As I noted last week, I’m reflecting on a recent series of church conversations about beloved community. In one conversation, we noted how America remains a stubbornly individualistic society, while our faith tradition shows us the great value in maintaining common interests, mutuality, and collective support.
I’m not talking about communism here; that social system thrived on hierarchy and oppression while pretending to be mutual. Instead, I’m hearkening back to some of the values explicitly stated in the early church (Acts 2:44–46):
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”
The good news is that, even here in America, small groups of Christians still seek to live like this. I’ve mentioned The Simple Way in the past as one example. The challenge, however, is that people seeking to live in community encounter a lot of obstacles to such mutuality because the rules and regulations of American society are built around the assumption of individual family units. Take, for example, the issue of housing.
Once upon a time, unrelated people crowded into tenement buildings in America’s large cities, without any restrictions. New York City’s tenements are perhaps the most well-known (there’s even a Tenement Museum now, that focuses its energy on the immigrant story). Over time, rising awareness of the appalling social conditions led to waves of regulation and reform—culminating, to my mind, in today’s gated communities which prevent the “riff raff” from coming anywhere near the homes of the wealthy.
During this process, the “nuclear family” became the norm, the standard. By the 1950s, the stereotypical goal was the suburban single-family dwelling, housing a married couple (one man, one woman), 2.5 kids, and a dog or cat. In cities, different generations of a family might inhabit different levels of a single house, but they still needed to be related by blood or marriage.
A side note: Think for a moment about how different this is from another standard that’s getting a lot of airplay these days: Downton Abbey. In aristocratic British tradition, everyone upstairs was related by blood or marriage. Everyone downstairs, however, was not. To serve the needs of the rich, the poor could be housed together without regard to family groupings. In fact, when female servants got married, they were expected to quit a life of service—which meant that if a male servant got married, he’d have to quit too, since the family couldn’t be expected to house a non-working spouse. What a tangled web!
But back to America today. As a result of this assumption that a single family is the standard, mutual living situations are difficult to create. Zoning laws and planned communities often have detailed rules about keeping homes from being shared by non-related people. A full quarter of the US population now lives in planned communities with extensive “CCRs” (covenants, conditions, and restrictions) which prevent non-nuclear family living arrangements.
As a member of our table group expressed it at church, “society militates against mutuality.” This is true not just of living situations. Sharing our abundance with others is frowned upon—unless we do it through the socially acceptable form of donations to charity. While our single-family homes present the image of perfection (or we’ll be fined by that planned community), we don’t know how our neighbors are really doing inside those homes. We are isolated and siloed, with only streamed shows and social media to give us titillating glimpses into the staged realities of others’ lives.
So how do we create Christian community? We must begin by rejecting society’s limiting norms, and the church is one place where that can happen. When zoning was first created in the 1930s, churches were exempt from zoning laws. For example, our small group of five unrelated Beloved in the Desert work interns can live in a church building without a problem. Unfortunately, this is beginning to change, as churches become multi-ministry magnets with more vehicular traffic and weekday activities.
We also create community by becoming that multi-ministry magnet. Mutuality is built when we gather to share, support, and encourage each other. In next week’s post, I’ll share some ways that mutuality can blossom within the church, even when we dwell in different homes.
What assumptions do you have about housing in your neighborhood? How can you open your mind and heart beyond a single-family perspective?