I was seventeen years old when I started my sociology 101 class at my little community college in Garrett County, Maryland. I hated it, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. In fact, it took several years to become clear. The discipline of sociology studies groups, a category that I barely recognized. I couldn’t completely articulate it at the time, but what I knew in my bones was this: the world is made up of autonomous individuals making choices. What happens to those individuals depends on the choices they make. Hurrah for the individual! Hurrah for the market that judges justly!
Had my imagination been formed more by the Bible than by the fragmenting individualism of the late twentieth century United States, I would have had many intuitive connections to sociology 101. But I had managed to read the Bible cover to cover more than once and missed the point every time. What I didn’t realize is that the Bible is less a story about people than it is a story about a people.
The arc of the Christian scriptures doesn’t follow the journey of righteous individuals. It tells of God’s faithfulness to a group, culminating in the creation of a new kind of human community, the kingdom of God on earth. Throughout the story, the people of God are called to weave their lives together in patterns of mutual dependence.
When the prophet Isaiah declared, “pour yourself out for the hungry” (Isaiah 58), it was a demand placed on the community, not a suggestion for charitably-minded individuals. Yahweh called his people to repentance for their failure to take collective action. All of this was lost on me to such a degree that I literally didn’t know systemic injustice was a major biblical theme. I made that shocking discovery in 2005. Before that time, all that mattered was my salvation, my faith, my piety, my charity.
So I sat in my sociology 101 class, chafing against liberal academia and its efforts to divide people into groups and deny them their personal responsibility. I raged against politically correct talk of “disparities” and “inequality” and “systemic racism.” Individuals make their choices and have to live with them, I knew.
My radical individualism not only contradicted the communal emphasis of the scriptures, its practical effect was to eviscerate any notion of Christian public action or Christian concern for the collective good. In my zealous pursuit of personal piety, I declared vast domains of human life and flourishing no-go zones.
Do you see a social problem? Let me check my ledger. I’m sorry, that problem falls on the “individual responsibility” side of my ledger; Christianity has nothing to say about it.
Having made that claim, it doesn’t mean I don’t act in those public spheres. I simply do whatever I want, basically. In these spaces where my imagination and habits and heart ought to be captured by the values and practices of the Kingdom of God, there is instead a vacuous selfishness filled by the gods of capitalism, individualism, safety, comfort, race, nation.
Do my politics endanger you? I’m sorry, my Christianity lets me have whatever politics I want as long as I’m charitable in my personal life.
This is one of the dark sides of a certain radical evangelical tradition that has thrown off every hierarchy, every structure, every tradition. What remains is the individual alone before God, free to choose pleasing artifacts of the Christian past to enliven spiritual life, but not be governed by any of it.
At the core of this ungoverned Christian is the Bible and the feelings it provides. When alone before God with Bible open, he speaks to us. Don’t worry about your social location. Don’t fret about your bias. You came by that insight honestly, in fervent prayer. It’s good as gold.
So if in the privacy of your prayer closet God told you he’s a white nationalist, don’t let anybody tell you different. If God told you to support despicable leaders because it’s actually all part of his plan, stand firm! If God told you Roy Moore is a good man, don’t you dare hold his words and actions against him!
Unfortunately, this isn’t even satirical. For Trumpist evangelicals, the judgment and wisdom of Christians most affected by Trump’s cruelty count for nothing. Listening to the global church and Christians of color in the United States is absurd. After all, if God has told me to support Trump, who are they to tell me otherwise?
This kind of radical individualism twists Christianity into a bizarre inversion of itself. The message that Jesus saves is an invitation into a community. Instead, we’ve turned it into a cry of self-absorption.