Can an individualist be a Christian? Seems a strange question from a self-avowed anarchist. Yet the answer to this question gets to the heart of what living as a Christian is all about. The base fact is that if we define individualist as a hermit-like character then no they absolutely cannot be a Christian.
This is, of course, a hackneyed definition of an individualist. It is the kind of characterization of individualists that come from statists and collectivists of all stripes. The claim is that we advocate an atomized existence and seek an emotionless life using the caricature of homo economicus as a soulless human monetary calculator. That is obviously a gross distortion of what individualists and anarchists mean and understand about their political viewpoint.
The argument of non-statists is that a true society emerges from voluntary, consensual choices that humans make because it is in their interests to do so. It is advantageous materially because of the higher productivity of a society organized around the division of labor, which allows for a massive increase in material well-being, as opposed to an arrangement whereby everyone tries to make everything they consume themselves or worse a centralized authority tries to direct economic activity. Society, is also, however, the choice humans make because we are social beings. We, at least most of us, crave human interaction and companionship. This is seen as an integral component of why we form communities.
What is meant by individualism is that we acknowledge that individuals are the building blocks of society and that it is individual choices that make up human community and rightfully so. We hold that it is individuals that have rights, not some amorphous entity known as society. Society is nothing more than an aggregate expression of the choices made by unique, individual human beings. These choices may be both economic in nature or not, it is entirely subjective and unique to each individual as to what they hold valuable and what they seek in their human interactions.
However, Christians, especially those of us who are individualists, run the risk of falling into a hermit-like trap regarding our faith. This is, I think, especially true among our more conservative and fundamentalist brothers and sisters in the faith. Yes, our faith recognizes that we as individuals must either accept or reject the call of Christ and it is us as individuals who must make the choice to obey our Lord based upon our belief. I am not here to deny the importance of the interior life of faith that is an essential part of all of us. I am here to warn that, as with most things, this can go too far.
The applied Christian faith is explicitly a social and political faith as that was the core of Jesus’ ministry. Social and political concerns are simply the institutional means by which we treat one another, and God has everything to say about this. Yes, the first three commandments are about how we relate to God but then the next seven are about how we treat one another. When Jesus gives us His new commandment in John 13:31-34, it is to love one another the way God loves us, that is, it is explicitly social. We forget this at our peril.
In both the Old and New Testament, God directs us to the concerns of the other, the stranger among us. Jesus explicitly directs us to special care and concern for the marginalized outsider. In this week’s Gospel reading from Luke 10, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it He reminds us of the social nature of our faith walk. We are to go out of our way to help our neighbor in need and it is clear that everyone is our neighbor. It is also clear that anyone can answer this call, as it is the outsider, the Samaritan (despised by the Jews) who is the one who acts mercifully. This Samaritan is to be our example as Jesus says to go and do likewise. Our concern is and must always remain centered on others if we are to honor and truly worship God. The interior life of faith that each of us grapples with serves to strengthen us for the often-difficult task of caring for our neighbor. That is the synthesis of our interior and exterior expressions of our faith.
Those of us who are of an individualist/anarchist perspective must, I think, do two things. One, we must never forget that individualist or not, we are here to serve our fellow humans and treat everyone as the neighbor they are, yes, even our enemies. We must never get so wrapped up in being an individual that we forget that we are primarily social in nature and that is how God made us and intended for us to be. Second, we must not cede to the statists the high ground of a social outlook by allowing them to define feeding humanity’s social side as requiring state action and control, the Gospel does not allow it and prudence directs us not to.
We can easily reconcile these two notions by taking the firm position that to truly walk the path of God is base our interactions on voluntary choices, anything else being simply institutionalized hypocrisy. Also, that to truly help our neighbor is to show enough concern for their rights and dignities as to refuse to treat them like children or animals and that protecting their God-given rights and dignities is the best practical way to provide for our neighbor’s physical needs. Remind people that the good Samaritan did not work for the government, he simply followed God. Now, let’s get social and political and do likewise.
Praise Be to God