What explains the widespread new openness to a radical solution to economic exploitation, political oppression, and an epidemic of loneliness? One reason, surely, is that the capitalist orthodoxy of recent decades has forgotten to ask the fundamental questions about how we are to live: questions about justice, freedom, the good life, and community.
The essay that follows is, according to the Trappist writer Thomas Merton, a “completely Christian answer” to such questions. Writing in 1925, Eberhard Arnold describes an alternative to both the Marxist socialism and identity-based nationalism of his time – a vision drawn not only from his theological study but also from his experience of communal life. His manifesto appears here in a new complete translation.
Life in community – living and working together – is nothing less than a necessity for us. It is an inescapable “must” that determines everything we do and think.
Our own plans and efforts are not what have been decisive for us in choosing to live this way. Rather, we have been gripped by a certainty – a certainty that has its origin and power in the source of every necessity, a source able to transform all compulsion. This source takes anything that seems a necessity and overwhelms it with superior power. We confess: this source, this power, is God.
Faith and Community
God is the source of life. In him and through him our common life is built up and led time and again through acute struggles to ultimate victory. In such a life, one will seek in vain for a pleasant idyll of human comfort or the fulfillment of romantic yearnings; much less will this life satisfy any egoistic desires for personal happiness. No, this is a way dedicated to the unconditional will to love, a way that shares in God’s own will to community. It is an exceedingly dangerous way, a way of deep suffering, which leads straight into the struggle for existence and a life of labor, into all the difficulties created by the human character. And yet, just this is our deepest joy: to see clearly the momentous conflict – the indescribable tension between life and death, humanity’s position between heaven and hell – and still to believe that life, love, and truth will triumph over all opposition, because we believe in God.
This faith is not a theory for us; neither is it a dogma, a system of ideas, a fabric of words, or a form of worship, nor is it an organization such as a church or sect. Faith means receiving God himself – it means being overwhelmed by God. Faith is the strength that enables us to take this path. 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 undying. It gives us eyes to see what cannot be seen, and hands to grasp what cannot be touched, although this intangible reality is present always and everywhere.
Faith gives us the ability to see people as they are, not as they present themselves. It frees us from viewing others in the light of social custom or according to their weaknesses. It cannot be deceived by the masks of good manners and convention, of business respectability, of middle-class morals, of pious observance, or of political power. For faith sees that all these masks, fashioned as they are by our Mammon-worshiping, unclean, and murderous society, amount to a lie.
Yet neither will faith be deceived in the other direction and made to think that the maliciousness and fickleness of the human character (though real) are its actual and ultimate nature. To be sure, faith takes seriously the fact that we human beings, with our present natural makeup, are incapable of community. Temperamental mood-swings, possessive impulses and cravings for physical and emotional satisfaction, powerful currents of ambition and touchiness, the desire 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 real weaknesses of human nature are decisive. On the contrary, in the face of the power of God and his all-conquering love, they are of no significance. God is stronger than these realities. The community-creating energy of his Spirit overcomes them all.
Here it becomes abundantly clear that 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 in 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.
Social Justice and Community
With this faith, we must take a firm stance in relation to public questions of international, political, social, and economic life. There are political organizations that stand, as we do, for international peace, the abolition of private property, and full community of goods. Yet we cannot simply side with these organizations and fight their battles in their way. These political movements may aim to achieve a broad public good, but because of the way they fight, they end up being anti-communal: they are unable to bring about the common welfare of all in a community that includes all. Despite their abundant good intentions, they lack the strength and capacity to replace an exhausted society with an organic, living community. As the history of all such movements attests, they cannot overcome humankind’s covetous desire to possess.
