What is a community? Consider these four newspaper reports:

“In the broadest sense, community involvement is how a company interacts with the communities in which it operates,” says Hannah Jones, Nike’s head of corporate responsibility. “For us, it’s the 800,000 workers in our supply chain.”
“… if the intelligence community is to be believed, the breeding grounds have spread ominously within our own boundaries.”
“The school community should take more interest in the behaviour of adults who are neither employees nor members of the school. If we find an adult taking drugs within the community we will ask them to leave.”
“…the British Army Rumour Service at arrse.co.uk, prides itself on being ‘The unofficial British Army community website’”.1

All four reports are taken from the British national press in the summer of 2007. In those three months newspapers used the word “community” more than three thousand times. In fact, the word was used so often that Lexis-Nexis, the newspaper database, is unable to give an accurate count, which is a shame, because there are a lot of communities out there; along with the business community, the intelligence community2, the school and army communities in the reports above, we also find mention of the “gay”, the “Muslim”, the “sporting” and even (surprisingly?) the “criminal community”. What can all these communities possibly signify?

As Rowan Williams has pointed out “communities, in spite of the sentimental way we sometimes think of them, don’t just happen. They need nurture, they need to be woven into unity”3. In order to think intelligently and unsentimentally about community, we need some help. We can find that help in the life and work of another German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich BonhoefferBorn to a prosperous upper-middle class family in Breslau in 1906, Bonhoeffer moved with his family to Berlin when his father, Karl Bonhoeffer became professor of Psychiatry and Nervous Diseases at the University of Berlin in 1912. An exceptionally bright boy, with gifts in sport and music, Bonhoeffer’s family at first assumed that he would follow his father into psychiatry. He surprised them, and himself, by wanting to become a theologian: the family were no more than “cultural Christians” and Bonhoeffer’s family experience of Christianity mostly came from the telling of exemplary tales from the Scriptures by his mother. Later on, this academic drive to theology drew him into a vocation as a Lutheran minister. Only much later, paradoxically, did he accept the need to become a Christian as well (the meaning of which we will explore in a later post).

  1. Sarah Murray, ‘Responsible neighbours invest in local causes’, Financial Times, 3 July 2007, p. 10; William Keegan, ‘Gordon has fought for sterling – but can he now defend the realm?’, The Observer, 17 June 2007, p. 8; Siân Griffiths, ‘Don’t blame us’, The Sunday Times, 22 July 2007, p. 12; Michael Evans, ‘Blogs and chat rooms out of bounds in MoD gag order on troops’, The Times, 10 August 2007, p. 2. []
  2. HIGGINS: It’d have to be somebody in the community. TURNER: Community? HIGGINS: Intelligence field. TURNER: [soft laugh] ‘Community!’ [then to Higgins] Jesus, you guys are kind to yourselves. ‘Community!’ (From Three Days of the Condor, written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr and David Rayfiel, directed by Sydney Pollack, Paramount Pictures, 1975). []
  3. Rowan Williams, ‘The Christian Priest Today’, a lecture give at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, 28 May 2004. Available online here. Accessed 25 January 2008. []