“We the People”

Cults and new religious movements in literatur...

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And right after writing about individualism in religion, I come across this assessment of the “Restoring Honor” rally at Religion Dispatch:

Individually, most Tea Partiers probably are nice people, trying to do what’s right, motivated by good intentions that extend from their faith in God and in their understanding of what this nation stands for. And individualism is exactly what the rhetoric of the rally was all about; from the website: “throughout history America has seen many great leaders and noteworthy citizens change her course. It is through their personal virtues and by their example that we are able to live as a free people. Our freedom is possible only if we remain virtuous.” Mirroring their Christology, salvation for themselves and for the country is an individual act.The convenience of individualism is that others cannot be held accountable for personal failures, nor can an individual be held responsible for the actions of another. The problem with individualism is that it fails to connect the dots between a movement or ideology and how one person might interpret that ideology, thereby taking a course of action perhaps incongruous with the party’s original intent.

Individualism is beneficial for leaders to peg success or failure of a movement on each person’s virtue rather than the power of the collective to effect change. Individualism is focused on personal attainment, personal happiness, and personal livelihood, and fails to see how each relies on a system that empowers, privileges, or dispossess either the individual or others in the process. As I discovered at the rally, to shift the conversation from “I” to “we” in speaking of a collective liberation was quickly flagged as anti-American and dismissed.

Since when did “we the people” become synonymous with Socialism? How can we convince people that “loving their neighbor” means more than just praying for them, that it means supporting a system that raises each of us up through access to education, health care, jobs, and a livable life? How can we encourage people to stop thinking of themselves as living in subdivisions and start living in neighborhoods? How can we shift from the Jesus of the comfortable to the “sell all your possessions” Jesus?

I don’t think we change the nature of the conversation by berating those with whom we disagree, further sowing the seeds of resentment and faction. We change the nature of the conversation by connecting our own work to the values or faith by which it is motivated. The Christianity I practice requires that I love my neighbor even when it isn’t easy, that I work for “the least of these” even when I want to quit, that I give my two coins even if they are the last two I have, and that Jesus died not only for my sins but also those of the tax collector, the Samaritan woman, and the Pharisee.

Alex McNeill is absolutely right about what makes the rugged individualists of America so opposed to anything they see as threatening by labeling it “socialist.” Forgetting that Jesus was a “socialist” in the purest sense, it’s easy for us to ignore the bigger picture and concentrate only on ourselves. I should take a lesson from my sister and mother, who are as viciously anti-socialist as anybody I know. It is convenient to be able to just pray for people rather than actual help them, and that’s the biggest critique I have of Christianity as a movement. I’m guilty of this individualism myself probably because I see the futility of engaging in debate with entrenched ideologues, my own family among them. But what do we do when those on opposing sides refuse to do anything but berate, deride, marginalize, and curse? When do you realize you can’t have a conversation with rabid ideologues and move along? That’s my question. No one seems to be able to answer it.

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2 thoughts on ““We the People”

  1. Just one thing (and I drive people to distraction with it): using terms like ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ are anachronistic when talking about Jesus and the culture he lived in. He couldn’t have been pro-free market economics or pro-socialism because those didn’t exist in the context of his culture; socialism means that the capital means of production are owned by the state (which as a concept didn’t exist during his lifetime) and capitalism means that the capital is owned by private interests. Both are products of the last 300 years.

    Christian ethics are hard for us to swallow in this context. You want to go on the offensive, but Jesus asks you to do something quite different so that you don’t lose sight of the fact that your enemy is also a child of God. Perhaps if we started telling the truth about why these people are so afraid and threatened, and validated the fact that they feel that way, and address why their fears need not apply, you defang their arguments. But as demonstrated most recently by John McCain, just because someone confronts you with the truth doesn’t mean that you’ll stop telling lies.

    In other words, I don’t have any easy answers for you 😦

  2. Jessica,
    It’s true that the system as we know it, socialism and capitalism, were not in place in Jesus’ day, what my sister believes is socialism is what she’s afraid of. She clings to her goods and money and life and doesn’t want to share with anyone. My mother is the same. I know where this comes from. We had nothing of our own really growing up and a tyrant of a stepfather who told us what to do every second. Somehow, this is their view of such governments. They are afraid that all of a sudden, their rights to do as they wish will evaporate, which is nonsense. They cling to religious dogma and conspiracy theories to protect them and they won’t do any such thing. It’s a terrible way to live and I know it. I’ve believed it once. As I’ve said in an earlier post, compassion is better than clinging to our own toys. That’s even harder to practice. I’m not perfect at it, but I can at least see the wisdom in it. My sister and my mother cannot.

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