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With The Bruderhof
Could you make the tradeoff of autonomy for the gifts of community?
In last night’s post, I mentioned the Bruderhof, the Anabaptist group, as an example of Christians who live a seriously countercultural life, in community. They aren’t Amish, but they are distinctly Anabaptist. This year is the 100th anniversary of their founding in Germany. They went into exile to escape Nazi persecution, and their 3,000 members can now be found on four continents. I’ve visited the Bruderhof in the Hudson River Valley, and found warm hospitality. If you live in the NYC area, I strongly advise you to go up the Hudson and see them for yourself; they welcome visitors. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, my religious beliefs are rather different from their Anabaptist creed, but nobody tried to proselytize me. They were just generous and open-hearted.
The first thing one notices when perusing the book might be the distinctive dress of the Bruderhof. But upon further reading it quickly becomes apparent that what truly sets them apart is not their dress, but how faith is integrated into all areas of life. They believe God’s will for them is “a life of peace and unity, where no one is richer or poorer than another, where the welfare of the oldest, youngest, and weakest is a shared priority; where family life is treasured; where there is meaningful work for everyone; where there is time for laughter, friendship, and children.”
This is more than an aspirational mission statement: it truly reflects everyday life for members of the Bruderhof. The larger communities (200-350 members) provide their own school, dining hall, basic healthcare, and even employment, and one operates two businesses designing and manufacturing equipment for playgrounds and disabled children. Children learn many practical skills (e.g. construction), in addition to their traditional schooling. Much of the work of the community happens on site, with and for other members, resulting in a high degree of self-sufficiency and sustainability.
This allows the community to protect against modern approaches to work that might distort their life together. For example, members are actively discouraged from working overtime and have much flexibility related to taking leave from work. Avoiding overwork becomes more possible when one’s supervisor and co-workers are also community members. Even though work is important, members keep it in its proper place. One man has held a variety of jobs inside and outside the community, including fire fighter, mechanic, contractor, and technician in the tooling department for one of the Bruderhof businesses. But his work does not define him: “I wouldn’t say I’m ‘called’ to the specific job I’m currently doing. Living in community with brothers and sisters, sharing all things, and serving one—that’s my calling.” He continues, “It doesn’t matter so much what I’m doing, but what I’m doing it for.”
The book is full of testimonies of people who were raised in the Bruderhof, or who found it some other way. I’ve read the book; here are a few that stood out to me. Here’s something by Kathy Trapnell, a Baby Boomer who was raised in wealthy suburban Connecticut, as a Catholic, but didn’t really believe. When she became pregnant at 21, her boyfriend helped pay for her abortion, and they never discussed it again. She got involved protesting the Vietnam War, and other 1960s causes. She writes:
None of it brought me peace because my whole orientation was wrong. Not that I wasn’t serving good causes, but I was my own god: I was the standards by which I judged my life and other people’s lives. I was frightfully, sinfully, willfully my own boss, and I tried to do everything in my own strength. It doesn’t work.
In 1971, she was living in a hippie commune, doing drugs, and having sex. She bought a little book one day from a couple of Bruderhof members, and went to visit the community.
The book I’d bought had talked about the community as an embassy where the laws of the kingdom of God apply, a place where every sin can be confronted and forgiven, and peace reigns. I experienced that as reality. No other place could have fostered the inner change, growth, and healing I so desperately needed. Nowhere else could I have been so clearly and lovingly pointed to the cross, and away from myself and my agony.
And so I joined the Bruderhof. I was relived to find out it wasn’t just a holiness trip but a simple, practical life, open to anyone. Undergirding it all was a new (for me) understanding of peace: the peace that points away from the self, and toward community, toward God’s future reign of joy and love. I surrendering and giving myself to that goal, I found what I had always been looking for.
Here’s a testimony by Norann Voll, who lives in a Bruderhof settlement in the Australian bush:
When we moved here seventeen years ago, everything was so new and different, and with that unfamiliarity came vulnerability. When you’re uncertain, you need other people to help you through. And when your closes neighbor is ten kilometers down the road, a strong sense of community is vital. We’re supporting each other through drought, fire, floods, storms. And it’s not just about the dramas the weather throws at us. When the hard stuff of life arrives on your doorstep — whether it’s a child who’s made a poor life choice, or aging or dying parents, or an accident or an upsetting diagnosis — it’s important to have friends who can rally around you and look after you. If you can’t depend on your next-door neighbor — well, there may not be anyone else to depend on.
