Community is a word we throw around in church circles – a buzz word that conjures up images of people talking and laughing together over a meal. In the 25 years I’ve been a follower of Jesus, however, I have found community to be fraught with disappointment and heartache.
Something my pastor said in his message yesterday helped me understand more clearly why that is. He said, “Church is a community of enemies learning to love one another.” He was preaching from Matthew 5:43-48.
Thinking of ourselves as natural enemies helped me frame the tumultuous post-election events of this past week better – the anger and grief, the offense taken at the anger and grief, the offense taken at the offense, the offense taken at lack of offense, public disavowals, and on and on. It’s not that we became enemies last week; it’s that we are enemies by nature, divided along lines of gender, tribe, multi-generational history, personal experience, even Myers-Briggs personality types. Enmity is where we begin, even though we’re really proficient at covering it up week after week by worshiping next to each other, serving together, teaching Sunday school to each other’s kids, and even partaking of the sacraments together.
It was actually a relief to realize that Jesus assumed we would not only have enemies, but that we would be each other’s enemies.
Most churchgoers in America attend homogenous churches that function more like affinity groups than as earthly reflections of what the new heaven and earth – filled with people of all tongues, tribes, and nations – will look like. However, even among us who attend multiethnic churches, we have largely participated in superficial community, satisfied that our outward cordiality and joint spiritual exercises represent kingdom love and unity. The election showed us that they don’t.
Like a violent earthquake, it opened up and exposed the deep fault lines beneath the surface. As it did so, the edifices of cordiality and superficial community we had built on top of them crumbled into the abyss.
The things that fell into the abyss belong there. Now, as we stare at one another across the naked chasm, this is where we begin to learn what it means to love our enemies. It starts by seeing exactly who they are, and letting them see exactly who we are. No more pretense.
My church is a small, multiethnic, and multicultural community. It’s my dream church in a lot of ways as both a sensory-sensitive introvert and a bicultural person. Yesterday, it became a space where nice, unruffled people who voted for Trump came together and sang praise songs in the vicinity of terrified and stressed out middle- and high-schoolers of undocumented immigrants with no voting rights. Enemies. Learning how to love one another in Jesus’ name.
When people like that face each other, when a relatively powerless child looks at a grown man and embodies the message, “You have power and I have none, but you used your power in a way that hurt me,” what does kingdom love look like?
Enemy lines have been drawn in debates about immigration, but when undocumented immigrants are part of your community, they cease being abstract concepts. They have names, stories, personalities, and bodies. And you encounter Jesus in them. A few weeks ago, one of the boys in our youth group (I’ll call him Jaime) asked the congregation to pray for a recently immigrated East Indian classmate (I’ll call him Adil) who was being bullied at their middle school. When Jaime found out Adil’s parents were withdrawing him, he – the son of working class undocumented immigrants – bought a card, gathered signatures and notes of encouragement on it, and presented it to Adil – the bullied child of documented immigrants. Jaime told us that Adil cried. Hell, I cried.
Community is not the peaceful thing we form after we have overcome our enmity. It is the place where our enmity is painstakingly transformed under the lordship of Jesus Christ. If we think of it the first way (as the peaceful thing we form after we have overcome our enmity), then any time our divisions flare up or are exposed, we’ll think someone is trying to break something that’s working fine. We’ll be tempted to sanitize and homogenize the community through theological manipulation rather than look to God to sanctify it. If we do that, then the things that create power struggles within our communities, like cultural, tribal, socioeconomic, and gender dominance or marginalization, will never be properly addressed. Let’s not do that anymore. Let’s learn how to love our enemies.