No other show captured the need for belonging better than the 80’s sitcom Cheers with its theme song that reminded us all of our desire for place and belonging as it proclaimed, “You wanna be where everybody knows you name.” Yes a sitcom about a group of otherwise social rejects in a dingy bar in Boston tapped into (pun intended) our desire for community, human connection and the rootedness of place. And no other character on Cheers better embodied this need for belonging and exemplified the joy of finding a place to simply belong than Norm Peterson (and for you nostalgic fans here are some “Norm-isms”). At Norm’s every entrance to the bar the patrons yell “Norm!” He is known by all and it is here that Norm truly belongs. Norm is a stand in for the everyday person, the faceless and nameless ones that are lost in the day to day of modern capitalism. Even though Norm has a wife, Vera, it is only here at Cheers that he is truly known, truly accepted and truly belongs.
But why do we need to belong? What is it about human beings that drives us toward belonging? How do we make sense of the warring needs of individuality and belonging? We need to be ourselves, original, unique. We need to be accepted by others, needed by others, loved by others. In other words, we need to belong.
I think it is in our DNA, part of what it means to be human, to need to belong. It goes right back to our earliest human ancestors. Yes maybe some of the reasons for community were survival but I think there is something deeply spiritual, deeply human, about belonging. We have always felt that we are better together than we are alone. But have we evolved beyond that? Can we now through technology, education, hard work and purchasing power make it on our own?
Maybe there are those who think this way. If we’re honest, to read the headlines today there seems to be a lot of people who think and live this way. But it is destroying us and our world. And deep in us there is a longing for belonging. Paul Born, in his book Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times, defines belonging as knowing that “I am home”. This strikes at the very heart of what it means to be human. Born quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” The essence of humanity in the postmodern world needs not to be the individualistic “I think, therefore I am”, but “You are, therefore I am”. According to Born, we “belong in a bundle of life.” Our identity and purpose in wrapped up in community, in others, ultimately in belonging.
So what about belonging in the Christian sense? In his masterpiece on Christian community Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this about belonging in the Church:
“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ. What does this mean? It mean, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.”
Belonging in the Christian sense is wrapped up in the mystery of Christ. At once we are drawn to Christ and in Christ drawn to others. As with our conversation above of Norm and belonging, for Christians belonging is deeper than membership. Norm is not a member of Cheers, but he does belong there. We are not human because of some exclusive membership into a species club called humanity, but we are human because we belong with each other, freely interacting in community. Christians belong not because they are members of a particular denomination or congregation, but we belong in Christ, we belong to and with each other. There are no lone ranger Christians. It is only in others that we truly meet Christ through worshipping together, sharing the sacred meal of Eucharist, hearing the scriptures proclaimed, in fellowship, hospitality and service to and with others.
Christianity, when it is at its best, offers not membership in a club, but taps into that deep human need for belonging. It is not a moral code, ideological camp or cultural refuge. It is belonging to Christ, in Christ and in each other. It is community, no membership required.