 1970s United States, have collapsed because of one of the three human weaknesses Arnold describes. And although the Bruderhof has been in existence almost a hundred years, we face these same threats daily. Arnold believed that the only safeguard to sustain community is to be overwhelmed by the spirit of God and to keep one’s eyes on a greater cause.

What drove us to this lifestyle, to this type of activity and community? [By 1920] the World War was over; the Revolution had run its course. We realized that this was an end, not a beginning. We longed to escape the tension, confusion, and deadly animosity. But we realized that we did not have the strength to live differently in a way that would answer our longing – to tread a path toward our goal of community and unity, of strength and joy, a path that in this degenerate creation would point to the new creation.

Then Jesus met us anew. Jesus met us in such perfect clarity that we had to accept the practical possibility of his lifestyle as it was given to us. We recognized the Sermon on the Mount, the parables of Jesus, and his words in sending out his disciples, as a character sketch of the people of the future and their way of community. We recognized it as a new planting of life from the Spirit. . . which like a tree, like light, like salt has to live according to its nature.

yellow flowers against the sky

Poverty in our personal private lives, our common table and our common standard of living, working together and sharing the fruits of our labor – all of this is not decisive. What is decisive is the strength and the joy in all that is done and should be done. Love dawned on us as an overflowing power. It swept away all other powers of this earth and of human life, including the meaning of property and its laws. At that time there were many discussions of how community of all people could be attained, how a fair division of property would be possible. It was clear to us that it was not possible without perfect love that is born of truth, without the church that is led by Christ.

Love must be all-embracing or it is nothing.

We feel deeply united with people of all centuries who have felt the demand of community that comes from the love of Christ. We felt united with the first church in Jerusalem, with the earliest monastic movement, with the Waldensians and the Franciscans, with the Brothers of the Common Life and with the communistic Anabaptist communities of the Middle Ages. We felt united with the attempts of the Protestant and Catholic churches and outside of the churches. Our only question was whether these attempts, born of the spirit of faith and love, had all of humanity in mind. For one danger was painfully evident in all these groups: the danger of being exclusive, isolated, narrow, both spiritually and practically. Spiritually this can be seen in a narrowed horizon . . . . Practically it is evident in cutting oneself off as a small group of people that submits to being cut off. We have observed this narrowness both in Catholic orders and in evangelical groups of believers. We are convinced that the original revival movement was different, that the all-embracing power of love was decisive, the desire to reach everyone, overlooking nobody, and to live first and foremost for those who suffer most. The wish to seek people out was decisive. It cannot be otherwise if our love comes from the Creator who created all beings. Love must be all-embracing or it is nothing.

The second danger of all such communities is the danger that stems from eros [i.e. the power of mutual attractions]. This is also a confining of love, which deteriorates to a magnetism of individuals who cut themselves off, individuals who are attracted to each other. We saw clearly that communal attempts that were not based on faith broke up on the question of eros because the greater magnet, the central sun, did not determine their course. So they had to fall for and drown in the paltry magnetism of petty relationships between individuals. This paltry magnetism cannot be overcome through strict rules and laws and commands but only by the greater magnet that dissolves these small parallel relationships. To be sure, they may still be there, but the greater magnet is so decisive that the proximity of smaller magnets does not invalidate its precision. The important question is whether we are swinging around the central sun. Only then do we have the right to exist in the face of all limitations.

We can only live in community if we remain in the first love.

The third danger of communal life is to take offense at the personal weaknesses of other members. We are all imperfect. The imperfections of our characters and our gifts are varied, but we all have them. If people see each other only seldom, it is easy to overlook their weaknesses of character. But if people are in the same room day after day, hour after hour, tied to the same job, it can become an inexpressible torture. Irritation with each other dissolves community. For this reason, talking about one another’s weaknesses causes tremendous damage in a community – not the fact that they are talked about but that through such talk one’s mind is chained to trivial thoughts. It ruins the character to concern oneself too much with the imperfections and weakness of individual people.

How can this be overcome? By speaking about greater and more important things. Community is only possible if the primal demand of life and a longing for God and everything he created glows through us and gives us life. We can only live in community if we remain in the first love.


About the author

Emmy Maendel

Emmy Maendel

Emmy Maendel, an author with a particular interest in Bruderhof history, writes a regular blog post featuring timely...

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