Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In our Lenten services and readings we are going to be hearing about community—how we are called not only to be in communion with God, but to live in community with each other and with all of creation.
When I was in graduate school I took a course on political theory. I remember studying two opposing schools of thought. One, called communitarianism, held that the well-being of a community should be a higher priority than the individuals who make it up. To keep the community well and thriving, sometimes individual rights had to be secondary. The opposing school of thought was called liberalism. It held that individual rights were so important, they even trumped the rights of the community. Individual liberties and freedoms should not be compromised even if those rights adversely affect the community as a whole.
When I was studying these topics thirty years ago, the arguments seemed esoteric, purely academic. There were variations on both schools of thought and many attempts to create a kind of hybrid where both individual rights and the community would benefit and thrive. But now we have come face to face with these opposing ideologies. We have groups of people who believe that the restrictions brought about by the pandemic have infringed their individual rights. And we have people who say that some of these rights must be set aside as we protect the health of the larger community. I wonder what my professors would say about this real-life dilemma between these two opposing schools of thought.
My purpose here is not to pick a side. I do think God has something to say on the matter. The message of love your neighbor as yourself is that we are responsible for each other. If we love our neighbor, how do we not show concern for his or her welfare?
In modern society—and especially in this pandemic—there is so much that increases our solitude and decreases our opportunities to be in community and in relationship with each other. When we are in relationship with each other, it doesn’t matter what our political beliefs are, our race, or religion. In relationship we begin to see each other as companions, as friends and fellow travelers on this journey we are all on together.
I don’t want to romanticize this. It is not easy and it is certainly messy to be in relationship, to live in community. I have a sister who has been incarcerated multiple times due to drug addiction. She also lives with mental illness. I used to think I didn’t have to be in relationship with her as an adult because of poor choices she had made. It’s still easy for me to think that. But in my own life, I faced being rejected and shut out by people I loved. And it occurred to me that the only thing I could do was an act of my own to try to counter that, to stand in opposition to rejection. So I started to visit my sister in prison. It wasn’t comfortable. I hadn’t seen her for quite a few years, and visiting prison isn’t pleasurable. But as often happens when we open ourselves to where God is calling, we are the ones transformed. My renewed relationship with my sister has enriched my life. It’s helped me to repair other relationships. It’s reminded me that God’s plan for heaven on earth is one of relationship and community. Not isolation and estrangement.
Rights are important in a democracy. They are foundational. But so is community. My grandparents immigrated from Germany early in the last century. They came to America for the opportunity to own land, to have more options for their future than what inheritance laws and their economic class afforded them in Germany. They moved gradually West until they arrived in Idaho just as the United States entered WWI. Both my grandfather and grandmother were required to register as enemy aliens. They learned that rights could be ephemeral. But the tiny community of farmers—most of them Lutheran—in which they lived helped them and sustained them as newcomers to this country. Twenty years later, when my grandfather developed sepsis, it was these same neighbors who rushed him on a horse-drawn sled through a snowstorm to get to the hospital. They were the pallbearers who carried his casket at his funeral. They offered help of all kinds to his widow and children, one of whom was my teenage father. Their community insisted on being responsible for them. Community saved them.
In this season of Lent, may we reflect on how God is calling us to be in community, not just with the people who make us feel comfortable, but the ones who make us feel uncomfortable, too. May we reflect on how God is calling us to be responsible for one another.