“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. . . . The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip” (Genesis 32:24-25, 31).
Dutch pastor Wieteke van der Molen used this text for a Friday evening message at the Mennonite World Conference assembly in Harrisburg, Pa., last July. Out of many good sermons that week, her message, “On autonomy and community,” struck the deepest chord for me. (The entire message is available online at pa2015.mwc-cmm.org. See also: “Assembly called to wrestle with independence and community.”)
We are all part of a community, van der Molen noted, be it a family, tribe, school, workplace or church. Some of us are members of multiple communities. Community feeds us, nurtures us and teaches us right from wrong, she said. To be human is to be part of community; we cannot survive alone.
We also crave autonomy, to have control over what concerns us. We want to make our own decisions, to be and do our best. There is a major tension between these important truths.
The struggle was ever thus, even in Old Testament times. As we read in Genesis, Jacob believed that he came first, always. He swindled his brother, deceived his father and so on. But living by your own set of rules and living in community do not go well together. After wrestling with the angel, Jacob struggled with the people around him, with God and with himself.
Autonomy, van der Molen argues, means that you are your own judge, but you have to figure it all out by yourself. Jacob’s story teaches us that it is not wrong to seek our own way, but we need to recognize the community around us, acknowledging the pain, hurt and frustration on both sides.
Modern, grown-up autonomy doesn’t come easy. When we act like Jacob did, wrestling with God, community and self, van der Molen has this warning: “Even if you win, it leaves you slightly limping.” How much of that limping results from failing to seek counsel?
One of the core principles that Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC) teaches is that God asks for our whole selves; that stewardship is best forged in Christian community marked by integrity, accountability and joy. Do we seek out Christian community and accountability in our walk as stewards of all that God has entrusted to us? Where do we find counsel in making choices around financial matters and in determining whether those choices are God-honouring?
In the 16 years that I have shared the MFC message of generous living and faithful, joyful giving, I have noticed the desire for autonomy, at whatever cost, intensify. Interest in, or even understanding of, community and the responsibilities that come with community, has crashed to a similar extent. It affects many of the institutions that we serve. Denominations, churches and some charities are limping, staggering in some cases. Others are thriving and growing, but there will be more limping and brokenness in coming years, I suspect.
We can do a lot more together than we can apart. How do we foster discussions around the value of community in our financial decisions? MFC can help. Perhaps a money autobiography class would be helpful. Maybe a discussion of best practices, both on a personal and congregational level, could be of assistance. Ask the MFC office closest to you for resources to help get the discussion started.
Mike Strathdee is a stewardship consultant at Mennonite Foundation of Canada serving generous people in Ontario and the eastern provinces. For more information on impulsive generosity, stewardship education, and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit MennoFoundation.ca.