Building Community Amid Troubles (Phil. 22-4; Matt. 21:28-32; Ezek. 18:1-4)

by Delores S. Williams

Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 3, 1990, p. 867, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Paul’s words are both instructive and troubling to us today. They teach us that there can be no such thing as community without unity of consciousness, collective action free of individual greed, humility and respect for the other and as much concern for the other person’s welfare as for our own.

One of the hardest things to do in our troubled North American society is build community. This is no less true in the Christian sector than it is in the secular world. Viable, wholesome community is what each of us needs in order to experience well-being, care and support. Yet in our capitalist, technological society we seem to have very little knowledge of what it takes to live together in peace and mutual acceptance.

The Apostle Paul provides some clues in his letter to the Philippians. He advises them to be "of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourself. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (2:2-4)

Paul’s words are both instructive and troubling to us today. They teach us that there can be no such thing as community without unity of consciousness, collective action free of individual greed, humility and respect for the other and as much concern for the other person’s welfare as for our own.

But these words are troubling for those whom society has traditionally singled out (socially and economically) to be humble, without pride, "to count others better than" themselves, to look after everybody else’s interest and neglect their own. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic and Native women have thus been singled out. And if these women are to be free, they often must not have the same consciousness that has heretofore made their communities "of one mind."

Since many women in these groups suffer from low self-esteem, they cannot develop self-pride through the kind of humility that counts other people better than themselves. They cannot afford to put other people’s interest above their own pursuit of self-pride, self-dignity, self-care and self-concern. In her choreopoem, "for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf," black feminist playwright Ntozake Shange affirms her pursuit by claiming "i found god in myself & i loved her / i loved her fiercely."

Does this application of Paul’s words suggest that they are not instructive for Christian community building? Of course not. We must remember that Paul, in this text and on most other occasions, assumes that Jesus Christ centers that community in the love that all community members must have for one another. Yet many women are skeptical about androcentric and patriarchal arrangements (whether in the Bible or elsewhere) advocating love. Often under such arrangements love means women sacrificing everything -- their joy, aims and ambitions -- for the pursuit of the community’s androcentric goals and commitments.

This same Jesus, however -- so important to Paul’s understanding of community -- provides essential clues about building inclusive community. In the parable of the vineyard (Matt. 21:28-32) , Jesus reveals three essential characteristics of community-building: change, justice and a willingness to hear and believe in difference. One son in the parable at first adamantly refuses to honor his father’s request that he work in the vineyard. Later, the son changes his mind and goes to work as his father requests. The text tells us that the son’s change involves repentance -- which suggests to us that if contrition motivates it, meaningful change can help build community. However, if lies and deceit characterize our conduct, meaningful action cannot occur. The second son in the parable represents this reality when he promises his father he will work in the vineyard but does not go.

Jesus did not use this parable merely to illustrate the possible relations between a father and his sons. Jesus used it to help the community see that because they were not open to hear and accept the way of justice and righteousness brought by John, they did not repent and change. Even when they finally recognized what was just, they would not accept it. The community had no faith in the kind of difference John’s righteous way bespoke. Strangely enough, John’s message was heard and accepted by two groups whom the temple authorities and the people believed to be outcasts: the tax collectors and the harlots. Although John’s way of righteousness was different from their way, they were open to hear and accept his way. The text leads us to believe that God is more pleased with the "outcasts" who hear what is right and do it than with those who already deem themselves the natural recipients of God’s grace and favor -- those who remain hardened to the way of justice.

In community-building, responsibility for change, justice and accepting difference belongs to each individual. The prophetic word of Ezekiel, given by God, warns individuals about hiding their own responsibility in notions of someone else’s obligations. Ezekiel says, "The word of the Lord came to me again: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the child is mine: The soul that sins shall die" (18:1-4)

It is a relief to hear that we are not fated to experience the effects of our ancestors’ deeds. We inherit a tradition of actions and beliefs from our parents and our society, but we can choose to leave behind those actions and beliefs that work against building a just and righteous community where difference is accepted and change is not a nasty word.

Of course, none of us can believe that change and justice will come easily to the, North American communities in which we live. Few people are willing to share so that communities can provide the physical well-being and spiritual care needed by all our country’s citizens (male and female, white and of color, rich and poor) Too often we take the easy way out and pass responsibility to the next generation. We forget Jesus’ words: "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you."