I recall the period after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Americans of every stripe came together in grief and determination. It was encouraging to experience this rare occurrence of togetherness and solidarity.
(People around the world felt solidarity with us, too. A couple we briefly met in Ireland a few weeks before 9/11 called my wife and me from Cork to express it. They said that all the pubs in Ireland were shutting down the following day to show solidarity. Imagine!)
And each time a gunman has opened fire, killing and maiming people, the residents of the communities where it hapens – like those in communities where natural disasters have occurred – experience what it means to be community. And this in America that is said to exult in its individualism.
People searching for God should know that community is at the heart of many religions, including Judeo-Christianity, and it’s not dependent on tragedy. Indeed, the Hebrew Bible would be even more inscrutable without recognizing that more than individuals, it’s about the relationship between God and the Jewish people.
This is especially evident in the writing of prophets like Jeremiah, who often have God lamenting the faithlessness of his people, living and dead and by extension, all of humanity.
“What fault did your ancestors find in me,” Jeremiah has God asking the Israelites, “that they withdrew from me? (They) went after emptiness and became empty themselves.”
The Christian Bible also is principally about God and the Christian community, not just “Jesus and me.” This is most evident in the letters of Paul, the apostle said to be most influential in the character and development of the ancient church. He wrote to the communities he visited, and some he hadn’t, encouraging them to be conscious of their membership in a community of Christians.
“Bear one another’s burdens,” he writes to Christians in Galatia, “and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
The Acts of the Apostles describes the lengths to which early Christians went to establish this sense of community.
“Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. …There was not a needy person among them….”
Churches and synagogues today struggle to help people feel a sense of community. Though the liturgical prayers may be communal, they’re mostly lost on us. We’re caught up in our individual problems and worries about them. We have little trust in others. We’re careful about befriending people.
It’s hard for a believer to disagree with Jeremiah that our selfishness, bitterness, anger and violence may be related to our estrangement from God.
No Need for a Disaster
Still, many people – believers or not – continue to show that they don’t need a disaster to share a sense of community. My own church community has for years showed its solidarity with others by preparing and serving a monthly meal to the homeless, providing thousands of dollars in scholarships to youth in one community of El Salvador and visiting them regularly.
Countless churches do something similar, and civic organizations that have nothing to do with religion do so as well. Most people, I believe, care about others, and that’s an essential start to a sense of community.
And even though we may not be tuned in to what’s actually happening at religious services, they are also mostly about “us,” not “me.” In the Catholic Mass, for instance, I think of the evil, selfishness, greed, and environmental destruction we’re all involved in when it comes to this prayer before communion:
“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”