Christian Heresy: Individualism in the Community of Creation

“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses….”

Christians didn’t invent individualism. Maybe we could grant that distinction to Plutarch, the philosopher whose 1st century writings sowed the seeds that arguably gave birth to the Renaissance. But to hear many American evangelicals tell the story, you’d think that we came up with the idea.

Never mind that the Lord’s Prayer never bothers with “me” – our Father; give us; forgive us; lead us; deliver us…. Never mind that Jesus’ fervent prayer for his followers was that they would be one, as he and the Father are one. Or that the prototype Christian community after Jesus’ resurrection featured no private property, but all followers possessed everything in common as they had need.

Even so, in many of our families and churches, the prevalent view is mostly about “God and me,” or perhaps the other way around. God has a wonderful plan for my life; I receive Christ as my personal savior; my faith – not my church’s – saves me; daily prayer is time alone with God; Christ shall come … and take me home….

And this “me-not-us” mindset spills over into our community life as well, doesn’t it? We love our country, but largely to the extent that it leaves us alone. Don’t interfere with my privacy, my property, my pursuit of happiness. Don’t draft me, don’t tax me, and don’t regulate me. I can stand my ground; I can secure my borders; I can speak my mind, even if you don’t like it much.

Jefferson: patron saint of American individualism?

Jefferson: patron saint of American individualism?

Best-selling author and Christian leader Tony Campolo recently called out the heresy of heightened individualism in a book he co-wrote with Shane Claiborne. “Jesus did not call us into individualism as much as into community. It is in the context of community, according to Scripture, that we discover our individual gifts and callings and discover how we are to make our unique contribution to the well-being and blessing of all.”

In this, Campolo echoes Martin Luther King, who said decades earlier: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

I’m afraid, however, that American evangelicals aren’t listening all that well. At least we older ones are often the staunchest defenders of the dreary individualist ethos. 

And nowhere, perhaps, is this strange Christian heresy more corrosive than in the realm of creation care. Earth-keepers quickly learn that everything we do ripples deeply into the lives of others – both people and other creatures. God created us among the creatures, not apart from the creatures. God gave us a special job – to serve (Hebrew: “avad”) the garden, and to keep it (Hebrew: “shamar”). (Genesis 2:15). Joshua said: As for me and my house, we will avad the Lord. The Hebrew blessing went: The Lord bless you and shamar you. Serve and protect. Cherish and preserve. Man’s first purpose.

Man was given dominion on Earth, but Christ showed us what true dominion looked like when he came to be the Lord who serves (Mark 10:45).  And now we learn that our earth-keeping decisions — from driving our cars, to cooling our homes, to clearing land for our shopping centers — can have profound climatic impacts on the lives of people and creatures as far away as the flooded Pacific coral atolls or the parched savannas of East Africa.

Recently, we’ve seen two instances where individualist passions have run us afoul of the basic laws of earth-keeping. The American West has long beckoned to people who believe that the larger community should mostly stay out of their individual affairs. Plenty of elbow room, log cabins and majestic mountain vistas tend to select for people with a streak of “rugged individualism.” In many Western communities, they don’t think too highly of stringent building codes, with government bureaucrats telling them how to build on their own land. And they generally don’t appreciate government foresters classifying their properties in the wilderness-urban-interface zone (or WUI), where wildfire danger could limit their ability to build large, vulnerable dwellings.

West burning. Courtesy U. of Nebraska

Western fires. Courtesy U. of Nebraska

But unfortunately, the Rocky Mountain West has changed forever. Our mountain paradise now burns with increasing regularity. The West is hotter than it’s ever been in recorded history. Persistent drought grips most of the West and the high plans, and all of Texas. And winter snow-pack melts earlier, leaving mountain forests much more vulnerable to wildfires. Worse, climate change has spread the mountain pine beetle in a vast swarm across the West, killing forests covering an area the size of Wisconsin. And the dried-up beetle-killed trees turn blighted forests into tinderboxes.

The resulting economic threat is mind-boggling. A 2012 study performed for the insurance industry found that 740,000 homes in 13 Western states are now at high or very high risk of burning up. The value of those homes is pegged at $136 billion. If our Western mountain friends were looking for personal independence, many have stumbled into the teeth of an ecosystem that is finally succumbing to the heavy hand of human exploitation.

But the individualists didn’t all head for the mountains. We’re everywhere. Back in the East, we also resist stepping back from our fast-eroding shorelines, under unremitting assault from rising sea levels. We claim the right to build and live where we want to. But as oceans warm, as glaciers melt, and as polar ice sheets accelerate their long slide back into open water, the rising seas are now threatening once-safe coastal communities.

In North Carolina, a scientific panel determined last summer that zoning and building codes should be revised based on an expectation of one meter’s sea-level rise this century. Now, the idea that scientists and regulators should be permitted to affect where and how we build homes set the rugged Carolina coastal dwellers into frenzied action. Next thing you know, the state legislature had banned the scientific findings in a landslide vote. You read this right: the Carolina legislature outlawed the science.

Now, maybe the individualists should be given the chance to speak their minds on this. Maybe they would be happy to continue building in their flood-and-fire-prone paradises, and bear the risks themselves. Maybe when fires or storm surges come their way, they would tell us with steely resolve that they would rather live and die as free individualists.

There are two problems with this idea. The first is this: A good, compassionate nation will never permit this to happen. We won’t – we just can’t – look the other way when floods and fires overwhelm our neighbors. You must not ask us to do something that our consciences – not to mention our sacred scriptures – forbid. On the Jericho Road, we all want to see ourselves as Good Samaritans, not callous Pharisees.

But secondly, we are seldom, if ever, confronted with this dilemma. Christians can be hypocrites. But Christian heretics – including hyper-individualists – can fully match us, or worse. Hate government intrusion? That’s fine. But when wildfires threaten our homes, fire fighters should fly in from all over the region to save us, even at the potential cost of their lives. And after the fires have done their worst, most expect to be made whole by the Federal government, whose forest management is usually blamed for lost homes.

We see it today back East as well. Super-storm Sandy inflicted severe damage on many Northeastern seaside communities. Faced with unfunded losses heading toward $30 billion, the federally-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program began to raise its below-market beach-property premiums. Next thing you know, seaside residents were all over the news, with heart-rending stories of distressed communities unable to bear the insurance costs. And now, the usually-sensible Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is suddenly doing everything he can to prevent flood insurance premiums from rising to levels remotely commensurate with the risk.

After severe fire and flood losses, we won’t abandon our once-proud countrymen. We know this. But they also know this, and make it very clear that they expect our aid when today’s new climate disasters strike, which they most certainly will.

Maybe it’s time that we American evangelicals begin to rethink our love affair with hyper-individualism. You won’t find the case for it in the Old Testament covenant narrative, in which God’s promise extended to an entire nation, for the purpose of blessing all nations on Earth. Turn to the Gospels and we find the ruggedly individualistic Simon Peter. “Do you love me?” Jesus asked him in a seemingly solitary moment. “Then feed my sheep.” Hmm. So it’s us, not me.

Seems like community, not individualism, is what’s nearest to the heart of the gospel. Could we begin to grasp this? Then, maybe, we will begin to take our rightful place in serving and keeping the precious garden into which we have been placed.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

2 thoughts on “Christian Heresy: Individualism in the Community of Creation

    1. John Elwood Post author

      Hmm. When I think of rugged types, how did I overlook our friends from West Virginia? Thanks Allen!


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