Whether it is debates about same sex marriage, abortion, welfare, pandemic lockdowns, or social justice, Christians often find themselves right in the middle of a culture war. It can often be confusing and frustrating when others don’t see things the same way. It may even seem like we’re all speaking different languages or see the world through a different set of lenses. I want to suggest that some reflection about “individualism” and “collectivism” might help us better understand one another. More importantly, reflection on these ideas might help us better understand the Gospel.
What is Individualism?
Individualism places great importance on personal rights and freedom. The individualist believes that, within reason, people should be allowed to decide for themselves how to live their lives. A person’s success should be determined primarily by their own skills, desires, and choices. If someone has great ambition, they should be allowed great freedom to pursue their own happiness. If someone is successful, individualism tends to attribute that success to good personal choices.
Just as success is usually attributed to personal choices, so is failure. Within an individualistic worldview, personal responsibility is incredibly important. Even if other factors were involved, an individualist tends to blame himself for his failures. A truly individualistic person doesn’t want to view himself as a victim of circumstances, but as the captain of his own ship. Therefore, he believes each person should accept responsibility for carrying the consequences of his own mistakes and failures.
A phrase like, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” is indicative of an individualistic worldview. The individualist wants to be able to take credit for his own successes, but will also accept the blame and consequences for his own failures. He expects others to do the same.
What is Collectivism?
Collectivism, on the other hand, places greater importance on community. Because there is a great interconnectedness and interdependence within every community, each person’s success depends not only on his own hard work, but also on the hard work of friends, family, and neighbors. To the collectivist, therefore, it is important that everyone within the community have shared values, shared goals, and a willingness to contribute to a shared success.
Failure is also seen through a collectivist lens. The collectivist believes the community must take responsibility for one another’s mistakes, shortcomings, and failures. If someone is not pulling his own weight, that person is not only jeopardizing his own success and happiness, but also the success and happiness of friends, family, and neighbors. Therefore, when any individual threatens the well-being of the community, the community must either bear that person’s weight or remove that person from the community.
The Three Musketeers’ motto, “All for one, and one for all” comes to mind when I think of a collectivist worldview. Collectivism believes we stand or fall together and we have a responsibility to—and for—one another.
Shame and Guilt
We often use the words “shame” and “guilt” synonymously. While there is certainly some overlap, they actually have fairly distinct meanings. In fact, it might be helpful to consider why “guilt” is more easily associated within an individualistic worldview and “shame” is more associated within a collectivist worldview.
The way I think about it is this, guilt says, “You’ve done wrong.” Shame says, “You don’t belong.” Guilt is typically assigned by some sort of “judge,” while shame is assigned by a community of people. Guilt is about being at fault and shame is about being rejected.
From a collectivist perspective, because success and failure are shared, shame is used to make sure everyone within the community maintains the same values and goals. When a member of the community doesn’t live up to shared expectations or keep shared traditions, that person is rejected by the community. Shame can be imposed explicitly or implicitly, but the message is clear, “You’re not one of us.”
Within individualism, each person is only responsible for his own actions, so guilt is used to assign responsibility. If someone has violated a code of conduct, that person alone must bear the consequences. Collectivist cultures even have a place for collective guilt. They understand that whole communities and whole generations share guilt for collective evil they commit. Some individuals contribute little and some individuals contribute much, but the whole community shares the guilt.
Clashing, Shifting, and Blurring Worldviews
Modern Americans are experiencing an identity crisis. We have clashing, shifting, and blurring worldviews. We seem to be fairly inconsistent about how individualistic we want to be and when we want to apply a collectivist framework to any given discussion.
On the one hand, we say we want personal freedom of religion, speech, and expression; but we also use public shaming—through boycotting of organizations and “canceling” of individuals—to punish those who don’t share our values and goals. One moment, we blame individuals for their behavior and say the solutions lie in changing individual hearts and minds; but the very next moment, we blame society and say the solutions lie in reforming the collective community. We oppose losing our own personal freedoms but are also critical of others when the exercise of their personal freedoms offends our collective values.
It is so difficult to figure out why some people see some issues individualistically, but other issues collectively. Both the “right” and “left” ends of the cultural spectrum tend to be fairly inconsistent. So, how should Christians navigate this challenging culture?
The Gospel Worldview
The Gospel—the Good News of Jesus’ reign over God’s kingdom and new creation—provides us with an alternative narrative, worldview, and community.
First, the Gospel undermines a truly collectivist worldview. The first-century world was collectivist to its core and Jesus shook things up by calling individuals to follow him. He knew this would cause outrage and shame within families and communities (Matthew 10:34-39; Luke 14:25-32). This is one reason the Gospel is so radical in some cultures. The Gospel calls individuals to make a decision of faith independent of family, friends, and community.
Second, the Gospel undermines a truly individualistic worldview. Though the Gospel challenges collectivist cultures, the Gospel is not individualistic. The Gospel calls individuals to forsake their family of origin to be adopted into a new family. In fact, so collectivist is the Gospel that all believers everywhere are called “one body” (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Though each individual in the “body,” has value and choice, they are inseparably linked to the rest of the body.
Third, the Gospel takes away our shame. There is no way for the Christian to remain “one body” with their non-believing community and “one body” with the church. When we accept the values, goals, and lifestyle of disciples, we are rejected by our community and there is shame. Jesus takes away this shame by offering us a seat at his table. But when we accept that reality, we also have to stop trying to punish unbelievers with shame when they don’t share our values, goals, and lifestyle. Unbelievers are not part of our collective community and we have no right to shame them (see 1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
Fourth, the Gospel takes away our guilt. Jesus removes both our individual guilt and our collective guilt. Some, who are steeped in individualism, deny the existence of collective guilt. But the only evidence we need for collective guilt is the cross. After all, a theology that doesn’t account for the collective nature of sin cannot really explain the atonement of the cross. Jesus didn’t take *your* place on the cross, but died to atone for the collective sins of all humanity.
We are individuals, but we are far more than individuals. We are part of community. But the world’s individualism and the world’s collectivism are both incongruent with the Gospel.
From a natural perspective, we have been shaped and influenced by our communities (family, friends, neighbors, nations, and ethnic groups). And by participating in their sin, even in the smallest ways, we share their guilt. When the natural consequences of their sins are visited upon them, we suffer alongside them. If we ever fail to help and serve them, our actions negatively impact the whole community.
Jesus calls us individually to make the decision to be part of his community: the new Israel, the new humanity, citizens of his kingdom. He takes away our shame and guilt by atoning for our sin and accepting us at his table. He calls us to love this new community and be “one” with them. He also calls us to continue loving and living amongst our old communities, considering ourselves strangers, aliens, exiles, and sojourners within these communities.
He calls us to seek the welfare of all of our neighbors without discrimination or selfish ambition. He calls us to feed them when they’re hungry and clothe them when they’re naked. He calls us to love them as we love ourselves. But he also calls us not to bend when they try to shame us into living life their way. We are part of a new family now.
I love you and God loves you,