on Puritans and Indians and sharing life together

This entry was posted by on Tuesday, 21 August, 2012 at

Well I don’t have anything mind-blowing to write about, but I’m determined to get back on the blogging train so here’s what I’ve been thinking about the last few days…

We’ve been watching the HBO mini-series about the life of the second American president, John Adams. That has got me all in a historical frame of mind so I dug out the one-volume American history I’ve started several times before, and I’m determined to get past the War of Independence this time.

One recurring theme has particularly provoked me to ponder. When the first Puritans came to New England, they were determined to create a new kind of society that would be a City on a Hill for the rest of the world. With that bold vision in mind, they wanted to arrange the new settlements in such a way that community life revolved around a small town with the church at its heart. But they were frustrated in their hopes by the eagerness of the settlers to move out into the countryside, driven not by a love of rolling hills and fresh air, but by a lust for more land, an obsession with private property and a dream of their own individual paradise.

This theme comes up again in the deeply depressing chapter about the clash between the settlers and the native American people who had lived on the land for generations. What struck me was that the European settlers were simply incapable of understanding the world-view of the “Indians,” who saw life in communitarian terms and had almost no room for the notion of private property (which made it too easy for the late arrivals to claim for themselves what no-one had ever thought of claiming as a personal possession). This is not to romanticise the native Americans, who also had their violent side, but I find it sad that the zealously “Christian” settlers were unable to understand a way of thinking that was about community and not individualism, about sharing the land and its resources rather than dividing it up into portions of private property.

It got me thinking about the New Testament claim that God in Christ is creating a new kind of society, a new humanity. And in the glimpses we get of the early church in Acts, this new humanity found expression in local communities who shared life together, eating in each other’s homes with glad and sincere hearts, and sharing their possessions so that there was no needy person among them.

So this is what I’m currently pondering. If our churches are simply like clubs for people who believe a lot of the same things, they will fit in very comfortably with the individualism and materialism of our culture. There’s nothing radical about individuals coming together, leaving their private paradises for a little while each week to get together and share some common interests, and then retreating to our castles and pulling up the draw-bridge.

But to the extent that we take seriously the idea that the cross of Christ and the Spirit of God are creating a new kind of society, we will start to share life together  in ways that our culture cannot understand. And that will include a radically different view of possessions and property. We will be as exotic and strange (and threatening?) to our neighbours as the Indian tribes were to the Pilgrims.

That’s really as far as I’ve got, but I’m interested in your thoughts on what this strange alternative community looks like in our time and place. How do we share life together in a way that confounds and confuses our neighbours?

7 Responses to “on Puritans and Indians and sharing life together”

  1. Wendy


    thanks for the welcome distraction from my dissertation, though your reflections are not entirely unrelated to my ramblings.

    I was just reflecting on Ernesto Cardenal and Thomas Merton’s ‘American’ relationship, particularly Merton’s guidance to Cardenal on setting up an ‘alternative’ community in Solentiname. A lay monastery, a utopia, until the Nicuraguan government bombed it in 1977.

    Anyway, it got me thinking, as you would say, when I read your post.

    Also because a few of us, in Glasgow, have been trying to work out exactly what your question asks, that is a bunch of us sharing houses, sharing cars, money (to varying degrees), meals, etc..very gradually, very slowly attempting to live out consistent christian community, with the need for a heap load of grace for each other. We have most certainly confounded our neighbours, who are suspicious that we are a cult. For some the gathered meal on Wednesday evening is as sacramental as the occasional breaking of bread on an occasional Sunday morning, we are working this all out together over more than a few bottles of whiskey. We are singles, couples, young families, longer term marrieds with teenagers, we have overseers who have us for dinner and occassionally call by and have a chat. We haven’t given up on gathered corporate worship in the local church, some of us are ministers, some of us are busy on Sundays, and some are dissatisfied by the suffocation of the local church and needed to breathe.

    Our values are community, faith, justice and the arts. we have bigger dreams than capacity and circumstance have yet allowed.

    And yes we are all comfortably middle class and no I am not advocating this as a model for everyone or for ‘the church.’

    It’s the challenge to individualism outside our church culture that I’m interested by, the individualistic identity that a market economy would have us adopt so we live in competition with each other and perpetuate a corrupt system of inequality. How about we all unite as community against the individuality that make land grabs a thing of the present as much as a thing of the past.

    Apologies for the unedited rant, now you have a mere inkling into the ramblings of my dissertation!

  2. Wendy

    Thanks for taking a break from your dissertation to share your thoughts! Especially since you’ve walked a lot further down the road of experimenting with new forms of community and shared life. I find your real-life example inspiring and challenging.

    Do you think whiskey is an essential element of the new monasticism?


  3. Wendy

    Now don’t you go categorising it as new monasticism,we’re not all agreed on that one. 😉

  4. jaybercrow

    Apologies. Consider my aggressive act of labelling retracted!

  5. Dave

    I think that the whole area of food and eating together is a big area that we have neglected. Like I think church halls should at least have a comfortable homely room that is good for eating in….the whole idea of the potluck lunch comes from native American culture (but I could be wrong)… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch

  6. Interesting JM. You might find ‘Sacred Economics’ by Charles Eisenstein an interesting read. Not necessarily coming from the Christian faith stable, but he writes about the gift economy, and the problems that exclusive property ownership created and how we need to re-orientate our economy

  7. jaybercrow

    Dave – I completely agree about the importance of eating together.

    Glenn – thanks for the recommendation. It sounds intriguing.

    Gathering my thoughts to preach a version of this post on Sunday morning…

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