I applaud those who want to make their community a better place to live. Followers of Christ are called to do just that. But how? Ah, that’s where the responses get interesting.
Historically, America has been a breeding group for utopian communities, groups working to build a perfect society from the ground up. Between 1825 and 1860, America had close to 100 utopian communities, each one built on different ideals and principles. But where are they today? The one consistent thread tying all these communities together was failure. Sociologists can give you their reasons for failure, but I want to look at their history from a biblical perspective.
This is the first of a three-part series, looking at three of these utopian societies.
Several years ago, my wife and I were traveling home from a Bible study conference I was a part of in southern Illinois. It was a leisurely drive with no need to rush home, so when we saw an exit for Historic New Harmony, our curiosity got the best of us.
New Harmony, Indiana is still a town, but it is no longer the utopian community Robert Owen had planned. And why was it New Harmony? Because Harmonie, the first utopian community established there, had failed. But thanks to Robert Owen, New Harmony would thrive. Maybe.
Owen was from Manchester, England where he developed a keen criticism of the way society functioned. He had issues with the poverty Manchester’s mill workers lived in as well as their pathetic working conditions. This grew into a criticism of all sorts of things: government, religion, and even family.
The irony of this was that Robert Owen was part of the problem. At age 20, Owen had become the manager of one of Manchester’s mills. He amassed great wealth. But instead of using his position and wealth to help those in his home town, Robert Owen chose to move to America to create a society and community free of all these ills.
What was at the heart of all these ills? In Owen’s mind, the great evil was individualism. His plan was “to introduce an entire new State of society; to change it from the ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system, which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all cause for contest between individuals.” (Burns, James MacGregor, The American Experiment, 712). To put it another way, when individuals focused on themselves, they competed against one another, causing an alienation from work, families, and community. Self is bad; but harmony and cooperation are good. So let’s create a society where everyone is told just to work together! Sounds easy, right?
No one would disagree that harmony is good. Even the Bible affirms that. “How delightfully good when brothers live together in harmony!” (Ps. 133:1). But easy? Not hardly.
When Robert Own came to America he eventually came upon the abandoned community of Harmonie, Indiana. Owen bought the whole settlement—20,000 acres of woods and meadows, 180 houses, and an assortment of shops and factories—for $125,000.
And the people came. Robert Owen was the 1825 version of a celebrity because of his wealth and status as a “boy wonder” in English business. He could draw a crowd in America. On his way to his new society in New Harmony, Owen talked it up. He had big plans for a new society where selfishness was left at the city limit sign. Equality was the mantra for this town, and all citizens in this society were to give “their best services for the good of the society, according to their age, experience, and capacity.”
And it worked … for a while. Life was good with everyone working and carrying their weight. But it didn’t last much longer than a year. The novelty wore off and the façade of equality disappeared. People could talk a good talk of equality, but actions showed otherwise. Even Robert Owen, the great promoter of a community of equals, did not extend equality to “persons of color.” The general sentiment of the whole community was expressed in a letter by a Mrs. Thomas Pears.
“No one is to be favored over the rest, as all are to be in a state of perfect equality. Oh, if you should see some of the rough uncouth creatures here, I think you would find it rather hard to look upon them exactly in the light of brothers and sisters.”
The gap between the dream and reality kept growing. People complained of others receiving more favorable treatment. People argued over land boundaries. The society of harmony reverted back to the age-old emphasis on me-first. And with that, New Harmony turned into No Harmony. It was over by 1827—less than two years after it started.
We are by nature selfish people. It comes naturally to us because we have a sin nature, a nature that doesn’t mind looking out for others so long as it benefits us. Sin leads us to think about ourselves first and foremost. Community involvement and support are good so long as they line up with what I want.
Only Christ can transform our hearts from a self-centered love to an other-centered love. No amount of society planning or good intentions can change our hearts. “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil” (Jer. 13:23 NLT). Even at our best, we remain self-centered creatures.
But in Christ, we are made new. He changes us! But thinking of ourselves has been a lifelong habit, which is why Paul repeatedly reminded us to not think just of ourselves.
“Each one of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Rom. 15:2).
“No one is to seek his own good, but the good of the other person” (1 Cor. 10:24).
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).
I want to live in a community where individual self-interests don’t run amok or selfishness reigns. But the moment I move there, I’ll mess it up. And you will too. As much as I want to live under the lordship of Christ, I still falter. I take my eyes off Christ too often, and in those moments, self and self-interests try to rise up.
But one day that community will be established. It won’t be done by the likes of Robert Owen or me, but by the One who brings peace and harmony to our lives. That community will be established by Christ and in Christ.
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and we eagerly wait for a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20).
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