Community amidst Carnage

Stephen Liggins reflects on "community" in light of the recent bushfires

Shoots of green are emerging from the scorched earth. The smoke has cleared and the sirens have stopped. Emergency vehicles are gone from the road. The helicopters no longer swarm in the sky. It is a few weeks now since the October fires first ripped through our section of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney.  

Two hundred houses were lost on that first Thursday – thirteen inhabited by members of the church at which I work. I saw the dark clouds of smoke filling the sky to the north early that afternoon as I attempted to pick my son up from school. But the road was shut – the cars gridlocked. Worried parents emerged from stationary vehicles. People of all ages hurried down the street. Police and fire engines were rushing in, and before long, helicopters were overhead. Radios were on. Websites and apps were consulted. People stood in groups in various states of emotion gathering information.  

The immediate shock of the fire and its devastation cut deep. Thankfully, and incredibly, no lives in the mountains were lost. But the impact on the community since that day has been deep and wide-ranging. The fire transformed the area. Much could be said of the grief, the loss, the troubling and intense nature of events, the great work of the Rural Fire Service and other organisations. However, amidst the anguish and ashes, there is still one thing that now, a few weeks later, peppers peoples’ conversations, in one form or another – the appealing but alien nature of “community” that the devastation drew out.

  Before the fire there were strong networks of relationships amongst many here in the mountains, but these bonds have been strengthened and new linkages formed. The area is functioning more as a mutually supportive community. That Thursday, neighbours helped each other both fight and flee from the fire. Within hours community groups, sports clubs and churches, including ours, morphed into relief organisations – collecting and distributing money, food and other items. Shops were giving away free stuff. And as the fires continued to burn with the ongoing threat to life and property, neighbours more readily spoke to each other. It is a case of community amidst catastrophe … fellowship amidst the flames. It was certainly appealing.  

But it was also noteworthy because it was largely alien. This is not the way we normally function. In the urban West we live in city units and suburban houses, but we do not necessarily inhabit “communities”.  We live behind fences, locks, and security doors that are actual as well as metaphorical. Loneliness can be a problem. We often find healthy and vibrant community existing in sports clubs and schools or among like-minded groups uniting over a common cause, but there is also a strong sense that our highly individual lives have led to a paucity of the sort of community that we need and for which we yearn. A 2005 study put out by the Australia Institute found that at a time when, thanks to technological developments, it has never been easier to reach out and contact someone, many Australians feel lonely and isolated. They have no one to confide in or assist them, and they lack the friendships and social connections they desire.  

This is not the case everywhere. Over the last ten years I have regularly had the chance to lecture in eastern and southern Africa. By and large, things function differently there. Their society is more communal. An African proverb states: ‘A person is a person through persons’. That is, a person understands who they are with reference to their relationships with others. A few years back I asked an Anglican Bishop in Uganda – a Ugandan who also had a PhD from an American university – about his perception of the difference between life in the West and life in Africa. He said that the West is very individualistic – it is a case of: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ In Africa, the thinking is more communal – a case of: ‘You are, therefore I am.’  

My post-graduate studies have also highlighted to me the presence of mutually-supportive Christian communities within the church in its first few centuries. Jesus taught his followers that ‘everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’ (John 13:35), and many appeared to have take this teaching to heart. The writer the book of Acts describes the first century church in Jerusalem: ‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people’ (Acts 2:44–47).  

Noted American sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that the rise of Christianity in the first few centuries leading up to Constantine was, to a significant extent, the effect of what might be referred to as the appealing nature of its mutually-supportive community life. In the third century, the Christian writer and apologist Tertullian noted words allegedly said of Christians at the time: ‘See how they love one another’ (Apol. 39.7). The fourth century Roman emperor Julian, no friend of Christianity, lamented the mutually supportive nature of Christians: ‘The impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well’.    

The appeal of “community” is obvious. It was certainly powerfully on display in the early Christian church. It is found in many African cultures today. It is also currently a strength in the broader Blue Mountains community. I hope it will remain so, long after the fires are gone.  

Dr Stephen Liggins is a former lawyer with a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Sydney. He lectures regularly in Africa, and is an Honorary Associate of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared at Online Opinion