How individualism blinds us from our complicity in collective sin

Immigrants chasing the American Dream

My parents emigrated from Egypt in part because they were looking for more opportunity and freedom from persecution. To us, the United States was a land of opportunity where dreams could become reality. They could achieve prosperity in the U.S. and they really believed that. To be honest, relative to Egypt, their success in the United States was noteworthy. My dad served as a manager of a McDonald’s before he found residency and became a practicing physician. He had a good career as a doctor, but it did come to an end because of some racist allegations against him. For them though, in many ways, it was a life better than they could have achieved in Egypt, despite its untimely ending. It installed the belief that with enough hard work, we can achieve what we wanted. It was classic American messaging. Barack Obama said it throughout his presidency. In 2014 during the State of the Union address: “If you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.” In 2016, he’d add “play by the rules.”

Obama wanted to make sure it was a reality in the United States: that in America, prosperity was a fair opportunity that everyone got. It’s a nice idea that we can build a society with a level playing field, but it’s fundamentally premised on the idea that prosperity was rooted in individual behavior. Prosperity via individual behavior is an American ideal and it does some damage to our theology, specifically surrounding salvation and sin. 

Salvation is a cosmic event

Individualism reduces our salvation to personal behavior. It’s a choice to follow Jesus and accept our salvation. Though I think intimacy with God is valuable, I do not think that it is our choice to benefit from the all-encompassing work of salvation. I think Jesus’ work on the cross and through resurrection makes the event of salvation something that the whole world will experience. It is our choice to participate in it, but it will sweep us all up, regardless of our choices in this finite time. That’s how powerful Jesus’ action was. From Colossians 1:19-20:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

“Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.” That happens through the cross. In Romans, Paul describes the death of Christ as “once, for all.” Salvation is a cosmic circumstance that we are invited into. It’s not an individual choice that we elect to participate in, or not. Jesus is saving the whole world.

But too often it’s reduced to individual action. That isn’t to say individual action isn’t good and important. Devotion truly does matter. But we think of our salvation as a transaction between us and God. An utterance of a prayer, reciting that Jesus is Lord, a single moment of baptism. Too often we think of our faith as expressed in an individual ecstatic experience with God. I was talking to a leader who had trouble feeling God in worship, and they wondered if they should even participate in worship if that were the case. They confessed that they sometimes experienced it via others, but they felt badly that it wasn’t their own feeling. They assumed that experiencing God via others cheapened their faith. I assured them that experiencing God in community and in creation was elemental to learning how to individually experience God.

Those individual experiences of God are expressions of a commitment to the global and cosmic work of Jesus, but not how we benefit from the work of Jesus, though. The truth is, death has been defeated. Jesus has won the war. Our choice now is whether to participate in the battles against the powers of death, certain that they will be defeated.

Sin is more than individual action

And then it brings me to the next point about sin. Sin is punctuated by individual action, those things that do not bring life, but death. But it is not summarized by individual actions. Sin is a condition the world is in, and Jesus changes that through his work on the cross. He conquers the forces of death of which we are all victims, and invites us into participating in that conquest.

But too often sin is reduced to individual action, and we reduce it to individual confession, as if there are no bigger sins that extend beyond individual action and require societal repentance and change. The IPCC’s report on climate change, which told us that the planet has heated by two degrees in the last 100 years, and promises to keep heating for the next thirty years, is an example of this “cosmic sin.” Though we can all do our part in climate change, it’s clear that it won’t just be up to individual action to change the trajectory of our planet. We need to cooperate, we need corporations to listen, and we need systemic change. Personal confession and repentance may be important, but they aren’t enough. And in fact, Christians should be familiar with this because we know that our salvation is not dependent on our personal repentance, because the sins we are complicit in are too big for us to individually repent of. For climate change, I think this is important, because the harm caused to the planet was not merely individually caused by us, but by forces much bigger than we are. And the work we are doing is truly for a future generation, perhaps that some of us won’t even live to witness. This harm is bigger than our individual reparation can solve. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage in the work, but it points us to why we need bigger solutions. That’s why we need a cosmic sacrifice, a “god-man” sacrifice, as Anselm of Canterbury put it.

We struggle with the concept of a “common good,” because we don’t have a good idea of what “common evils” are. We think of good as an individual action, as well as evil. But they are more common and more global than that. 

The same is true for many of the other systemic sins we deal with. Racism comes to mind especially because we are taught that racism is truly one of the most heinous sins we can commit. Most of us do not think we hold any prejudicial attitudes because we’ve been taught from such a young age that it is reprehensible to hold any. And because we believe that individual action is how we do wrong, we are shocked when we find out that we might be complicit in sin in ways we don’t understand. And so we deny systemic racism, just as some people deny climate change, or that getting a vaccine is actually a way to help someone else. If we don’t individually experience it, it might not be real.

When you’re told that all of your success and well-being is a matter of personal responsibility (a white American myth), it makes sense that white people get defensive around personal racism and deny structural racism. But that posture leads to the worst forms of racism, the unconscious, unknown racism that we inadvertently perpetuate. This isn’t just for people who deny systemic racism, but also for well-meaning white liberals who believe that they are antiracist enough, that their organization or family or church is. So accusations of racism feel like baseless attacks. But individual liberty, the meritocracy my parents believe in, does not account for all the good and bad in the world. In fact, believing in systemic racism helps to move us beyond individual condemnation because the problem is much bigger than us. We have an opportunity to humbly acknowledge that we inadvertently participated in racism.

Sadly, though, a defensive posture, when our intent doesn’t match our impact, makes our intent much closer to our impact. Defensiveness when it comes to accusations of racism turns complicity in systemic racism into participating in personal racism. This is why we need to believe victims of racism even if we can’t see how we are guilty. We need to trust that the problems and the sins of the world are bigger than we are, that Jesus has redeemed the whole world despite this, and that we can participate in fighting the powers of death, whether they are destroying the planet or the lives of people of color. Societal sins are bigger than individuals, and so our solutions need to be too. Sin isn’t just an individual action, it’s a collective one; that is why salvation is more than an individual transaction, it’s a cosmic one.

2 Replies to “How individualism blinds us from our complicity in collective sin

  1. We can think about the individual and salvation in non-transactional terms. For instance, Maximus Confessor (and others) spoke of a person as a microcosm, a little world. That relates to the Jesus Prayer tradition of praying “have mercy on me the sinner,” as though I alone am the sinner who stands in need of God’s grace. Ultimately, I think this perspective collapses the sharp distinction between the individual and the collective, or sees them as two dynamic forces that revolve around and inter-penetrate the person.

    1. Well said! I think that this dualism is a fairly new one, post-Enlightenment. I’m not sure anyone thought of humans are that detached from the world before.

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