In the 18th century, along the East Coast of our country as it was being colonized, there were two groups of people living side by side in their own communities. The first group, the Native Americans, maintained a simple way of life that been unchanged for thousands of years. The second group, the European Colonists, represented the most modernized society in terms of their economy, culture, industry, and technology.
Despite very little interaction between the two groups, one of the communities began to be very interested in the other, and many individuals and families began to leave their own social group to join the other. But, in what has been normally described as a historical curiosity: It was the British Colonists leaving their own society and joining the tribes of the indigenous people—not the other way around.
Escaping Again Into the Woods
The story is told in journalist Sebastian Junger’s great book, Tribe: On Belonging and Homecoming. In several instances, British Colonists were captured during battle by the indigenous people. But rather than being killed or imprisoned, the Colonists were simply integrated as members of the Native communities. When the Colonists would finally rescue these individuals, and return them to their colonies, the captives would often seek to return to their tribes.
Benjamin Franklin famously wrote to a friend in 1753:
“Though ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”
Still others voluntarily left British society to join the tribes of the Natives. They simply “walked off into the tree line and never came home.”
French historian Hector de Crevecouer wrote in 1782,
“Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European. There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.”
The seeds of radical individualism were being planted, and already the early Americans began looking for a deeper, more connected, more relational way of life.
One of the great Christian writers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, described something he called the “wish-dream.”
He wrote Life Together in German, and for lack of a better word, his original English translators came up with the phrase “wish-dream.” Although newer translations of LT use other words, the phrase wish-dream perfectly encapsulates his thinking.
The wish-dream is the ideal of life as we think it should be, a life of happiness and meaning and satisfaction. It’s a life without pain, without setbacks, without conflict, without suffering.
In the wish-dream, our work is always meaningful and satisfying. In the wish-dream, our friends never let us down. In the wish-dream, marriage is always a joy, and children are consistently sweet and affordable
But Bonhoeffer wasn’t writing of the wish-dream of work ambition or family happiness, he was writing of the ideals we lay upon our Christian friends and communities. He writes:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams…
Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly.
We are all familiar with the wish-dream of Christian community, either because we’re still wondering why it isn’t coming true, or because we can think back to the exact time and place when it died… and we finally buried it beneath six feet of cold dark earth.
What we most need is not a grand vision for community, but a gritty, committed fidelity to our actual community.
Fidelity: Faithfulness to God, Self, and One Another
The wish-dream of success in a new world led those early European-American colonists to cross an ocean, risk their lives, and threaten the lives of others.
America is Land of the Wish-Dream.
But what they underestimated, and what most Westerners continue to underestimate today, is that personal happiness, well-being, and flourishing are not found in the achievement of individual freedom and material wealth.
Instead: Happiness, well-being, and flourishing are discovered only in relationship, in community.
As we often say here at the GOOD SOIL headquarters:
We are relational beings, made in the image of a triune God, who has eternally existed, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in relationship. To be made in his image is to be a person-in-relationship, and to be fully alive is to to belong to others.
As St. Paul writes,
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Romans 12:4-5)
It doesn’t mean everyone always fulfills your wish-dream for what church should be. But you belong. Even amid an individualistic culture, our ultimate belonging is secure.
In Christ, it always has been.