"Community is about caring for each other, not competing against, or comparing with, each other!" I heard an earnest young man make this uncompromising statement in a sermon he preached on Sunday. It had the ring of authenticity about it, because the young man demonstrates his belief about community by his behaviour in community.
The worshipper sitting next to me became intrigued by the etymology of the word community, and understood its significance when I explained it was a derivative of “common”. It corresponded with what we were hearing from the young preacher: the focus is on what draws us together, not that which drives us apart. It’s about togetherness.
But, togetherness does not appear to be “in vogue” – isolationism is; where seclusion and separateness are not only advocated, they are applauded. An approach where “us and ours” is held up against “them and theirs” is increasingly popular – winning elections and gaining support. These are presented as competing concepts – as if they cannot be considered together without, somehow, seriously inflicting damage on each other. That is a disturbing phenomenon because, on the surface, it sounds so reasonable: “We must come first!”… “We are great!”… “We must look after ourselves because no one else will!”… And when nations, societies, communities, or neighbourhoods see others of the same ilk as rivals, it engenders an attitude of isolationism. And because of the rhetoric, it seems the right thing to do, it seems reasonable.
The fundamental problem with isolationism is that it is as impossibly unattainable in reality, as it seems reasonably implementable in soundbites. Dostoyevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, makes the telling observation: “The world says: ‘You have needs - satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don't hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide; for the poor, envy and murder.” Isolationism has a negative effect on those around me, and, inevitably, that negativity will affect me. The negative impact will be greater, precisely because I have isolated myself.
This spirit of isolationism – of “us and ours against the world” – is evident in the way refugees are viewed and dealt with. The reluctance to address the crisis by government, and the strong antipathy of many citizens, are often reflected in a “not-our-problem” argument for not getting involved. The government had to be pressured into accepting unaccompanied refugee children into the country, and thus, in May 2016 Parliament committed itself to an ongoing programme of resettlement for lone children. The decision was met with mixed reactions – whereas some rejoiced at the UK living out its values - that we should not have borders in matters such as these - many others expressed concerns about our capacity to handle more people coming into the country, apparently unconcerned about the capacities of other countries weighed down with the burden of the refugee crisis. “Us and them” at its worst.
Fewer than 400 of the many hundreds of children stranded in Calais, gained entry into the country, before the shocking announcement to suspend the programme was made in a written ministerial statement. Many have made the moral argument that the UK needs to live out its values. If we believe children should be protected and safeguarded, it should be applied to all children, and especially where we ourselves can do something to ensure such safety. I endorse those sentiments – the UK should not be ignoring the plight of so many refugees as we have been doing, let alone abandoning those refugee children. I join them – fellow Church leaders, politicians, activists, ordinary citizens - in asking the Government to change its decision.
But, also, I want to appeal to those of faith who remain ambivalent about our responsibility to these refugee children, who continue to make the “us and them” argument. The reasons can be attributed to an earnest consideration of community – our community - the need to protect our community from being overstretched. But what kind of community have we become if we ignore those in desperate need in order to avoid having to share?
Jesus made it clear that isolationism is not an option for the Christian: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, The Voice). In his story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus defines a neighbour as anyone who is in need, rather than being confined to someone who belongs to one’s own community. True community knows no boundaries when there is need.
“Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” What would our church community look like if we truly lived out the values embedded in Jesus’ challenge? One of our corps (church congregation) leaders, Naomi Clifton, describes true community in the context of welcoming refugees:
“Our church has always welcomed a diverse congregation and we have developed strong community ties over the years. As we've witnessed the worsening refugee crisis around the world, I've become more and more aware that this isn’t a faceless crisis happening to ‘other’ people in ‘other’ countries. Friends, colleagues, fellow Salvationists and church members have shared stories of their own journeys to the UK or stories from their parents’ journeys as refugees. We even have Syrian nationals within our congregation who have displaced relatives, lost in Europe, trying to escape the civil war that has already killed six members of their family. These are all people who enrich our church and our community, and they serve their church and community with passion because of the welcome they received here in the UK.”
That young preacher was spot-on on Sunday: “Community is about caring, not competing, or comparing!” That would include caring for people who are refugees.
late 14c., from Old French comunité "community, commonness, everybody" (Modern French communauté), from Latin communitatem (nominative communitas) "community, society, fellowship, friendly intercourse; courtesy, condescension, affability," from communis "common, public, general, shared by all or many" (see common (adj.)). Latin communitatem "was merely a noun of quality ... meaning 'fellowship, community of relations or feelings,' but in med.L. it was, like universitas, used concretely in the sense of 'a body of fellows or fellow-townsmen' " [OED].
An Old English word for "community" was gemænscipe "community, fellowship, union, common ownership," from mæne "common, public, general," probably composed from the same PIE roots as communis. Community service as a criminal sentence is recorded from 1972, American English (The Online Etymology Dictionary http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=community)