It is a universal cliché, in my estimation, to speak of community in one of either two frames of mind. The first romanticizes community life by presenting it as solution to all human ills, ignoring all the ways friends and neighbors betray one another in large and small matters in the name of their own interests, or, more subtly, in the very nameof communal self-preservation. If a community is wounded, then, or if community life faces struggle and dispute from within, the problem could not be intrinsic to community life itself; the problem is a burden of the members who did not bother to believe hard enough in the abstract ideal of community.
The second frame of mind is cynical, believing that communities are merely smokescreens for conglomerates of individual ambitions and interests. In this frame of mind, the world is Hobbesian and internal tensions of communities merely confirm the state of nature to which all groups of people inevitably return.
The apostle Paul says in Romans 12, a miniature and primitive regula for all Christian community if there ever was one, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind… let love be genuine” (vv. 2, 9). He spends nearly a third of his exhortations and instruction in this chapter on how Christians should love their enemies and refuse to take vengeance in the context of loving mutuality: “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep… never be conceited… take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (vv. 16, 17).
I take comfort and strength from my favorite apostle’s wise, searing, and tender realism as he instructs the Romans. I have only been living in Durham House for a little over a month, and can already count multiple small and large tensions that have arisen as we moved through life together to function harmoniously in our collective responsibilities. There are multiple personalities, proclivities, worldviews, individual histories, and even traumas that are now encountering one another in both intern houses, and a singular life in such proximity will inevitably reveal what is hidden. Yet it is through these small social struggles that I disrobe from the protective garments of romanticism and cynicism, and undertake a more authentic work to discover what another person is truly like—-and what I, too, am like in turn. Such encounter and discovery assumes difficulty and tension. It may not feel meaningful in the moment, but it has the more enduring advantage of being truthful, and truth gives way to peace of mind, which gives way to joy, which will ultimately produce the meaningfulness that is so often sought in community life.
I take comfort and strength from the apostle’s exhortations because he has already identified the errors of romanticism and cynicism in community life. He does not pretend that Christian community is primarily an ideal; it is a life that demands mutuality and struggle, and the situation that exists in a Christian’s social body is the one that must be lived, not the ideal social situation of a mind. Nor does St Paul pretend that community is a futile attempt to resist a Hobbesian state of nature; no, Paul roots Christian community in the risen Body of Christ, who is more natural than nature itself as the first fruits of a promised new creation (I Cor 15.20–23; II Cor 5.17). In both of these implicit refutations of romanticization and cynicism, I take comfort in how avoiding these errors will empower me to live the life I want to live with Durham House and Johnson Service Corps this year: a life of “genuine love” that loves with “the affection of kinship” (Rom 12.9, 10). This is none other than a transformation by the renewal of the mind.