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Koinonia: Community in a time of crisis

A famous 20th century Harvard physiologist, Walter Bradford Cannon, developed the theory that when humans — and other animals — are experiencing a circumstance of great stress they exhibit a ‘flight or flight’ response.

That is, they either take up arms against the sea of life’s struggles, or alternatively turn tail and seek a quick get-away. Later theorists also added the concept of ‘freeze’, whereby some people are actually caught in a middle-ground, unable to move forward to meet the threat or go sideways to avoid the danger.

For others again, this momentary pause can provide a calculated weighing up of the situation, whereby the individual’s training and life experience allows them in the twinkling of an eye to determine whether the crisis is one that can be met head-on or needs to be avoided at the present time.

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is bringing all these physiological reactions to the fore, not just at the level of responses in each person’s daily life but at the broader societal level across the whole globe.

Some communities and governments have shown a capacity to engage with the dual public health and economic threats, by implementing planned shutdowns and a calculated allocation of limited health resources, while others have shown a distinct inability to evaluate the true nature of this calamitous event and thus have failed to plan adequately for a suitable response, to the ongoing detriment of the people they are meant to lead.

History shows us that, in many ways, ever has it been so — sometimes people and leaders can name the trouble before them, and respond accordingly, at other times, they bicker and squabble, and in their pettiness fail the major crisis of their times.

Cannon’s clever and correct naming of the physiological responses exhibited by individuals can suggest, however, that these crises are ones that can be overcome by each person as isolated beings. As a rolling list of nations throughout the world show, however, it is in fact only as a group of individuals coming together as a body that COVID-19 will be overcome. Beginning with China, and then variously Italy, Spain, Australia, India and Indonesia  — to name only a few — governments have all come to the realization that it must take a community-wide response to solve this community-experienced event.

This sense of fellowship, or communion, is in fact an ancient trait of Christian communities, howsoever our supposedly more enlightened and atomistic societies might have forgotten this.

It has thus been of interest to note that the public discourse has increasingly moved from a language that emphasizes ‘fighting’ and of communities being on a ‘war footing’, to the use of terms and concepts that talk of togetherness, of commonality and of shared humanity. Again, such expressions of fellowship have been present within church communities from the earliest days, and most conveniently they have been described by the Greek word koinonia.

One of the key texts where this sense of communion is on display is in the Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 2, verses 41 to 45), whereby many new believers have been swayed by the words of St. Peter and they join in fellowship with the followers of Christ, with no distinction between them.

“So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about 3,000 persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship [koinonia], to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Church communities throughout Asia have often been visible examples of such koinonia, in many ways because the experience of being Christian in lands and societies that are predominantly Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim mean that not only does each believer have to turn to their neighbour for help but likewise model a way of being that emphasises community and fellowship.

The sharing of goods and good fellowship has enabled Christian communities from places like Lahore to Yogyakarta to support each other and also convince their non-Christian neighbours of their good intentions and goodness. Koinonia, the coming together as one, is a strong powerful tool for all communities and no more so than at a time of crisis such as we all face now.

And yet, the choice remains ours at a personal level.

As Acts of the Apostles Chapter 5 also shows, if we do not exhibit such community-mindedness and rather seek to solve our problems on our own then we will befall a fate more like Ananias than that of the believers living in koinonia, supporting each other as one come what may.

Dr Jeremy Clarke, PhD is an Australian with degrees in Chinese History, and theology and divinity, and is the Director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of

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