How to be independent together
In the beginning, man was alone. Even though God created all animals and brought them to man to be named, man was alone. And it didn’t suit him at all. God could see that, and so he whispered a deep, deep sleep unto man and while he slept, God took his rib and from it created the other part of man: woman.
From that very early day on, humanity was community.
From the day we are born, we are part of a community. Whether it be a family, tribe, orphanage or school, we are never alone. The community feeds us, cleans us, teaches us right from wrong, raises us.
It makes us stronger than we are, because in it we are more than just one person. We are many. It makes us weaker than we are, because we have to bend our will to the rules of the community, give up our autonomy.
Within a community, we cannot stand alone. The interest of the group will collide with that of the individual. And that will cause friction and pain and frustration. But we have no other way. To be human is to be part of a community. We cannot survive on our own.
Still, we crave autonomy, every one of us. Growing up, we test the rules and boundaries of our communities. You can see it in small toddlers, pushing the “no!” just a bit further to see where it will go. You can see it in rebellious young adults designing their own way in life, making their own choices. And yes, autonomy literally means making your own rules. But the modern interpretation lies more in the way of carving your own path through life, being independent.
We desperately want to have a say in everything that concerns us, we want to make our own decisions, to do and be our best. In these modern times, we take pride in our autonomy, in being able to fend for ourselves, in living by our own rules and standing up for them.
Struggling against community
But autonomy is no party. In fact, it is a constant struggle. And so it has always been, even in Old Testament times, as in the well-known story of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.
Even before he is born, Jacob is in community. And even as an unborn child he doesn’t take it too well. He and his twin brother fight so fiercely inside the womb that their mother Rebecca wonders why she is still alive. When he is born, he is still grabbing his older brother’s heel.
In Jacob’s book, Jacob comes first. Always. No rules but his own. And he bends community around it.
Easily, with nothing more than a hot meal, he swindles his brother Esau out of his birthright. Next, Jacob deceives his father. Isaac, blind from old age, lies on his deathbed, waiting for Esau to turn up to give him his blessing. Jacob comes in, pretending to be his older brother. He ruthlessly steals the patriarchal blessing.
Jacob now has everything that should rightfully be Esau’s. He has won all, and at the same time, he lost all. For he cannot stay in the community he so despised. He has to flee for his life.
Living by your own set of rules and living in a community do not go well together.
Calling his own shots
In fleeing the scene of the crime, Jacob leaves everything. Or so he thinks. But just before he enters the great unknown, he has a dream. In that dream, God promises to go with Jacob wherever he may go. God will protect him, God will bring him back, God will not leave Jacob until God has fulfilled God’s promise.
Typically, Jacob is not sure. He calls the place Beth-el, the house of God, but he immediately starts negotiating. If God will really be with me, if God really will protect me, if God really will provide for me, well, then, yes, in that case, God will be my God.
Jacob does not give in easily. Oh no. If God wants to stay with him, fine. But Jacob is calling the shots. That’s what autonomy is all about, right?
And the story continues. Jacob’s love for his Rachel is famous. But in trying to marry her before her older sister Leah is married, Jacob once again tries to make community bend to his own rules. Funnily, he is no match for the tricks up Laban’s sleeve and he ends up with four women in all.
After some 20 years of hard labour, God calls Jacob back to Canaan. Jacob takes up his wives, his children (11 sons and a daughter at that time) and the herds he gathered and he sneaks off when Laban is busy shearing sheep.
Again, Jacob is making choices without considering the effect on other people. Living by his own rules, his own fears, his own assumptions. In sneaking off with his wives and children, he overlooks the fact that they are part of Laban’s life too: daughters, grandchildren, future.
Of course, it is his right as an autonomous person. He lives by his own law. No consideration for any kind of community.
Offering it all up
Surprisingly, on the brink of coming home, the leopard changes his spots. Jacob realizes that Esau might not be very happy to welcome him home, considering the way Jacob deceived him before. Jacob tries to secure the peace, by sending messengers ahead. But they return, saying Esau is coming their way with at least 400 men. Jacob (impressed, worried, scared) is now confronted with the consequences of his earlier choices: what if Esau takes it all: wives, children, herds, riches? What if Esau wants retribution, revenge?
What if community pays it all back to autonomy?
And so, Jacob takes a bold decision: he offers it all up to Esau, of his own free will. In doing so, he tries to make amends for what he has done. He acknowledges his wrongdoing, and the consequences his choices had on Esau’s life.
