Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Modern Western Tribes

A few more thoughts on ethnicity and individualism.

• Though folks in progressive Christian communities tend to harsh on individualism and dismiss it by comparing it to ideal (and rarely realized) visions of community, I think we’ll eventually have to find ways to talk about it in a more positive and balanced way. Developing a theology of Christian individualism that comes out of our current real life experiences and deep biblical thinking seems pretty important to me given the world we’re living in right now.

Most all of us in the west no matter our ethnic group(s) are individualists to one degree or another including pretty much every progressive Christian I know. Even the folks most proactively committed to ethnic identity are living an ‘ethnic lite’ existence because of the power of individualism and various other modern cultural forces. Folks who have seen the reality of more traditional ethnic identification-—a al Iraq or Zaire—understand that intuitively. And most of us, whether we admit it or not in progressive circles, feel just fine about that.

Lots of Christian folks talk about ‘returning to the New Testament church.’ I understand that nostalgia, but I wonder if we'd really want it if it actually came true. Our individualism is far too entrenched—and we’re far too aware of the benefits it brings—for most of us to ever want to ‘go back’ to a world of full blooded ethnicity.

So hesitating to actively engage individualism—in order to discern its weaknesses and strengths—and hesitating to proactively hold out the potential for a redeemed individualism can be understood as an act of deliberate cultural amnesia or even—-in more extreme versions--a form of ‘self hatred.’ At the very least, it leaves progressive Christian folks stuck with only a negative and schizophrenic way of thinking about a critical aspect of their lives. Not very healthy or realistic in the long run.

My experience right now is that most of the prophetic and pastoral energy in progressive Christian communities goes toward various approaches to revive and redeem ethnicity and to encourage ethnic and racial reconciliation. And that effort is very important for reasons I’ve mentioned many times here at P&P and that some of you mentioned in the thread on Abner’s site.

But though it’s important, I’ve gotta say I think it’s also unbalanced at this point. There are other central issues—like individualism and class, for example--that need a whole lot more attention if we’re gonna have a more realistic and less schizophrenic theology and practice.

• When I say Christian individualism, I mean a consistent Christian theology and practice applied to individualism. We’ve got to point out the dangers of individualism (which we’re all pretty good at) but we’ve got to find a way to show how it gives life too. Life is complicated.

How come those of us in the Christian justice and peacemaking communities are often unwilling to talk about the tremendous contributions of individualism in the area of basic human rights, for example? The concept of human rights and the institutions set up to promote it are the bedrock of justice and peace efforts around the world right now. The fact is they didn’t arise primarily out of the real world, historical church or out of the blood and land ties of ethnicity. The concept of human rights arose out of an individualistic rebellion against religious and political authority and old school ethnic and tribal ties. How do we interpret that reality and that history, find a way to show how God worked to bring about such an important moral advance, and incorporate it into the way we talk about and apply Christian individualism?


Blogger Chase said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post. Gpomrehn told me about it. One point: my understanding was that Christian heavily influenced the original "rights" movement, particularly with child rights. But obviousy it was a mixed bag. Here is an interesting link on the religious origins of human rights: http://pewforum.org/events/index.php?EventID=38

9:57 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Thanks for the props Chase. You're right. I overstated the case to make a point--certainly Christian faith influenced the idea of human rights just like it did the development of science. But the Enlightenment concept of human rights which undergirds the UN, for example, didn't get off the ground until traditional religious and political authority was challenged. It's not clear to me that a powerful movement for human rights could have developed unless a scientific worldview and the rise of individualism attenuated the power of traditional western religious authority. In many respects Protestantism was a variety of developing individualism which helped overthrow the old ethno-religious world view and made a wide acceptance of human rights possible.

10:54 AM  

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