All the same, we do feel drawn, with these movements, to all people who suffer need and distress, to those who lack food and shelter and whose very mental development is stunted through exploitation. With them, we stand side by side with the have-nots, with those deprived of their rights, and with the degraded and oppressed. And yet we avoid the kind of class struggle that employs loveless means to exact vengeance on those who have exploited the workers to the very blood. We reject the defensive war of the oppressed proletariat just as much as the defensive wars of nations – even though we are committed to the freedom of our nation and to the freedom of the working class around the world. Both are enslaved, and we know that this slavery must end. But the fight that we take up against it is one fought spiritually. This is a struggle in which we stand on the side of all those who fight for freedom, unity, peace, and social justice.
It is precisely for this reason that we must live in community. All revolutions, all communes, all idealistic or reform-oriented movements show simultaneously their yearning for community and their incapacity for it. These examples force us to recognize again and again that there is only one way to bring into living reality the desire for community that lies hidden at the heart of all revolutions: through the clear example of action born of truth, when both action and word are one in God.
We thus have the only weapon that can be effective against the depravity that exists today. This weapon of the Spirit is constructive work carried out in a fellowship of love. We do not acknowledge sentimental love, love without work. Nor do we acknowledge dedication to practical work if it does not daily give proof of a heart-to-heart relationship between those who work together, a relationship that comes from the Spirit. The love of work, like the work of love, belongs to and comes from the Spirit.
Community through Church History
This Spirit-filled life of practical love was attested in a decisive way by the Jewish prophets and later by the first Christians. We acknowledge Christ, the historical Jesus whose mother was Mary and who was executed under the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. We acknowledge, too, his entire message as proclaimed by his apostles and practiced by his first followers as they lived in full community [as is recorded in Acts 2 and 4].
Therefore we stand as brothers and sisters with all those who, moved by the Spirit, have joined together to live in community through the long course of history. They appeared at many times:
Among the Christians of the first century;
In the prophetic movement of the Montanists in the second;
In the monastic movements of the following centuries;
In the revolutionary movement of justice and love led by Arnold of Brescia;1
In the Waldensian movement;
In the itinerant communities of Francis of Assisi;
Among the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren and the Brothers of the Common Life;2
Among the Beguines and Beghards;
In a special way among the first Anabaptist movements of the sixteenth century, known for their brotherly communism, nonviolence, and the agricultural and craft work of their Bruderhof settlements;
Among the early Quakers;
Among the Labadists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries;3
Among the early Moravians around Zinzendorf;
And in many other Christ-centered communities of diverse denominations down to our present day.
We commit ourselves to Jesus and to the form of life of early Christianity, because here people’s outward needs were helped as well as their inner ones. Here the body and the earth were never held in contempt, yet at the same time the soul and spirit were also cared for. When people asked Jesus what God’s future justice would look like, he pointed to his actions: sick bodies were healed, the dead in their graves were raised up, demons were driven out of tormented bodies, and the message of joy was brought to the poorest of the poor (Matt. 11:5). This message means that the invisible kingdom of the future now is near, and indeed is becoming reality – God is becoming human, God is becoming flesh, and at last the earth will be won for him, whole and entire.
It is the whole that matters here. The love of God does not acknowledge any border or stop at any barrier. Therefore, Jesus does not stop in the face of private property any more than he does in the face of theology, moralism, or the State. Jesus saw into the heart of the rich young man, whom he loved, and said, “One thing you lack: sell all you have, give it to the poor … and come follow me!” [Mark 10:17–22] It was a matter of course for Jesus that his disciples should hold no personal possessions but rather practice a communism of the shared purse (John 12:6). Only one man was entrusted with the hateful responsibility of managing the disciples’ money, and he broke under it – a lesson with no little significance for our money-possessed society today.
Yet even Christ’s betrayal and execution did not mean defeat. The enthusiastic experience of the Spirit with which the Risen One endowed his itinerant disciples gave them the power to carry on their communal life on a larger scale. The first church became an intentional community of several thousand people who, because love was burning in them, had to stay together. In all questions regarding communal life, the forms that emerged were in keeping with an understanding of life as one unified whole.
The first Christians in Jerusalem possessed nothing privately. Whoever owned property felt inwardly compelled to share it. No one had anything that did not belong entirely to the church. Yet what the church owned was there for all.
