Are Christians in the US fundamentally uncomfortable with community?
I’ve been reading a book out of the excellent series of worship texts published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship called A More Profound Alleluia, edited by Leanne Van Dyk. The book explores what our liturgy says about our theology, and how our theology drives our liturgy– and sometimes, what we state as our theology can be belied by what we do with our liturgy. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in why we do what we do in worship.
I have a natural interest in the historical practices of the church because I’ve never quite felt comfortable clamoring to take down a fence until I understood why it was erected. And once I learn the reasoning behind something, perhaps it’s theological or symbolic, the historical nerd in me frequently says “well isn’t that cool? We should do that!”
There are, however, some historical practices of the church that I find harder to swallow, and I’m noticing that my resistance seems to be, at times, related to how much I identify in my individuality and independence. Lately, I’ve been thinking about where that part of my identity comes from.
Many people have noted that individualism is an essential part of understanding American culture. For better or worse, the political philosophy upon which this country was founded, establishing historical levels of freedom unheard of in any other country and now emulated by countries around the world and used as the measure of fundamental human rights and basic human decency, permits the individual with considerable ability to chart his or her own destiny. (For argument’s sake, I’m glossing over the not-shallow pool of legitimate justice issues that have often stemmed from historical prejudices and oppression, left to run rampant thanks to this freedom. They’re very important, but peripheral to my contemplations.)
If you think about the heritage of the country, with pioneers and cowboys and explorers traveling to map a new land, and folks packing up their belongings and traveling to parts unknown on the rumor of employment or better fortunes, it really makes sense why independence is so tightly woven into the fabric of our country. You had to be able to make it on your own, or you wouldn’t make it at all. Even after the country was settled, America has had a seriously difficult time with anyone trying to tell them what to do. The defense of independence, frequently labeled as “freedom,” is often a knee-jerk reaction in our country.
A few have questioned whether individualism is such a good thing. When one begins to see how the theory of individualism tends to prize a certain ruthlessness over compassion, grace, and forgiveness, they might have a point. And honestly, if individualism has in any way caused this matchup between Hillary and Trump, I think I’m comfortable saying that it might not be as great as we suspected.
Be that as it may, individualism and independence are so fundamentally tied to the American culture, reinforced by shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent where anyone can be a star if they work hard enough, that they’re not going anywhere soon.
To top it off, growing up as a girl in the 1990s, we were surrounded by these strong, independent female role models who preached that true feminism was total independence: you didn’t need anyone’s help, much less a guy’s, and it was all about embracing your awesome individuality. I was never really into soccer, but every girl had a poster of Mia Hamm on their wall, and so did I. I remember watching Xena and [that other girl] kick some serious butt, and Clarissa was so awesomely sassy as she “explained it all.” And on the music front, Gwen Stefani did not take any nonsense from anyone, and do I really need to mention the Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child? These women were female role models for a generation of girls, and defined feminism in a very particular way for that generation.
So this is where I’m starting from. I have 2 parts of my identity, my culture, that are fiercely independent. And in a lot of ways that’s good! It makes me step up and be a better version of myself every single day, because no one can do it for me. It’s made me resilient, and it gave me the confidence to follow a call to ministry without worrying whether I could take care of myself. I’m capable and smart, of course I can!
A few weeks ago my senior pastor preached on the community of believers in Acts, and I can’t say that I’m ever particularly comfortable when that passage comes up. He used Acts 2:42-47, but a few chapters later in Acts 4 there’s a more complete description of what it was like living in that community:
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Reading about this group of folks is uncomfortable because it sets up expectations about the big-C Church and those who are members of it. And they’re expectations that are directly counter to the ways I identify as a strong, independent person, both in my identity as an American and a woman.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say the culture of independence in our country, and the strain of independent-individualistic-feminism in which I grew up, are fundamentally incompatible with the kind of Christian community that we find in the book of Acts. Both of these cultures value pride in oneself above all others, and as Christians we’re called to sacrifice that self, to die to self for Christ.
This is a challenge that’s unique to the Christian church in America; I don’t know of any other culture that celebrates freedom and individuality to such a degree, nor can I think of another culture that has such a severe automatic response to being told what to do. We also don’t have a vast legacy of relationships that have been steeped for generations the way many older countries do, though we have a few. So if Americans don’t like something a group or community does, they usually leave it: they end the relationship. They boycott (Chick fil-A, Target), they sue, they torch it and find another community. There is no effort toward investing in living in an imperfect community. There’s rarely any value placed on the relationship that’s greater than the irritation of disagreement.
And everyone does this! We self-segregate more than ever, because more than ever we have the ability to do so, and it’s not healthy or beneficial to individuals or to our country at large. We pick colleges where we’re going to feel comfortable and not challenged, we live in neighborhoods with “people like us”, we go to churches where everyone agrees with us, which is seriously not healthy for Christians or for the Church– and we often shun those who attempt to be a part of our community but are different than us, or who disagree with us.
But that’s not how you live in community. When you live in community with others, at the level of these Christians in Acts, you live with them through the agreements and the disagreements. You love them in the times when you totally understand them, and in the times when you totally don’t get where they’re coming from. You appreciate them despite- and perhaps because of- your differences. And you don’t bolt from the community at the first sign of unpleasantness.
This country’s culture has made us allergic to living in true community like the example that was set for us. It is a naturalized cultural tendency to bolt from a community for any number of reasons, and be our individualistic, independent selves. But a Christian faith calls for a different response.