… One skill I’ve learned form the farm women around us is what I call “inconvenient hospitality.” Life here is akin to pioneering, and it happens all the time that someone suddenly has to deal with an unforeseen change of plans or an unexpected visitor. These women just take it all in stride. Who cares if the house isn’t perfect, or the food isn’t ready? You’ll be invited not only to share the meal, but to help prepare it and to really make yourself at home. That in itself is a beautiful form of hospitality.
One important thing to know about the Bruderhof is that while they are theologically and morally conservative, they fall very much on what most of us would consider to the left-wing side of certain social issues. That kind of left-right language is misleading, I confess; what I’m trying to say is that issues like racial justice and serving the poor are. big part of their lives. And they are pacifists.
Here’s something that jumped out at me from the book. The writer is Ashlie Kleiner, whose family joined the Bruderhof in the 1980s, when she was fourteen.
Coming from mainstream America to where I am today took years. I just couldn’t fit in. I didn’t talk with my parents. It was hell. I left at seventeen.
Later, however, I read Salt and Light, a book by [Bruderhof founder] Eberhard Arnold, and discovered the community’s basis: the Sermon on the Mount. That stopped me. Around the same time, I had an experience I can’t describe, except to say I was overwhelmed by God. All these outward things didn’t matter anymore. God knocked at my door, and I had to open it. I came back home.
The community’s no utopia, but I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I was raised on TV, in a sexualized world driven by consumerism. My kids are growing up outdoors. There’s an innocence here, a peace and security I wouldn’t trade for anything.
That jumped out to me because it resonated with my short experience visiting the Bruderhof, at their Fox Hill settlement in the Hudson Valley. The thing you notice about the kids there is how unmarked they are. There is an innocence and wholesomeness that is almost out of a storybook. This is what childhood is supposed to be about. It comes, you realize, from being raised without television and pop culture. They play outside, with each other, safely. It’s so strange to find this strange.
I really wish I had gone there when I was researching The Benedict Option. But I have to tell you, spending time with the Bruderhof folks caused an unsettling reaction within me. I was glad that theological differences would keep me from considering living in a Bruderhof — glad because to be honest, I know that I’m too much of a coward to surrender so much autonomy to live in close community. For me, this was a real moment of painful honesty. The Bruderhof communities have some of the things I desire, but they have them because people have voluntarily given up a degree of liberty and autonomy that we all take for granted. I felt like the Rich Young Ruler of the Gospel — the one who wants what Jesus offers, but won’t surrender everything to get it. I talk a good game about community built on religious belief and mutual obligation, but if there were an Orthodox Bruderhof, would I join?
Maybe yes, if I were younger, but in all truth, I am far too guarded now, mostly because of things I’ve gone through in my life, related to various groups. I had a very unhappy experience with bullying in high school in my town, and was thrilled to move away. In my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, I wrote about how much value I saw in the life my younger sister had, living in our small rural hometown. I valued it so much that I moved back. But things did not work out with my family, for reasons that had nothing to do with the town. That cracked me deeply.
I had already suffered a massive loss in the ability to trust from the things I learned over the years I was writing a lot about the Catholic abuse scandal. No need to detail those things here; most people who read me have heard those stories a million times. The common thing I saw, in both the situations that left me very mistrustful, is how eager even good people are to sacrifice people and the truth for the sake of maintaining community. It’s the oldest story there is — I mean, this is why the Passover mob wanted to crucify Jesus. There is always that risk. There are people who have left the Bruderhof who have bad things to say about it.
On the other hand, what else is there, besides radical loneliness? This is something I struggle with, internally. A lot. I have no wisdom here, but wisdom is what we need. We have become a country in which trust is more and more difficult. Do you know that many, maybe most, Chinese people actually like their social credit system, in which the state keeps a running tally, based on data harvesting, of who is trustworthy (according to its standards) and who is not? Despite the staggering invasion of privacy, and the obvious opportunities for abuse, ordinary Chinese depend on it — one’s social credit score is public — because that’s how they know who can be trusted. Both Communism and the rapid onset of disruptive capitalism so radically destroyed the social fabric that people don’t want to let their guards down, ever.
