INTRODUCTION: Eberhard Arnold is best known as the founder of the Bruderhof community, an Anabaptist movement which began in Germany in 1920 as a response to the established church’s complicity with war. Opposed by the Nazi government, the Bruderhof was forced to move from Germany to Switzerland, and finally Lichtenstein, where Arnold died prematurely in 1935.
Here, Arnold lays out the theological rationale for a common life, which is rooted not in the optimism of socialism, but in the power of God to recreate a community out of fragmented society. Upon publication, Thomas Merton offered a response in which he links this vision together to the Apostle Paul’s writing in Ephesians 2, saying that “in this creation of community, therefore, community is based on ethic background…and it isn’t based on nationality or class. And this is where Christians fail so often today” (44, We Live in Community). The vision here is one in which both social atomism and collective action apart from spiritual renewal are vacant alternatives, in an Anabaptist echo of Augustine’s words about the difference between the City of God—the peace of God—and the City of Man, red in tooth and claw.
“Faith is Our Basis,” from We Live in Community, by Eberhard Arnold (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 1995)
God is the source of life. On him and through him our common life is built up and led time and again through cataclysmic struggles to final victory. It is an exceedingly dangerous way, a way of deep suffering. It is a way that leads straight into the struggle for existence and the reality of a life of work, into tall the difficulties created by the human character. And yet, just this is our deepest joy: to see clearly the eternal struggle—the indescribable tension between life and death, man’s position between heaven and hell—and still to believe in the overwhelming power of life, the power of love to overcome, and the triumph of truth, because we believe in God.
This faith is not a theory for us; neither is it a dogma, a system of ideas, or a fabric of words, nor a cult or an organization. Faith means receiving God himself—it means being overwhelmed by God. Faith is the strength that enables us to go this way. It helps us to find trust again and again when, from a human point of view, the foundations of trust have been destroyed. Faith gives us the vision to perceive what is essential and eternal. IT gives us eyes to see what cannot be seen, and hands to grasp what cannot be touched, although it is present always and everywhere.
If we possess faith, we will not longer judge people in the light of social custom or according to their weaknesses, for we will see the life that stands behind all the masks of our mammonistic, unclean and murderous human society. Yet we will not be deceived in the other direction either and made to think that maliciousness and fickleness of the human character (though factual) are its real and ultimate nature. Admittedly, with our present nature, without God, we humans are incapable of community. Temperamental mood-swings, possessive impulses and cravings for physical and emotional satisfaction, powerful currents of ambition and touchiness, the desires for personal influence over others, and human privileges of all kinds—all these place seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of true community. But with faith we cannot be deluded into thinking that these realities are decisive in the face of the power of good and his all-conquering love, they are of no significance. God is stronger than these realities. The unifying energy of this Spirit overcomes them all.
Here it becomes abundantly clear the at the realization of true community, the actual building up of a communal life is impossible without faith in a higher Power. In spite of all that goes wrong, people try again and again to put their trust either human goodness (which really does exist) or in the force of law. But all their efforts are bound to come to grief when faced with the reality of evil. The only power that can build true community is faith in the ultimate mystery of the Good, faith in God. We must live in community because only in such a positive venture can it become clear how incapable of life unredeemed man is, and what a life-giving and community-building power God is.