Since this generous love cannot exclude anyone, this circle of Spirit-gripped people was soon known for their open door and their open hearts. At the time of the Church’s first flowering, they found ways to reach all people. They won the love and trust of their fellow men, even though in their struggle for genuine life they were bound to become the target of hatred and lethal hostility. The reason for their strong influence must have been that they were wholly heart and soul for others – for that is the only way for many people to be “of one heart and one soul” with one another (Acts 4:32).
The Spirit in Community
Private property, personal fortunes, and social privileges can only be overcome through the uniting power of the Spirit, who builds up fellowship and removes the obstacles that block us from becoming brothers and sisters. This is a dynamic spiritual process.
The Spirit blows like the wind – he is never rigid like iron or stone (John 3:8). He is infinitely more sensitive and delicate than the inflexible designs of the intellect or the cold, hard framework of legalistic organizational structures – more sensitive even than the emotions of the human soul or the faculties of the human heart, the basis on which people so often try in vain to build lasting edifices. But just for this reason the Spirit is stronger and more irresistible than all these things, never to be overcome by any power, however vast.
In nature, the things that seem to last the longest – rocks and inorganic minerals – are also the most dead, while the delicate organs of living creatures are far more vulnerable to harm. Yet wherever organic life overcomes the obstacles in its way, it thrives. Similarly, wherever the Spirit fills a life strongly and purely enough to overcome rival powers, such a life can defeat death – indeed, can defeat it permanently. This was the case with Jesus. Yes, such a life can end, just as Jesus was killed in what seemed to be the end. But even in his dying, his life asserted itself as love: love without violence, love that does not claim its own rights, and love without the desire to possess. Because of this, Jesus is now all the stronger, living on powerfully as the Risen One through the Spirit as the inner voice and the inner eye within us.
The light of the early church likewise illuminated the path of humankind in only one short flash. Yet its spirit and witness stayed alive even after its members had been scattered and many of them had been murdered. Again and again through history, similar forms of life arose as gifts of God, expressions of the same living Spirit. Witnesses were killed, and fathers died, but new children were – and are – born to the Spirit again and again.
Efforts to organize community artificially can only result in an ugly and lifeless caricature. Only when we are empty and open to the Living One – to the Spirit – can he bring about the same life among us as he did among the early Christians. The Spirit is joy in the Living One, joy in God as the only real life; he is joy in all people, because they have life from God. The Spirit drives us to all people and brings us joy in living and working for one another, for he is the spirit of creativity and love realized to the highest degree.
Community life is possible only in this all-embracing Spirit and in those things he brings with him: a deepened spirituality, an ability to experience life more keenly and intensely, a sense of being wrenched by unspeakable suspense. Surrendering to this Spirit is such a powerful experience that we can never feel equal to it. In truth, the Spirit alone is equal to himself. He quickens our energies by firing the inmost core – the soul of the community – to white heat. When this core burns and blazes to the point of sacrifice, it radiates outward to great distances.
Martyrdom by fire thus belongs to the essence of life in community. It means the daily sacrifice of all our strength and all our rights, all the claims we commonly make on life and assume to be justified. In the symbol of fire the individual logs burn away so that, united, its glowing flames send out warmth and light again and again far and wide.
Nature’s Symbols of Community
Nature, with all its variety of life forms, is a parable that portrays the community of God’s kingdom. Just as the air surrounds us, or as a blowing wind engulfs us, we need to be immersed in the blowing Spirit, who unites and renews everything (John 3:8). And just as water washes and cleanses us every day, so in the intensified symbol of baptism by immersion we witness to our purification from everything that is of death. This “burial” in water, which happens only once, signifies a complete break from the status quo; it is a vow of mortal enmity toward the evil in us and around us. Similarly, the lifting out of the water, which also happens only once, is a vivid image that proclaims resurrection. We see signs of this same resurrection, too, in our agricultural work: after the dying of autumn and winter comes the blossoming of spring and the fruit-bearing of summer; after seedtime comes harvest.
