The Myth of Individualism

It seems pretty clear that the most determining fact of our existence is when and where we are born, and into what family or social class.  This makes all the difference. Obviously there are exceptions and stories of social mobility that are part and parcel of the American identity, but the vast majority of the possibilities for our lives on average are nonetheless limited or expanded by these conditions.  And almost every story you hear that defies this has a back-story that illustrates how all these divergent pieces had to come together at just the right time for that person’s “rags to riches” dream to come true.  The most significant thing about our birth though is that we have absolutely nothing to do with it.  Contemplating this truth alone can bring even the most pretentious of us to our knees before God.  Yet we take so much pride in our accomplishments and are very quick to think that what we have is earned and achieved… is somehow ours to claim – despite that the very basis of those accomplishments is grounded in something utterly contingent and beyond our control.

At the same time, it’s also common to hear people in the church admit that everything is God’s and that we are just stewards of our money, but there can be a strong dose of superficiality even in this seemingly humble statement.  In fact, this idea can very easily serve to justify doing exactly what we want with 90% of our possessions, rather than to encourage us to take our God-given collective responsibility seriously and to make legitimate sacrifices.  Why?  Because this statement is almost always followed by a disclaimer like, “it’s not a crime to be ‘successful’ . . . as long what I’m doing doesn’t harm anyone, or as long as I give a tithe to my church, etc.” etc.  But is this view not oblivious to why some “have” and others “have not”?  What are the social conditions that permit us to live in relative peace and to have the chance to accumulate wealth?  What is the history that gave us access to prosperity?

With all things held constant, with “perfect competition” as economists like to say, if all of us begin with relatively equal access to opportunity, and all basic resources are available in relative plenitude, than it might just be true that to accumulate excessively is not a crime.  The complication is, no such constants exist.  The point – which is definitely not a new one – is that in today’s world, it is never enough to just give money away and avoid “doing harm.”  We must work to transform the societal structures that perpetuate poverty and disability in the first place.  If our standard of living is at a level such that everyone in the world could feasibly live at that same level, then our wealth might be justified – as long as we are doing our part to create that kind of world.  If most or all of our charitable donations go to a church, for instance, then additionally we’d better ask what our churches are doing to build such a world.

So yes, I submit that if there are those who are oppressed and dying by no fault of their own at the same time that there are Christians living in the world abundantly, then this situation itself is a crime.  But here is the key: our culpability for the death and destruction going on around the world is not primarily individual in nature.  Individuals ought not be exonerated, but I am not pointing to any one prosperous person and accusing them of ill intent.  Rather, there are structural and systemic forces at work that have long histories that have led us to this particular moment.  These forces amount to more than the mere sum of their parts and take on a self-preserving life of their own at the expense of the interest of society as a whole.  Great transfers of wealth occurred during the slave trade and various European (and more recently American!) colonial conquests whose consequences are still being felt today.  Generational sins are passed down, and we come into this world already conditioned by a past with which we are not very familiar and constantly take for granted.  This shortsightedness is kind of like what the philosopher Martin Heidegger liked to call “the forgetfulness of being.”  Christians everywhere, in the U.S. especially, are suffering from a fatal case of this forgetfulness.  The lesson to be learned is this: the essence of human life is one of thorough interdependency.  The second we fail to remember this, a foolish sense of entitlement creeps in, which, I suggest, produces the single greatest blind spot in American political and economic ideology.  Consequently, the most counter-cultural imagination available to Christians in the 21st Century is one that runs directly against the current of individualism – individualism being understood here as the values of liberty and independence gone awry.

Now, it should go without saying that individual responsibility and the potential weight of the choices we make can still be affirmed.  Choices matter – just not nearly as much as a lot of people think they do.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the choices and the options with which we are presented are all-too-often already narrowed down before they get to us.  Our horizons are anything about limitless.

We are our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, and we don’t get to ask, “oh but what did you do to end up in this situation?  Did you work hard like me?”  The arrogance of this sort of question is equal to the ignorance of the sinner who says to Jesus, “but when did we see you hungry?”  Admittedly, Jesus did not seem terribly concerned about necessarily changing the power structures of his day, but he was very intent on subverting and exposing them for what they were – especially when it came to social hierarchies.  He did this every time he healed or forgave people who were unclean and who, in the eyes of society, had brought certain misfortunes upon themselves.  What we’ve learned since Jesus, however, is that human beings are capable of being transformative agents in history working toward either a more just social order or a more disparate gap between classes.  The Bible doesn’t answer all of our contemporary questions when it comes to matters of faith and practice.  It does, however, give us the foundational principles, not the least of which is to plead the case of the afflicted and needy (Jeremiah 22:16).

In sum, individualism is not just one worldview to choose from among others with neutral value.  Individualism is an inherently illusory, naïve and pernicious perspective.  We must diagnose ourselves by taking off the rose-colored glasses handed to us by unmerited privilege – with their lenses that would otherwise give the status quo the benefit of the doubt.

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