Individualistic unity

American culture complicates caring for the ‘body’

Apr 14, 2014 by

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Americans prize personal liberty and individual choice. We prefer cars and trucks over buses and trains. Contemporary worship songs hew to personal, not group, language. Believing that anyone who works hard enough can get rich or be a star, we do our own thing and reap the spoils. Even our corporations have personhood, the courts say, and efforts are under way to further define liberty in just such a context.

This individualism exists alongside the display of what can be done with collectivism on a grand scale. Vaccinations and sewage systems conquer disease. Farming cooperatives grant producers a degree of control over the market. The U.S. armed forces exemplify the awesome might a nation can purchase.

Conversely, Brian Pipkin’s article on Amish survival describes a group that bases its decisions not on what is best for the individual but for the community. Pipkin reports the findings of researcher Cory Anderson, who says that although the Amish employ gossip, peer pressure and shunning to encourage conformity, they are generally happier than the wider society because their basic needs are met.

Among Anabaptists, a gaping rift divides philosophies on how much we should bear each other’s burdens. Some translate Christian compassion into national, well-funded systems that attend to everyone’s needs, from medical bills to low-income assistance. Others support small government and libertarian autonomy as consistent with the separation of church and state and with the biblical mandate for Christians to be not of this world.

The right place might be somewhere in the middle. Neither political ideology exclusively holds the total solution.

Like polarized secular politics, polarized church politics make opponents something to be either avoided or vanquished. But each of us in the church brings something unique. “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:4-5).

We are called to care for the stranger, just as we are called to personal responsibility. Each of us is an individual creation. Each of us is part of a greater body. As New York University professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies Mark S. Smith said in his recent lectureship at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, God’s “body” is complex enough to handle quite a bit.

Yet the body is in danger. In our schismed pursuit of purity and unity, we risk cutting out more than appendixes and tonsils. We surgically create bodies without a liver, callouses or even a heart. We must take care to avoid both mindless love and heartless thinking.

Few will join the Amish in submitting the individual totally to the community. But each of us can reach out. It will take many individual efforts to look beyond hastily applied group labels and see our fellow organs.


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