In offering up everything his autonomy has gained him, Jacob in fact offers his autonomy itself to Esau.
And so, we enter that epic scene, where Jacob brings his wives and children, all he owns, to the other side of the river and then returns. Now, he is totally and truly alone. He has nothing left. Not even autonomy.
And then somebody comes and wrestles him. All night long. Somebody. No name. No identification, except the ominous Why do you ask me for my name? (32:29). Is it God himself? One of his messengers? Or do we have to understand this all in a more metaphorical way? Is Jacob in fact wrestling himself?
Maybe. After all, the life of Jacob is one big struggle with the people around him and their rules and expectations, with himself and his own choices, his own way through life. Maybe in the end, he does wrestle God. Or himself. Or another metaphorical person. It does not matter.
What matters is that he comes out winning. With a new blessing. With a new name. No longer Jacob: “heelgrabber,” but Israel: “wrestles with God.”
Jacob no longer seeks to enrich himself by grabbing the heel of others, causing them to fall and fail. Instead, he struggles for the rest of his life, every day anew. With the people around him, with God, and far most...with himself.
And you know what? Most of the time, he comes out winning. Slightly limping, but winning nevertheless. And as he crosses the river, a new dawn rises. A patriarch is born.
What a story.
A lesson in consequences
But the truly amazing thing about the story of Jacob is that it doesn’t explicitly condemn Jacob or his actions. There is not one point where the story, or even God himself explicitly disapproves of what Jacob does.
You can feel it is not all good and beautiful, but the story itself keeps quiet about it. It just shows the consequences, shows you the effect of Jacob’s actions: he has to flee and leave everything behind. He lives in constant fear, of Esau, of Laban, of Esau again. He has to start all over again, many times.
The story tells you all that. But the story never tells you that Jacob did wrong.
You can feel it. You can read it between the lines, but it is all in your imagination, really. The story never says so.
And that’s what makes it such an intriguing story. Jacob is no holy, immanently good or pious wonder of a human being. He makes a great example because he is not exemplary at all. He is just like any of us. And so in our heads and hearts, we easily fill in the blanks. We feel how utterly wrong some of his decisions are as if they are our own. We shiver, thinking of the consequences. We wait, anxiously, for the story to go sour.
And it never does. Despite living by his own rules and never quite recognizing the rights of other people, there is no judgment for Jacob except that which he issues himself. Fundamentally, that is what this story is all about. Autonomy. Living by your own rules. Making your own law.
For autonomy doesn’t just mean you make your own choices and live by your own rules. It means you have to judge yourself too. There is no one else. Not even God, according to this story. You have to figure it out by yourself. God merely walks with you, whatever the outcome. It is Jacob who makes demands and utters conditions, not God.
And that is an Old Testament lesson for all of us modern people, craving autonomy.
Autonomy comes with the acknowledgment that the people around you (your community) limit your freedom to make your own decisions, your own rules. Autonomy in this modern sense is not about making your own rules no matter what, but about realizing, accepting and acknowledging the other people in your life. It is about willingly respecting these, because together you form a community.
So the question is: are we capable, am I capable of sculpting my own life within these boundaries? Can I live my life free and independently (autonomously) within community?
Am I mature enough to acknowledge the fact that I am not totally in charge of my own life? Can I accept that I am bound by the people I love, by the community around me, and by God who walks with me wherever I go?
Or, in a broader sense, will it be possible for various churches to keep their autonomy within the wider Anabaptist community? Are we prepared to wrestle?
The story of Jacob teaches us that it is not wrong to follow your own way through life. It is not wrong to try to test your own strength and to strive for autonomy. It is not about being wrong or being right. It is about making your own choices, and at the same time acknowledging those of the community around you. It is about recognizing the hurt and pain and frustration on both sides. It is about taking responsibility. For your actions, for those of the community. For yourself. And, if necessary, making amends.
That kind of autonomy, the grown-up, modern kind, doesn’t come easily. Growing up is not easy. To keep some sense of autonomy within community is like constantly wrestling with people and God and most of all yourself.
And even if you win, it leaves you slightly limping.
Wieteke van der Molen of the Netherlands spoke on Friday evening, 24 July 2015, at Assembly 16. Wieteke, who pastors a small rural Mennonite congregation north of Amsterdam, loves to read and tell stories.