Symbolism can be found in the most trivial parts of human existence, such as our daily need to eat. When approached with reverence, even regular shared mealtimes can become consecrated festivals of community. The ultimate intensification and perfection of this expression of community is the symbol of table fellowship in the Lord’s Supper. Here the meal of wine and bread is itself a testimony that we take Christ into ourselves. It bears witness to the catastrophe of his death and to his second coming – and to his church as a body united in a common life. So too, each day of shared labor within a working community is a parable of life’s sowing and reaping – of humankind’s beginnings and of its final hour of decision.
The Body and Community
By the same token, the nature of each human being as an ensouled body is a parable for the indwelling of the Spirit in his creation. That is why the human body is to be kept utterly pure as a vessel ready to receive God.
Marriage is the unique intensification of this symbol of the unity of body and soul. As the unity of two people in a bond of faithfulness between one man and one woman, marriage is a picture of the unity of the one Spirit with humankind – and indeed, the unity of the one Christ with his one church. When a person enters into the sacred symbol of marriage, self-disciplined purity and a tempered sexual asceticism take new form as liberating joy in the creation of life. We are not at enmity with life – only we know that the body and its drives cannot determine what we are and do. The body is to be a living instrument of the Spirit, whether in the married state or, for some, through consecration to the coming kingdom in lifelong virginity (Matt. 19:12).
In the human body, community is maintained only by constant sacrifice, as dying cells are replaced by new ones. In a similar way, the organism of a healthy church community can only flourish where there is heroic sacrifice. Such a community is a brotherhood of free-willing, dedicated self-sacrifice. It is an educational fellowship of mutual help and correction, of community of goods, and of common work that fights on behalf of the church militant. Here, justice does not consist in making and satisfying even reasonable demands for personal rights. On the contrary, it consists in giving each member the opportunity to risk everything, to surrender himself completely so that God may become incarnate in him and so that the kingdom may break into his life with power. Such justice cannot take the form of hard demands made on others, however, but rather of joyous self-sacrifice. Here, the realities of God’s future come into effect already now – they appear as willingness, delight in work, joy in people, and dedication to the whole. Joy and enthusiasm take shape as active love. God’s Spirit comes to expression as cheerfulness and courage in sacrifice.
Work, Creativity, and the Arts
When working men and women voluntarily join hands together, renouncing everything that is self-willed, isolated, or private, the free fellowships that they form become signposts: pointers to the ultimate unity of all people in God’s kingdom of love. The will that animates this peaceable kingdom, which someday will include every human being, comes from God. So does the ungrudging spirit of brotherliness in work. Work as spirit and spirit as work – that is the fundamental nature of the future order of peace, which comes to us in Christ.
Such work – that is, joy in striving for the common good side by side with fellow laborers – is what makes community possible. This joy will be ours if we, in doing even the most mundane tasks, always remain connected in a holy bond to the Eternal. Then as we work we will recognize that everything earthly and bodily is consecrated to God’s future.
We love the body because it is a consecrated dwelling place of the Spirit. We love the soil because God created the earth through the call of his Spirit, and because God himself calls it out of its uncultivated natural state so that it might be cultivated by the communal work of human beings. We love physical work – the work of muscle and hand – and we love the craftsman’s art, in which the spirit guides the hand. In the way spirit and hand work through each other we see the mystery of community.
We love the activity of mind and spirit, too: the richness of all the creative arts and the exploration of the intellectual and spiritual interrelationships in history and in humanity’s destiny of peace. Whatever our work, we must recognize and do the will of God in it. God – the creative Spirit – has formed nature, and God – the redeeming Spirit – has entrusted the earth to us, his sons and daughters, as an inheritance but also as a task: our garden must become his garden.
The Organism of the Church
The body itself is a parable of the kingdom, a sign that God will win the earth for himself, filling it with peace and joy and justice. Then humankind will become one organism, just as each living body consists of millions of independent cells. This organism already exists today, as the invisible church.
