By John Taylor
All over the world people are leaving villages. It is one of the great migrations of history. They leave to find jobs. They leave to escape poverty and toil. They hope to find all the dreams promoted and sold by Western culture. A world of indolence peopled by creature comforts where comfort is confused with happiness and consuming becomes a surrogate for life. But most times the dream becomes a nightmare. Home becomes a tin shed behind a market stall. An escape from toil becomes permanent unemployment. In extreme, but not uncommon cases, having any place to sleep at all becomes a comfort.
If you have ever been to a third world village you can’t help but ask: Why do so many people want to leave? Or is this just the romantic in me? They don’t have running water, or plumbing of any sort let alone indoor. They often have no electricity and people cook over fires that produce carcinogens that will take years off their lives. Those lives may be anything up to 20 to 30 years shorter than those we expect in the West. In a village I have long been a very old man. Yet every time I visit a village, or pre-industrial parts of a third world city, I get a profound sense that they have something that we in the West with our relentless pursuit of affluence, comfort and longevity have, hopefully not irretrievably, lost.
What is it? Honest toil? Simplicity? Wonder? Being connected to nature? Knowing everyone’s business? Washing in the street? Being mystified? Naivety? Innocence?
None of these completely but in some sense all of them. For want of a better word I’ll call it community.
My theme in this article is that in the Western world the church is the village we never had. We are leaving it too and in the process we are losing something precious. I am even prepared to go so far as to say that if the world is to survive we must preserve, value and promote the church as village.
Origins Of The Community of Christ Village
The central ideas of the Book of Mormon formed the background to the call to the early Mormon church to ‘bring forth and establish the cause of Zion’. The notion that the New Jerusalem would be built on American soil and that its building depended on the gathering of the elect became the real impetus for being of the early Mormon church. The call was to repent, to gather to the place where Christ would return. Joseph Smith’s was a millennialism of place rather than of time and this was important. It not only meant that the risk of the prediction being proved to be false was greatly reduced it also meant that the Parousia could be made dependent on development of a city righteous enough for Christ to return to. Thus, began Mormonism’s ongoing concern for building community.
What community there was, of course, was always somewhat naïve and never ideal; always in the process of becoming rather than being. It was always exclusive in the sense that its unifying component was adherence to the restored gospel. At the same time, it was universal in that membership of the community was open to all who would believe. It was both worldly and otherworldly; spiritual and temporal. It prepared for an event which would transcend history by engaging in such incidents of history as land development, militias, factories, hotels, politics and empire building. Zion was a whole of life commitment and the Zionic community touched and was fundamental to every aspect of your life.
The parting of the ways at the death of Joseph Smith was both physical and conceptual. Those who went to Utah wanted to go outside the boundaries of the United States and established, for a time, what they saw as the separate State of Deseret. Those who stayed in the mid-west, particularly those who went on to form the ‘new organization’, rather than seeking to be a separate nation sought to be a nation within a nation. They were a collection of small branches seeking to be, in Alma Blair’s words, legitimate to Mormons and reasonable to Gentiles. They largely turned inwards, and in the process, culturally discovered community.
The Community of Christ Village Today
When I look back on it the church community that I grew up in was like a village within cosmopolitan life. The village I never knew I had. Over the years I have attended Community of Christ congregations in many countries: in Australia; in Leicester in the UK; in Wales; in Springer in Germany; in Gumi Guda in India; in Tahiti; in London Ontario; in Boston; in Chengdu in China; in Vancouver; and in Washington DC. Apart from being small in most cases in some respects they have not had much in common. There were differences between them in terms of buildings (or lack of them), wealth, social class, race, interests, and tastes (the best food was in Chengdu). Yet, despite these differences I have always managed to feel at home in a Community of Christ congregation and there is some intangible commonality that they share. I think they are unified by the receipt of the grace of God. You do sense in
each person the liberating and empowering effects of the assurance that God loves them. The grace of God can never be a commodity and when we are conscious of the grace of God we are liberated from fear, anxiety and piety.
The Church as Village and the survival of the world
Is it too big a claim to say that if the world is to survive we must preserve, value and promote the church as village. Is a community unified only by the assurance that God loves everyone infinitely really the answer to all the world’s problems?
At the end of Joseph Heller’s God Knows King David, is dying of what is thought to be Gullain-Barre syndrome. He is ministered to in his suffering by the beautiful young Abishag the Sunnamite. King David used to talk to God but the conversation stopped after the death of his son Absalom. The last line of the book is, ‘I want my God back and they send me a girl.’
For me this quote sums up the core problem confronting human being since the inception of the modern world project in the 18th century. As a culture we have seen the good life as one of affluence, comfort, security and longevity. We have come to view history as repeating and intensifying cycles with a degree of inevitability about them and absent goals other than continued economic growth. It has been a materialist view of the world seen as an assembly of parts where everything is ultimately explicable. God is not seen as part of the explanation. As a culture we have stopped talking to God. We have commodified life and traded comfort, possessions and status for meaning, purpose and relationships. Yet underneath it all, aren’t these the things that we yearn for.
Increasingly crises – economic cycles, ecological devastation and climate change, racist and sectarian terror and violence, and the threat of a nuclear disaster - call into question our culture’s confidence in material, technological, growth orientated solutions as the path to happiness and security.
I do believe that preserving, valuing and promoting an outward looking community conscious of the infinite love of God for all would be such an alternate vision to the accepted wisdom of the modern world project as to be truly transformative.
John Taylor is the current Pastor of the Drummoyne Congregation in Sydney and is a Professor in the School of Taxation and Business Law at UNSW Sydney. His interests include history, scriptural criticism and promoting community.