No Community Without Authority
In 1995, Alan Ehrenhalt wrote a great book called The Lost City, about Chicago in the 1950s. In it, he talks about how things changed. From the book:
This is why I would bomb out at the Bruderhof: I want the community, but am scared of authority. But then, I’m a child of an age when authority had begun to break down. More Ehrenhalt:
Ehrenhalt talks about how the usual memoirs of the Fifties were written by dissenters who were unhappy. That’s not the whole story, though:
Christmas Carol Poll
A reader suggests that I poll the readership and ask for your cases for favorite Christmas carols. That sounds fun. Let’s do three categories: Sacred, Secular, and Most Hated. Send me one paragraph on each. I’ll publish the best over the next few days — and if I get a number of them, I’ll do a weekend special edition of this newsletter. Here are my entries (with runners-up).
Sacred: ‘Adeste Fideles’ (O Come, All Ye Faithful). This is one of the oldest Christmas carol we have. I love singing it in the original Latin, because it places the song’s call for the faithful to come to Bethlehem to see the King of Angels in the language of the Roman Empire. I love the event-ness of this song. It has forward thrust: come see, everybody, a miracle has happened! To be honest, I think I cherish this carol because my class at Grace Episcopal Church kindergarten processed into Jackson Hall for our Christmas program, singing it. We were carrying lanterns we had made in class from milk cartons, wax paper, and crayons. I was dressed as a shepherd for the Christmas play. The big room was dark, lit only by stage lights and candles in our lanterns. It seemed so dramatic, so ritualistic. It was Christmas like I had never felt it. We were coming, all us faithful, to Bethlehem, on the stage in front of our parents.
Secular: The Christmas Song (Diana Krall version)
It’s just perfect: a list of seasonal things, bringing up word pictures that put you immediately into the season. In case you’ve forgotten:
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose,
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like eskimos.
Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright.
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.
They know that Santa's on his way
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh
And ev'ry mother's child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer really know how to fly.
It’s so nostalgic for me, bringing to mind the magical anticipation of Christmas Eve, and looking out the window of my bedroom, nosed pressed against the cold pane, wondering if that blinking red light flying overhead was Rudolph’s nose. Though I never had any of those other things as part of my childhood Christmas, they all take me back to Christmas Eve at my Uncle Murphy and Aunt Patsy’s house, which was festive and chirpy with conversation. They had a cathedral ceiling, and Patsy always had a tree with a star that touched it. This song is about none of the things that I had at Christmas, but it is about the sensual details that make Christmas, Christmas. I really loved this song after I spent my first Christmas season in Manhattan, where they roast chestnuts on open fires on the streetcorner. As soon as I hear the first line, I am immediately back in Midtown, window shopping, and then strolling up Madison Avenue doing the same, in the cold and the good cheer of New York at Christmas.
You cannot top Mel Tormé’s version, but I like Diana Krall’s more updated take. Diana Krall could sing anything, and I would swoon. Her Christmas album is my favorite of all. But here’s a Christmas album you might never have heard of, but which is fantastic: We Three Kings, by the sister trio The Roches. Here is their version of ‘Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light’.
Most Hated: I’m not going to say “worst,” because I think “Frosty The Snowman” is probably the worst. The one I hate to hear most of all, though, is “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Why, because somebody’s gotta always say, “We WUSSSSH you a Merry Christmas.” You stop doing that, you hear! I’ve always kind of thought “Deck The Halls” was cheap and tries to hard to please. “Fa la la la la” — what are we, Italians? No.
Send me your paragraphs on Best Sacred and Best Secular Christmas carols, and also Most Hated. I’m at roddreher — at — substack — dot — com
I’m going to keep it shortish tonight. I’ve been writing all day, and I can feel another Fun With Epstein-Barr episode coming on. Sometimes they only last a week. Let’s hope so. I need to sleep.