The sin of individualism and the virtue of personal responsibility

Occasionally, my Twitter feed offers me something that is stimulating, but also aggravating. And no it’s not just about our beloved Carson Wentz’s season-ending injury in the Eagles’ division-clinching game against the top-rated Rams. This time, it was a reactionary commentator’s take on the GOP’s absolutely brutal-for-the-poor and designed-for-the-rich tax plan. He made an argument addressed to “liberal” Christians that it wasn’t the government responsibility to care for the poor, it was theirs.

It’s a tired argument from the defenders of the richest in our country, designed by their apologists in the media and in the government, but it’s a common one. The government shouldn’t provide for the poor, it should come out of the philanthropy and charity of people. We shouldn’t compel people to distribute their goods through a violent state, rather it should be a matter of their own freedom.

And I totally agree with that, actually. I am very suspicious of consolidated power structures, whether they are state-based or market-based. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need laws or regulations to keep the rich from pillaging the poor, but when left unhindered, the opposite seems to happen in unregulated, laissez-faire late capitalism.

But, I will say that I believe “individual responsibility” isn’t a Christian idea. Christians should be working on creating an alternative political economy. Failing that, they should honestly assess the way they’ve hurt the Kingdom by succumbing to the state and the market, and use state- and market-based solutions to express some of the tenets of the Gospel that are impractical to express otherwise.

I am confident in saying Circle of Hope is working on creating that alternative political economy where we don’t need the government to provide for us, and also one where we hope the rich won’t trickle down their wealth to the poor. We want to build a system rooted in mutual care and love. One that resists evil in the world by prophetically addressing it while creating an alternative to the oppressive system.

It’s good work and I am glad to be a part of an activist church, as one of our pastors called us on John the Baptist Sunday last week. The risk with being loud resisters to the evil machines is that we might end up condemning individuals, as opposed to systemic powers and forces in the world.

We all have a role to play in bringing about world redemption through the power of Jesus, and some of that healing and liberation is rooted in systemic changes, but just like the summary of our charity is not just a matter of individual action (rather communal action), the summary of evil in the world isn’t just the result of individual sin. There are bigger powers and forces at play.

To address this, let me address two “loud” issues for me: racism and militarism.

In example, there is racism embedded in our law enforcement systems. But calling cops “pigs” might not help. Some cops I know are quite decent, in fact; their tactics may be racist, but reducing the systemic injustice of cops to individuals seems deeply flawed. Even though I know some look at me differently because I’m brown. It is not just a matter of making sure we don’t hire racist police officers, but rather ridding the system of racism. We may not do that on this side of heaven, but we should talk about it. At the same time, though, rather than pointing out the speck in our brother or sister’s eye, let us examine our own motives and intentions and see where we are prejudicial or prideful as well.

We might vilify people that we can include in our movement, or demonstrate lack of empathy for their struggle and their choices.

In another example, we abhor the war machine and the huge military defense budget. And we should. It is deadly and of dubious effectiveness, to be sure. But we might also unnecessarily isolate veterans and cause them to resist our peacemaking effort. Calling the poor kid from North Philly who got recruited a baby killer seems ineffective. He might think we hate him (do we?)! And that’s in spite of the U.S.’s obsession with neocolonization in the Middle East (again, I’m brown, hello). The veterans I know often hate the war machine and ended up in it for free college tuition or lack of other career options; they shouldn’t be painted with a broad stroke. The military definitely exploits those needs, and while veterans should be conscious of that, I think we all should be. Lest we blame individuals and forget the systemic sin that covers our whole world.

“We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens” (Ephesians 6:12). The battle we fight isn’t against people. It’s against bigger forces of evil. The solution to that struggle is in the incarnational expression of community, not the individual morality of persons. We must resist the state (and the market) when it perpetrates evil. And yes, that is our personal responsibility.

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