What is the source of the failure? It has many names — individualism, cultural libertarianism, atomism, selfishness, lack of social trust, suspicion of authority — and it takes a multitude of forms. But whatever we call it, it amounts to a refusal on the part of lots of Americans to think in terms of the social whole — of what's best for the community, of the common or public good - Damon Linker
Our 4th of July celebrations are literally and appropriately muted this year. With most gatherings banned, there’ll be far fewer “bombs bursting in air…” as the anthem goes. Many, for various reasons ranging from prudence to fear and anxiety, won’t be on their normal beaches and lakes, having chosen to stay home instead as isolation once again goes viral. I’d like to take a moment and invite you to some reflection and response as we consider our current national condition, for the reality is that, by any standard, we as a nation are not OK. In a recent article, David Brooks articulates our national humiliation and it’s worth reading. The summary, though, is that the seeds of individualism that have been so generously sown in our churches and cultural institutions from sea to shine sea are now beginning to bear their ugly fruit. We’re reaping what we’ve sown, and thoughtful people are seeing how badly America is broken.
Diagnosis of the problem is important, but on this holiday I’d suggest that whatever the diagnosis, the way forward will demand all four of these elements on the part of people who claim to follow Christ:
Embrace our collective ideal
The language is everywhere in our founding ideals. “All men (‘people’ would have been better) are created equal,” “... with liberty and justice for all,” “...all (people) are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…" Any thinking person who reads these lines is called to repentance, for all of us in this moment, are struck by how contradictory these ideals have been to the actual embodied values of our culture. In “The Case for Reparations”, the author offers overwhelming evidence of how we have collectively legalized a vast transfer of wealth away from the labors of black people towards whites. Banking laws, homeowners associations, and redlining, not to mention Jim Crow laws, are just a few of the ways white people, including and especially Christian white people, have systematically and legally profited from the suppression of black people.
We can begin our journey of recovery by both learning about and embracing our ideals of “justice for all.” There are many reasons for this but the most important reason is that God desires for the flourishing of all people, and so therefore ought we as God’s image bearers. This theme is woven through the Bible as seen in God’s consistent care for the widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor. It is perhaps best summarized, though, in this simple statement: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” I Corinthians 12:26
The constitution of our nation was written as a means of, among other things, "ensuring domestic tranquility." This ideal is impossible in a country where deaths like George Floyd happen over and over and over and over and over, so frequently that we’ve lost count. That these things continue to happen 150 after slavery has ended is the best evidence that “justice for all” has never been our collective pursuit. And though systemic racism is the worst of it, it’s not the whole of it. There are untold millions who’ve lived their lives with the system stacked against them, including woman of course, but also many workers in service industries, single mothers (many of whom are in their situations due to domestic violence or drug addictions of their husbands), veterans, immigrants, and more.
Do we really believe that when “one part suffers we all suffer?" Or are we content to gain our slice of the American dream and define our success individually as amassing and then passing on our wealth, education, and Jesus as our ‘personal savior’ to our offspring? That vision is too small friends. We need to wake up to our interconnectedness and our responsibility for one another, especially those who’ve suffered as a result of systemic policies of oppression.
Repent of our individualism
Our individualism is quite possibly the headwaters, the central source of our national malaise. After all, our founders came here in search of freedom to pursue their own ‘individual’ forms of worship outside the collective norms imposed back home. Once here, we continued to struggle with how to live in community while maintaining our own personal freedom. We debate everything from our freedom to amass a vast arsenal of personal weapons, to our freedom to choose whether or not to wear a mask in Costco. We are so entrenched in the idolatry of personal, individual freedom that we’re threatened, or offended, or both, when we’re told to do something for the common good. I just finished chatting with a friend in England who shared that his country enforces social distancing between grandchildren and grandparents as just one of many imposed actions to collectively beat the virus.
We can't even wear masks without whining, or crying conspiracy, or liberal power grab. We also resist caring for each other’s health and well-being, remaining the only country in the developed world where health care isn’t universally accessible. As a result, millions of vulnerable people fail to seek needed health care due to cost. They then become inadvertent carriers of the virus. As a result, while the rest of the developed world is beating this thing through collective consciousness and national directives, our numbers of new cases recently rival or exceed our numbers in the early days of the crisis in March. In the “land of the free,” we’re losing the battle.
It’s time we acknowledge our idol of individualism. It’s time we acknowledge that indeed, we are all in this together, and that the well-being of my neighbor, who I’m invited to love regardless of his/her race, gender, political affiliation, economic status, or sexual practice, is directly tied to my well-being. Such a mindset would move us into each others lives once again.
Because individualism is our uniquely American sin problem, we must name how important it is that our repentance be not individual, but collective. When II Chronicles 7:14 invokes humility and repentance, it was a call for what in those days would have been named a ‘solemn assembly’, as seen in Joel 1:14. They were collectively aware of their collective failure. In the case of Joel, there was a catalytic event that unleashed a floodgate of soul-searching and ultimately led to some collective national repentance.
Perhaps in our day it’s the George Floyd event, because his death has unleashed a national anger and mourning whose flame extends across nearly all demographics of America and beyond our shores. We’re waking up to our collective sin as we consider our history through the lens of privilege and see with new eyes.
It’s not enough to see, though. It’s vital that we own this as our collective story. Our mistreatment of indigenous people and people of color wasn’t accidental. It was intentional, with full awareness, and rooted in the lie that skin color should be a determinant of privilege. Until we own it as our story and repent of it, we’ll never be healed from it.
Repent holistically, not politically
Racism isn’t the only collective failure, though. If we’re talking about our failure to protect people, we need to name how our view toward the unborn has shifted. Of course, if one is to fight for the life of the unborn, they’d better care about their well-being once they come into the world as well, so access to child care, health care, affordable housing, and so much more must be on the table. To advocate for the life of a fetus until the moment it's born and then passively wish him or her well as they enter the Darwinian free market where winners and losers are determined, not always by hard work but by privilege and how the deck’s been stacked is, to say the least, a gigantic hypocrisy.
It turns out that caring for all life exposes the illusion that any political party is “moral,” at least by God’s standard. We all have blood on our hands. And if we continue exposing sin by beginning to consider the environment and treatment of animals, the blood flow turns into a river, but that’s a story for another day.
Today, as you celebrate, I invite you to pray that in the coming days and months, God would give us the humility to repent, name our collective failures, and turn toward some new paths. Later this summer I'll propose a formal day for us to all join together and pray toward this end prior to our election in November. For now, though, I'm praying that our national humiliation would turn to humility.