When we acknowledge the church’s invisible reality and unity, we acknowledge its freedom in the Spirit – and, at the same time, the need for church discipline through the Spirit. The more confidently and autonomously a group with a specific vocation follows its path, the more deeply it must remain conscious of belonging to the unity of the una sancta – the one universal church. And just as urgently, it needs discipline and formation through the mutual service of the universal church, arising from its ecumenical unanimity in matters of faith and life.
All individual fellowships, households, communities, or settlements are (if spiritually alive) simply autonomous cells in the one great organism. On a smaller scale, individual families and persons are autonomous cells within the group of which they form a part. The autonomy of all these individual cells consists in the specific way that each of them lives for the whole. The life of each cell builds up the community of cells to which it belongs.
Freedom in Community
How can this be? The secret lies in two things: the freedom of self-determination, and self-surrender to the whole. For individuals, this means what philosophers have called the freedom of the “good will.”4 This freedom, which is indispensable to communal life, is equally opposed to paternalism and domination on the one hand, and to a dissolute laxity on the other. In a community of people gripped by faith in the Spirit, the individual’s freedom consists in his free decision to embrace the communal will brought about by the Spirit. Freedom, working within each member as the will for the good, gives rise to unity and unanimity, because the liberated will is directed toward the unity of God’s kingdom and toward the good of the whole human race. Such a liberated will gains a most vital and intense energy.
Standing as it does in a world of death, the liberated will must constantly assert itself against the destructive and enslaving powers of lying, impurity, capitalism, and military force. It is engaged in battle everywhere: against the spirit of murder, against all hostility (including the venom of the taunting, quarreling tongue), against all the wrong and injustice people do to each other. That is, it fights in public as well as in private life against the very nature of hatred and death, and against all that opposes community.
The call to freedom is a call to a battle without pause, a war without respite. Those who are called to participate must be continually alert. They need not only the greatest willpower they themselves can muster, but also the aid of every other power yielded them by God, in order to meet the plight of the oppressed proletariat, to stand with the poor, and to fight against all evil in themselves and in the world around them.
This fight against evil, against all that poisons or destroys community, must be waged more strongly within a community than against the world outside, but it must be waged even more relentlessly within each individual. In a communal life, all softness, all flabby indulgence, is overcome by the burning sharpness of love. The Spirit of community takes a combat position within each individual, fighting against the old man from the standpoint of the new and better man within him, of man as he is called to be.
Vocations and the One Church
It is clear that the war of liberation for unity and for the fullness of love is being fought on many fronts with many different weapons. So too, the work of community finds expression in many different ways.
Some might be tempted to believe that a life without personal property in community of goods is the only way to be a follower of Jesus and a member of his church on earth. But this would be an error. We must recognize the astounding diversity of tasks and vocations that belong to the church militant. Still, for each one of us there is a certainty of purpose for every stretch of the way we are called to go. Only where there is direct certainty about one’s vocation can there be loyalty and an unerring clarity (even in little things) to the very end. Only those who hold firm can bear the standard; but to those unable to endure, nothing can be entrusted.
Accordingly, humans do not receive some high commission from God without also receiving a specific, defined task. Obviously, a greater, more comprehensive vocation can absorb a former, more limited one (this is the only way one vocation can supplant another). But it is no diminution of God when apostles, prophets, martyrs, teachers, elders, and deacons acknowledge both God and, with him, the particular task, service, or commission to which he has called them. What is decisive is that any specific vocation leads only to Christ: that it serves the whole of the church and advances the coming kingdom.
Wherever people see their particular task as something special in itself, they will go astray. But anyone who serves the whole in his own specific place and in his own characteristic way can rightfully say: “I belong to God and to life in community,” or to God and any other calling. Before our human service can become divine service, however, we must recognize how small and limited it is in the face of the whole. Then a special calling – living in community, for instance – must never be confused with the church of Christ itself.
