We live in an age that could be characterized as lacking in virtue. According to Merriam-Webster, virtue is defined as “conformity to a standard of right” or “a particular moral excellence.” All it takes is one look at the daily news of political corruption and inappropriate sexual conduct to recognize the lack of moral excellence taking place all around us.
But virtue can also be defined as “a beneficial quality or power of a thing.” For something to be virtuous, it must contribute to goodness, flourishing and moral excellence.
In his letter to the churches in Asia Minor, St. Peter encourages the followers of Christ to live a life that is characterized by virtue. “For this reason,” says the apostle, “make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Peter 1:5-7).
The characteristics that St. Peter encourages the early followers to cultivate in their life are clearly virtuous. What is important to note about this inspiring message is that it is being communicated to a community being transformed by the teachings of Jesus; a group of people learning how to do daily life together amidst great divides.
Jews and gentiles, women and men, rich and poor; this was a community of difference. The apostle recognized that the virtues and character required for the Christian life could only be brought about by the power of community.
I’ve had many dreams about what life would be like when lived intentionally within a community. I dreamed of harmonious relationships, a common vision for social justice, and a living room full of down-and-out friends and neighbours. Like many in my generation, I was inspired by the New Monastic movement pioneered by folks like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.
I dreamed of moving into a low-income neighbourhood and planting roots that would extend for decades. I would walk to work, waving at the kids next door and checking in with the elderly woman sitting on her porch across the street. In this dream, I am thriving; it would be my own little utopia and I would be so happy about it all.
Fast-forward 10 years, and all I have to say for myself is this: how naïve.
I don’t think my dreams are naïve because these things would never be true about my life; I do live in a low-income neighbourhood with a group of like-minded friends, and sometimes the kids do wave back at me on my way to work.
I think my dreams are naïve because they propose that the only role of community in my life is to change the people and places around me.
And was I ever wrong about that.
The reality is that living in community is uncomfortable. It forces us to confront parts of ourselves that we don’t like. It makes us question what we think and believe. And it asks us not only to learn to put up with people who may annoy us or hurt us, but also to love them and show them grace and kindness.
“We won’t have community until we develop people’s character,” says John Perkins, civil rights leader and founder of the Christian Community Development Association in his book Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community. “Character is formed in community, and community cannot be sustained without it.”
Perkins is proposing that the real power of community is its ability to shape character, to make a more virtuous way of living possible. Could it be that living in community is the most potent antidote to division in a society bent on building walls and creating echo chambers?
“The Kingdom is to be in the midst of your enemies,” said Martin Luther. “And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the Kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people.”
The Great Reformer speaks compellingly about the love of enemy, just as Jesus did. But the reality is this: living with your enemies is not easy, let alone loving them. The love of enemy is like a muscle that requires the lifting of weights to be strengthened; living in community is the workout.
The result of this endeavour is what we all should be after: the ability to not just tolerate those we do not like, but to truly love them. Some days, it seems that this is a value all but forgotten in today’s society.
I find solace and inspiration for my own life in the unintentional sort of community that is being created in downtown Hamilton, Ont., by Matt Thompson and Jeanette Eby. Belonging to a small Mennonite community called The Commons, Matt and Jeanette are skilled in the art of hospitality. They offer up their front lawn for community events, host potluck suppers on holidays, and allow artists to play shows in their living room to crowds of people they have never met.
In doing so, they have cultivated a virtuous life marked by goodness, perseverance and love. It is the kind of lifestyle that has the potential to awaken a new vision for life within those who witness it.
Could it be that this kind of lifestyle develops the sort of virtue that is required for us to love our enemy?
“We need a place where we learn to be together,” John Perkins goes on to say, “where we develop the skills and the patience that it will take to give one another grace.”
Learning to be together, developing patience, and growing in grace are the virtues so desperately needed in this world of division and moral upheaval. Living in community with others is the fertile soil; all that is needed is for us to plant ourselves in order for the seeds of virtue to grow into the blossoming tree of life that our neighbourhoods, cities and country are longing for.
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