The Impossibility of Christian Community

Last week, the Guardian reported on Bay View, a town in Michigan, that is being sued for excluding non-Christians from buying and owning property in its community. While such communities with an original goal of spiritual renewal are not uncommon in the United States, this one stands out because the asociation enforcing the rules is defending itself.

The exclusion rule is not entirely innocent, however. The Guardian reports that “The Christian exclusionary component was introduced in the 1940s. This was a time of heightened racial anxiety and antisemitism in the US…” And indeed: “[t]he Christian-only clause was introduced together with a white-only clause, which the association eliminated the following decade.” Thus, it is safe to say that the exclusion rule was not for the purpose of spiritual renewal—as it was for previous generations—but for the sake of keeping out the other—an unwanted other.

Christ Existing as Community

All things considered, Bay View is a contradictio in terminis: On the one hand, the act of only allowing practicing Christians is itself an act of non-practicing the Christian religion, which consequently bans all these practicing Christians from their own town. On the other hand, since inviting non-Christians is the most Christian thing practicing Christians can do, the non-invitation is a denial of the town’s inhabitant’s faith. Bay View therefore doesn’t exist. At least, not as a Christian community.

But Bay View points to a deeper problem, that of the impossibility of Christian community. What is Christian community? With Bonhoeffer I say such community is Christ existing as community. That is to say, in the life of the Christian community, something manifests and at the same transcends this community into something other than itself; it becomes a carrier of something beyond itself, namely Christ. This is not just (or rather precisely not) a religious phenomenon. Just as Christ was not a religious figure but the simple humble manifestation of the self-giving love of God, so the Christian community by nature of its identity, its raison d’être, is an enfleshed expression of that divine love. So much so that we speak of Christ existing as community.

And here is the problem: such community does not exist; never has, never will. Period! Bonhoeffer may have been spot on with his characterization of the Church as Christ existing in community, but Christ simply does not exist as community in this way. There is no Church that exemplifies such love toward outsiders or toward its own members.

Ideals

Part of the problem, it seems, is that I’m parading an ideal type. And whoever deals in ideal types will find that the world in its bare naked reality does not conform to it. Matter falls short of mind. Reality disappoints the ideal. According to the Biblical testimony Christ was the true manifestation of divine self-giving love and the Church can never attain to that form of self-giving love. It can, it seems, only testify to it as a sign, but not in an embodied form. Preaching is easier than praxis.

Yet, what doesn’t work in this analysis is that Christ is not an ideal type, some kind of divine form of which earthly love is a fallible manifestation. No, Christ, was a real person, not an idea. Christ has shown in molecular and organic form what selfless love looks like. And so the Church is not aspiring after an unattainable ideal type but is simply called to embody what has already been embodied in reality.

Contradiction

However, whenever we see Christian community in formation, the very first thing that happens, in a perfect Bay View style gesture, is a perfect denial of the Christian component of such community. Christian Community is always a contradictio terminis. The contradiction is in the terms: no human community can be Christian and nothing that is truly Christian has ever manifested in the form of community or it must be in the unilateral friendship Jesus felt for his friends.

What happens in Bay View, happens whenever and wherever one enters a church: outsiders are not truly welcome and if they are, it is to socialize them as soon as possible into the praxis of politics, nepotism, jealousy, self-protection, exclusion, conformity, and bakc-biting, in short, into the very denial of Christ.

These are harsh words, but, dear Christians, this is all of us! The Church is never a community set apart to show the world how it ought to be done. It can at best be a community that both mournfully and joyfully accepts its inability to be Christian. It knows itself to have been called to belong to the One whose identity and legacy it has devoted itself to betray.

Christian community is impossible. But there is grace. And sometimes Christ’s love unexpectedly shines through.

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

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