The Meaning of Community

One of my favorite places on the campus of St. Paul’s United Theological College in Limuru, Kenya, was the Kamukunji. Members of the community gathered at this central location simply to talk. They talked about everything: politics, food, suffering, family, joy, faith, weather. One afternoon I wandered by and witnessed students engaged in a lively debate about “individuality” and “community.” As I joined the circle, one of the students proclaimed, “You Europeans (the term given to all of those from outside Africa) are such radical individualists. You have no idea what community means.” Of course, I defended my own culture, saying something to the effect, “Oh no, we have a strong sense of community where I come from.” Only when I returned to the United States did it strike me just how legitimate his critical observation had been. From individual commuters in their own cars to single-family homes, from our focus on individual rights to the range of individualized preferences at the grocery store, “rugged individualism” thrives.

The biblical witness offers a different vision of life – a life characterized by koinonia – dynamic community. One of the most striking features of early Christianity was the nature of its community. The way that the followers of Jesus actually lived day by day shaped their understanding of who they were, who they were called to be, and what they were called to do. Koinonia reflected the profound intimacy that Jesus shared with his followers and continues to share with them today through the power of the Spirit. What we do with Jesus establishes the parameters of Christian community. We die with, live with, suffer with, are glorified with, are buried with, and are raised with Christ. Jesus stands at the center of all genuine community. This sharing in and with Christ constitutes the vertical dimension of community.

For community to follow a biblical pattern it must also have a horizontal dimension. It is also constituted by the way the followers of Jesus share with one another and the world. Christians are linked together in partnership with Jesus in common witness to the love of God and service to the world. Community is not only a gracious fellowship with Christ, it also expresses the richness of the gifts received through the creative and redemptive activity of God in Christ. God’s grace and gifts unite the community of faith in a process of restoration. The glorious hope of the high calling into which all Christians are summoned is that in Christ all become one. Everyone is called; everyone is gifted for this purpose; God excludes no one from this privilege and this task. Everyone has the capacity to become an instrument through which God’s love flows for the purpose of reconciliation and healing.

Africans do have a much better perspective on community than many in the West – a conception of community much like this biblical vision. Those of us in the West have much to learn from our African brothers and sisters in this regard. It has frequently been said that whereas Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am,” the typical African would rather say, “I am because we are.” The African values interdependence through relationships above individualism and independence. Because of this focus on community, two practices characterize the African vision above all others: cooperation and hospitality.

In the African context, community demands the sharing and redistribution of resources. I will never forget one of the most critical dialogues within our compound community at St. Paul’s United Theological College in Kenya. Given the fact that all families within the compound needed wood for cooking and for heating, we had to talk together about how to distribute this limited resource equitably. We had to learn how to cooperate and to share. Concern for community precluded the possibility of individual hoarding; as in the earliest Christian community, all the resources of the family were distributed as any had need. Our African brothers and sisters expressed community through cooperation with one another.

Gracious hospitality also characterizes community among Africans. Members of the same family or clan exchange hospitality as a matter of course. But a wide embrace is also extended to outsiders. Africans practice hospitality primarily with food. One of the most wonderful experiences we shared with others in Africa was simply being welcomed into African homes. But no visit was complete without the sharing of food. No matter what the occasion, eating together consummated the experience of being together. The act of feeding and the gift of receiving food bonded us together in a deep expression of acceptance and love. My experience of African hospitality and the sense of community it engendered still informs my understanding of the Lord’s Supper.

We have much to learn from African Christians. They can teach us about the meaning of community, of koinonia in its biblical sense. Through their own witness, they offer us the gifts of hospitality and cooperation anew.

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