They Call It Paradise
- Written by Jody Vickery Jody Vickery
- Published: 10 March 2017 10 March 2017
In 1843, George Ripley established a community in Massachusetts called Brook Farm. His goal was to balance labor and leisure. Each member of the community got to choose whatever work they wanted to do, the thinking being that if you loved your work, you’d do it enthusiastically. Soon, though, they discovered that some of the work that absolutely had to be done had no one to love it.
So Ripley started forcing the younger members to do the dirty jobs. Since none of them were named Mike Rowe, they left. That, plus some financial problems and a small pox outbreak ended the experiment after four years.
Again in 1843 and in Massachusetts, Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott, set up the Fruitlands commune. The Fruitlanders were vegans before veganism was a thing. Not only did they refuse to eat, drink or wear any animal products, they wouldn’t even use animals to till the soil. Farming had to be done by hand. Since most of the men sat around philosophizing all day, the only two women in the outfit did most of the work. Fruitlands lasted just seven months, probably because folks got hungry.
New Harmony was established by Robert Owen in 1825. He bought a town in Indiana and invited idealistic people who, like him, believed that education and communal living would bring enlightenment and wealth. Things went great for a year or so. Then, hundreds of freeloaders heard about a place where people were smiling. They moved up but didn’t pitch in, and things fell apart.
These and a thousand more attempts to create paradise failed for a variety of reasons, but one cause seems to stand out like a nun at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert; they were all based on human effort. They assumed that if we do it right, we can create the perfect community.
Does that notion seem suspiciously familiar? Like, maybe, church? And it doesn’t matter what kind of church you’re from or in or thinking about joining. One of the most alluring seductions we face is to assume that our status as a community of believers rises or falls on our performance.
For some of us, church is all about ritual precision – doing the religious things right. For others, it’s about holding to sound doctrine – believing the right things. Maybe your church is all about justice, tolerance and inclusivity – neighboring correctly. If it’s in a suburban area, your church is probably trying, as much as your tradition will tolerate, to be like Andy Stanley’s North Point. If you’re in an urban setting, you may be attempting to be your denomination’s version of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian. (To be clear, I am not criticizing Stanley or Keller. I’m questioning our tendency to try to cut and paste what we think has worked for others.)
Regardless of the context, you and your church will eventually be tempted, if you haven’t already, to think that if you are going to (insert your preferred outcome here), it’s going to depend upon your performance. If you do things right, you will (grow, change your community, achieve justice, reach the lost, save the world, become the most loving and inclusive church in the universe, etc.).
And you’ll end up like the folks at Fruitland – frustrated and hungry.
The first eleven chapters of Romans may be summarized in this sentence: We are saved by what God did in Christ, not by what we do. Paul doesn’t bother to offer an imperative, a command, until he gets to chapter 12, and even then he begins this way: “In view of God’s mercy . . . .” Does our performance of God’s will matter? Of course it does. But in scripture, what we do is always, always, always a response to what God has already done.
Should we be a forgiving church? Yes. Why? Colossians 3:3 – Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Should we be a loving church? Yes. Why? Ephesians 5:1 – 2 – Be imitators of God . . . and live a life of love.
Should we be an evangelistic church? Yes. Why? 2 Corinthians 5:19 — God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
Scripture consistently teaches that we love because we have been loved. We forgive because we have been forgiven. We serve because we have been saved. We give because we have received. Any time, every time, we focus more on what we must do than what God has done, we are relying on human effort to accomplish a human objective. The scary thing is that we often succeed.
Successfully building a human paradise requires sacrifice and one of the first things we tend to lay on the altar is authentic community. Efficiency and excellence are worthy core values for any organization – even a church. But they can easily mutate from the way we do things to the idols we worship. And there is precious little room for sinners and their messy lives in the temple of excellence.
I know I’ve been on a Bonhoeffer kick lately, so if you get tired of me quoting him, let me know. But he knew something about people who build an atrocity and call it paradise. Here’s his take on why staying focused on what God has done rather than what we do matters:
“Without Christ we should not know God, we could not call upon Him, nor come to Him. But without Christ we also would not know our brothers and sisters, nor could we come to them. The way is blocked by our own ego. Christ opened up the way to God and to our brothers and sisters.”