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    Mosaic detail from The Great Catch

    Not Optional

    Randall Gauger on the Benedict Option

    By Randall Gauger

    July 14, 2017
    • SteveNunda

      Find out what you need to improve in yourself to become more effective!

    • Kevin Cushing

      It doesn't seem like there's much like the Bruderhof where I live- an upper middle-class suburb of San Francisco called Marin County which prides itself on being "progressive"- caring more about the environment than the poor- and accepting of Eastern mysticism which doesn't have much of an ethical or doctrinal content. It is a society steeped in denial, illusion, and small-mindedness.

    It is encouraging that many people are joining this important conversation about how we as Christians can more faithfully follow Jesus. At the same time, it seems that the most frequent reaction to Rod Dreher’s ideas – a yowl of protest about “withdrawal” in favor of “engagement” – misses the main point he is making and is the reverse of my own experience about living out my faith.

    So my first point is this: building a communal church along the lines Rod suggests allows Christians to engage more, and more meaningfully, with our fellow human beings. Assimilation to the ways of the world is as dangerous as Jesus warns us – Dreher is right in pointing to this. But the ­stronger the center, the more daring the outreach can be.

    My own life is an illustration of this. For the past thirty years, my wife, Linda, and I have been members of the Bruderhof, a Christian communal church in the Anabaptist tradition that is almost one hundred years old, in which we share all things in common in the spirit of the first church in Jerusalem. I believe that we have been able to engage both more deeply and more broadly with society than if we had remained as a private family.

    Linda and I are both farm kids from the Midwest who grew up in what would be called dysfunctional homes. Our families were nominally Christian: Lutheran in my case and Catholic in Linda’s. But faith in Jesus meant nothing to us – by our mid-twenties we were on the road to conventional middle-class life: we had a house, two kids, two cars, and two TVs. But we were unhappy. Something was missing.

    Through a Bible study we came to faith in Jesus. Later, as we read in the Book of Acts, we were struck by the witness of the early church. The realization that they shared everything, sold their possessions, and ate and worshipped together came as a shock to us. The Book of Acts tells that this was the result of a movement of repentance and the coming of the Holy Spirit. This excited us and drove us to seek a life of community. So we started living in community with a few other families. This lasted for about five challenging and exciting years as we continued searching.

    The stronger the church’s center, the more daring its outreach can be.

    Then we ran across the writings of Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof. His depth of understanding of living for Jesus and the kingdom answered many of our questions. In his book Why We Live in Community he writes: “Community life for us is an inescapable must.… We must live in community because we are compelled by the same Spirit that has led to community time and time again since the days of biblical prophecy and early Christianity.” Those words thrill me today as much as thirty years ago when I first read them. So we came to the Bruderhof in 1987.

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    Our life since then has been one of intense engagement with every imaginable segment of society. I’ll describe some of this, not to sing the praises of the Bruderhof – we have plenty of weaknesses – but to show what community life makes possible.

    Actually, for the past seventeen years, Linda and I lived at a Bruderhof community in rural Australia – the ultimate “withdrawal,” you might think. But it wasn’t.

    In the first place, there was simple neighborly contact with the locals: barbecues, Christmas carol sings, invitations to each other’s homes and churches. Community members also pitched in with babysitting, home care for elderly shut-ins, and home repairs. This extended to my work as a police chaplain with the New South Wales police force. Other community members serve on local fire brigades and with emergency medical services.

    As part of stewardship of the earth, we collaborated with local farmers in sustainable agriculture techniques, which have already made a measurable difference to our area.

    Our community also partners with local charities as well as organizations like World Vision and Save the Children – we support them financially and our young people volunteer in crisis situations.

    We hosted thousands of guests from all over Southeast Asia – everyone from itinerant hipsters to federal politicians to the local Aboriginal community, leading to an unforgettable moment when one of their elders blessed the site of a house that we built last year.

    Linda and I visited other church communities all over Australia and in Thailand and South Korea.

    Would we have done as much as a solitary nuclear family? I doubt it. There certainly are individuals who achieve this level of connect­ivity just by force of personality. But this brings me to my second point. Society, and especially Christian society, needs to create space for the weak and broken as well as those with extra­ordinary talents.

    Only in a communal church can the old and the very young, hurting military veterans, the disabled, the mentally ill, ex-addicts, ex-felons, or the simply annoying find a place where they can be healed and, what’s more, contribute. I share a common meal every day with brothers and sisters that answer to each of these descriptions. Those who preach “engagement” often fail to think how we as Christians can actually bear each other’s burdens – whether economic, medical, or emotional – outside of strong communities. Where is the love in “engaging” the world if we don’t have time for an emotionally fragile neighbor? Pope Francis gets something right in speaking of the church as a “field hospital.”

    And on to my third point: building strong communal churches actually isn’t an “option” – it’s our calling as disciples. My constructive criticism of Dreher, actually, is that he isn’t taking his own proposal seriously enough.

    My constructive criticism of Dreher is that he isn’t taking his own proposal seriously enough.

    The Rule of Saint Benedict is a wonderful, wise, and important document. But why stop at Benedict when you can go back to the original source of Christianity? Christians living in full community is how the church began. It’s the only way I know where Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount become a practical reality. And the early church was far more radical than anything Dreher has so far proposed. The early Christians turned the world upside down, sharing all things in common (actually, Saint Benedict has some strong words to say against private property!); evangelizing the whole known world; refusing to participate in violence of any kind, including self-defense, military service, abortion, or the death penalty; modeling a new ethic of sexuality and family life that honored the equal dignity before God of both men and women; and revolutionizing Greco-Roman society. Nobody can accuse the early Christians of withdrawal!

    This is not a life for the faint-hearted. It requires an all-or-nothing, full-time, lifetime commitment – what T. S. Eliot called “the condition of complete simplicity / costing not less than everything.” It won’t be enough to apply a few aspects of The Rule of Saint Benedict that happen to dovetail pleasingly with a private, middle-class American lifestyle. How many of us are like the rich young man who couldn’t accept Jesus’ invitation because he wasn’t able to part with his possessions? Yet the early church did not come into existence by means of moral efforts or legalistic rules, but because of the joy of following Jesus.

    Linda and I would live in church community whether society were going to pieces or not. The life I live is a calling from Jesus and the best way I have found to follow him. And this way is not just for a few traditional Christians, or the most radical among us – it’s actually the good news and the new life that Jesus wants for all people. As Rod puts it in the conclusion of his book, fittingly titled “The Benedict Decision:” “We find others like us and build communities, schools for the service of the Lord. We do this not to save the world but for no other reason than that we love him and know that we need a community and an ordered way of life to serve him fully.”

    Images on this page: The Great Catch Mosaic (detail) © 2001 John August Swanson / Eyekons. Courtesy of Concordia University Irvine

    Mosaic detail from The Great Catch
    Contributed By RandallGauger Randall Gauger

    Randall Gauger is a pastor in the Bruderhof communities in the United States. He and his wife, Linda, live at the Fox Hill community in New York.

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