The heartbreak of communal living – Heinrich Arnold and the Bruderhof

Rod Dreher has become the champion of Christians in the U.S. building “Benedict Options” in the face of American culture’s increasingly hostile stance toward traditional Christian faith. Dreher has written and spoken extensively on the Benedict Option over the past two years, and is writing a book, which will be released in March 2016.

Dreher insists that embracing the Benedict Option–which undoubtedly will be expressed in a variety of forms by different communities of believers–does not mean withdrawing from the world, but it does mean, “we must withdraw behind some communal boundaries not for the sake of our own purity, but so we can first become who God wants us to be, precisely for the sake of the world.” (Benedict Option FAQ)

It will be interesting to see in his upcoming book how Dreher recommends drawing those communal boundaries. Based on what Dreher has written thus far about the Benedict Option, I doubt he will advocate that intentional Christian communities renounce private property and share everything in common.

But, from the very beginning of Christian communities, there have been those who have embarked on just that kind of radical communal life:

“All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)

The Bruderhof are Christians who have been living this way in various communities for nearly a century. The man who brought Bruderhof communities in to the U.S. in 1954 was Heinrich Arnold. His grandson, Peter Mommsen, tells his story in Homage to a Broken Man: The Life of J. Heinrich Arnold.

Arnold’s story is fascinating, inspiring, and to my thinking, heartbreaking. The young Heinrich Arnold is idealistic, sensitive, and driven by a sense of God’s calling and a devotion to his father, Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof. Thirty years later, Heinrich Arnold has experienced the joys of living in community. But, he has also suffered the dictatorial, devious, legalistic and cruel torment of fellow leaders of the community and those who cooperated with them to isolate and punish Arnold on the numerous occasions when Arnold crossed them.

Mommsen presents the elder Heinrich Arnold as having emerged from this crucible of abuse broken, both physically and emotionally. Out of this suffering God molded Arnold into a compassionate Christ-like leader full of empathy for the hurting and the marginalized. Arnold’s love for the Bruderhof then compelled him in the 1950s and early 1960s to accept the role of single “elder” and to drastically reorganize the communities in order to rescue them from the legalism and dysfunction that began to plague them after his father’s death in 1935.

Was Heinrich Arnold the man on the white horse portrayed by Mommsen? Who knows. Some of those who were hurt in the great reorganization didn’t think so.

Regardless, the story of Arnold and the Bruderhof is a sobering reminder of the difficulties and dangers of equating following Jesus with selling all we have and living together in community. Good intentions are not enough to keep sinners–even redeemed sinners–from brutally hurting themselves and one another.