Life in community means discipline in community, education in community, and continual training for the discipleship of Christ. Yet the mystery of the church is something different from this – something greater. It is God’s life, and coming from him it penetrates the discipline of community. This penetration of the divine into the human occurs whenever the tension of desperate yearning produces an openness and readiness in which God alone may act and speak. At such moments a community can be commissioned by the invisible church and given certainty for a specific mission: to speak and act – albeit without mistaking itself for the church – in the name of the church.
That is why, in the life of a community, people will be confronted by several decisive questions again and again: How am I called? To what am I called? Will I follow the call? Only a few are called to the special way that is ours. Yet those who are called – a small, battle-tried band, who must sacrifice themselves again and again – will hold firmly for the rest of their lives to the common task shown them by God. They will be ready to sacrifice life itself for the sake of the common life.
People tear themselves away from home, parents, and career for the sake of marriage; for the sake of wife and child they risk their lives. In the same way it is necessary to break away and sacrifice everything for the sake of our calling to this way. Our public witness to voluntary community of goods and work, to a life of peace and love, will have meaning only when we throw our entire life and livelihood into it.
Daring the Venture
It is now  over five years since our tiny fellowship in Berlin decided to venture, in the sense of this confession, to live and work together in community on a basis of trust. And thus our small intentional community was born. We were a handful of people of the most varied backgrounds and professions who wanted to place themselves wholly in service to the whole. Despite disappointments and difficulties, despite changes in membership, we are now around twenty-five to thirty adults and children.
Whatever any of the permanent members acquires in the way of income, property, or possessions, we turn over unconditionally to the common household. Yet even the community household as a closed group does not regard itself as the corporate owner of its inventory and enterprises. Rather – like the community around our friend Kees Boeke5 in Bilthoven, Holland – it acts as a trustee of the assets it holds for the common good of all, and for this reason it keeps its door open to all. By the same token it requires for its decision-making full unanimity in the Spirit.
Based on the various gifts and professions of our individual members, several areas of work have developed belonging to the community: (1) publishing of books and periodicals; (2) school and children’s home; (3) agriculture and vegetable gardening; (4) youth work and hospitality.6
Given our basis of faith, we cannot approach the development of our community from a purely economic point of view. We cannot simply select the most capable people for our various work departments. We aim for efficiency in all areas; but far more important, we seek faith. Each person – whether committed member, helper, or guest – must be faced again and again with the question whether or not he or she is growing into the coming community ruled by Christ, and in what special vocation he or she is called to serve Christ’s church.
Our work, then, is a venture dared again and again. Yet we are not the driving force in this – it is we who have been driven and who must be urged on. The danger of exhaustion and uselessness is always present, but it is continually overcome by the faith that underlies mutual help.
This essay was originally published in Die Wegwarte in October 1925 and again in May 1927 (currently German only). The new complete translation here is by Peter Mommsen. It partially incorporates an abridged 1995 translation by Christopher Zimmerman, which appears together with two responses by Thomas Merton in the book Why We Live in Community (Walden, NY: Plough, 1995). Biblical references are editorial additions.
1. Arnold of Brescia (1090–1155) was an Italian priest and monk who protested an over-powerful clergy and argued that the church should renounce its property and live in “apostolic poverty.” He was excommunicated and eventually executed on the orders of the Roman Curia. —Ed.
2. The Brothers of the Common Life, a monastic order that existed from the end of the fourteenth century until the Reformation, lived by the work of their hands, especially by copying. Their best-known member was Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471), author of The Imitation of Christ.—Ed.
3. Jean de Labadie (1610–1674) was a French Pietist who founded a community that practiced community of goods, joint education of children, and a simple lifestyle. —Ed.
4. Immanuel Kant describes the freedom of the good will in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (first published in 1785). —Ed.
5. Kees Boeke (1884–1966) was a Dutch reformist educator and (at the time of writing) a Christian anarchist and pacifist. His 1957 book Cosmic View would go on to inspire the 1968 films Cosmic Zoom and Powers of Ten. —Ed.
6. The original includes details about Arnold’s community’s enterprises, which are omitted here. —Ed.