The dream did not completely die. Eventually the Disney Corporation did build a city in Florida, now called Celebration. It was established in 1994, though in a very different form than Walt originally envisioned. By the time it was established its goals had changed from the employment of the latest in technology to the celebration of small town values. Instead of the embodiment of Tomorrowland it was intended to be more like Main Street, USA updated to a modern community. And indeed throughout its existence it has been a charming and peaceful place. Late last fall that peace was disrupted. On November 30, just after Thanksgiving, the body of 58-year old retired teacher Matteo Giovanditto was discovered in his Celebration home. He had been beaten and strangled. Later that week police arrested 28-year old David-Israel Murillo, an acquaintance of Giovanditto, and charged him with murder. It was the first murder ever in Celebration. That was bad enough, but shortly thereafter a man named Craig Foushee, a father of three kids, barricaded himself inside his Celebration home for 14 hours. He took some shots at the police then turned his gun on himself and committed suicide. The perfect town, created by the happiest corporation on earth, was rocked by the violence.
Those who dream of and try to create utopia here on this planet typically think what creates all the chaos in human society has to do with the conditions in which we live. It is something outside of us. The cause is that we have personal wealth and fight over it, or we don’t have enough, or we just need more technology. The other factor that utopians seize on is that maybe we don’t have the right understanding or awareness. So the answers are to educate everyone, or to do away with personal possessions and own all things in common, or create a more idyllic environment, or make sure everyone has enough. That’s why these attempts at utopia are always doomed to fail. They misdiagnose the cause of the problem. One person wrote of the events in Celebration, Florida, “you can’t create a perfect community if you’re going to let people live in it.” As cynical as that sounds, that guy nailed the problem. The problem is people. It is something inside all of us that keeps society from coming anywhere close to the dream. If you have people in the community, you are going to have conflict and problems. You can educate them to death, give them whatever economic model you desire, make the situation as ideal as possible, but if you put people in the community it won’t look anything like utopia. Some people say the founding fathers of America were a bit utopian. I totally disagree. I think they were hard headed realists about human nature. That’s why they loaded our system with checks and balances. They wanted to limit the power any one person or group of people could have. They aimed at getting as close to a just society as one could get. They knew that the best they could hope for was a society where as much as possible everyone is equal before the law.
I have to confess that I have a tendency to fall prey to utopian thinking when it comes to the church. How could you not if you are serious about the church and you pay attention to what the Bible says? Jesus said “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that we are new creations, “the old has gone, the new has come!” Ezekiel 36:26-27 says believers in Jesus will have a new heart and a new spirit, and that we will have God’s Spirit in us and his law in our hearts. Ephesians 4:32 calls us to be kind and compassionate to each other, literally “gracing” each other as in Christ God “graced” us. That’s all about attacking the real problem. It is about changing the human heart. It depicts a new kind of community in which people actually love each other and all the ugliness of human nature disappears because they have been truly transformed from the inside out. I read those things, but when I look at the church as a whole in our nation my reaction is “Really? Is this what that community looks like? Where is the grace? Where is the love? Where is the Christlikeness? Where are the transformed people?” All that love and grace seems conspicuously absent an awful lot of the time. What I read sounds like utopia. What I see is more than a little disappointing. Sigh.
Does this mean the Bible is not true because people really aren’t transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ? Or does it mean that the gospel is true but there’s something wrong with the church in our land? More the latter than the former, I suppose, but mostly I need to remember that the utopia envisioned in the New Testament will only be fully experienced in the eternal kingdom of God. I have to keep those magnificent commands and promises about the church in context. The church I see in the New Testament was far from a dream. The Corinthians made the worst church in America look idyllic in comparison. There were problems in Galatia, Ephesus and Philippi. In Luke’s account of the very first church in the book of Acts we read about the founding of the church in Acts 2. The first problems crop up only 3 chapters later. Jesus gave us a target to aim at in our personal lives when he said “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” He knew we wouldn’t hit that target, but that’s what we should aim at nonetheless. Similarly the New Testament gives the church a target to aim at knowing we will not hit it until the next age. But that’s our goal nevertheless.
Our church has been a delight, at least to me. But it’s crucial to recall that it is not utopia. It cannot be. It is made up of people. We will experience failures and dustups with each other. What is deeply needed is for us to continue to show each other grace at all times. We will have to remember that we are all human and fallible and rejoice that Jesus died on a cross to cover it all. As for me personally, most of all I must remember that my role in this fallen world is not to be critical of others or angry at them for the failings I might at some point perceive in them. My role is to let God’s grace and love transform me, to make me a person who truly graces other people and has compassion and kindness for them at all times. And I must always be thankful for the glimpses of utopia that God allows me to have through our church. I will say that those glimpses recently have been lovely indeed.