If one is to enter any sort of seminary situation or spend time in any form of Christian subculture, that person will encounter two things. They are two sides of the same coin. One is “community” and the other is Western individualism. The first (one is told) is good and the second is bad. I have been doing some thinking on both and would like to publicly “air” out what I have come up with. Perhaps the reader can contribute something that would help me come to terms with this interesting issue.
Western individualism has always been a bogeyman in various circles. What makes someone from the West different from someone from the East, North, or South is a real mystery to me. We know from the third chapter of Romans that everyone is universally the same. This was written from a Middle Eastern perspective, too. Still, Western individualism is quite famous, so maybe we ought to give it some credence.
In doing so, I have come up with this: Western individualism is a reaction against the Western tendency to suppress the individual and de-value it. Think first of Western systems of government and political theory. On the Left, there are policies based on redistribution between classes. If not totally Marxist, they are at least influenced by his thought. On the Right, there is a free market system based on the utilization of roles and the growth of capital. While theoretically opposed, they have at least one thing in common. Individual dignity is diminished in favor of broader attachments to groups or production.
Western individualism is a reaction against an often violent (physically, emotionally, or any other way) attempt by society to “knock off” the rough edges of the individual for the purposes of smooth running. Is it any wonder existentialism came about? Or Thoreau’s and Emerson’s lauding of the “non-conformist”? These movements did not arise out of nothing. They were reactions to a tearing down of individual integrity.
Consider Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Gregor, the protagonist, turns into a dung beetle. He loses his job and, after a short period of compassion from his family, loses them, too. Soon, he is neglected to the point that he starves to death. As heavy as it is, Gregor lost his value as a living being when he lost his ability to produce and provide. Western individualism is a form of hurt that any region of the world would experience when faced with the same outlook.
The Christian equivalent to this crushing of the individual is the emphasis on “community”. There is great chatter about “the nations,” “the people of God,” and “intentional community”. The idea here is to exhort Christians into a form of Christian community or group them into some ethereal mass. Like earlier forms of Christian exhortation, it reflects a profound misunderstanding of Law and Gospel. The salve to individualism is not condemnation or exhortation. It is the Gospel. It is plain in the actions of Jesus.
“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” This is one of the three parables in Luke 15. Jesus is retorting the charges of the Pharisees that he “eats with sinners”. In all three of the parables, Jesus uses examples of individuals. He seeks and saves individuals.
Interestingly enough, these sought-and-saved individuals tend to form communities, both organically and spontaneously. Without exhortation. This is the difference between Law and Gospel. The Law cannot enact the changes it demands. The Gospel communicates a one-way love that actually creates love. It is from the Gospel that community is created. The Balm of Gilead and the comforting of the sinner. Not the Law, not exhortation, not abstract “groupthink” and not condemnation.