The Individual versus The Group


Since starting my preparation for our current sermon series, I have really started to notice how so many of our struggles in life come down to one simple thing. So, read on if you want to know the one thing behind all your problems! 

The simplest way to say what I have been studying is to say that I have been studying the differences between individualist cultures (like ours) and collectivist cultures (like those found in Korea, Russia, or the Middle East during the time of Jesus). Individualist cultures teach us that the most important things are our individual freedoms, our rights, and our ability to do whatever we wish or dream. American culture and the American Dream are built upon individualist principles and values. Conversely, collectivist cultures teach that the most important things are unity and community solidarity. In collectivist cultures individual needs take a back seat to the greater needs of our extended family (which they don't even see as extended), our community, and the honor of all these groups of which I am merely one part. Collectivist cultures do not esteem individual stand-outs.

As I studied this, it caused me to see that so much of who we are and how we see the world revolves around our balance of these two things. The reality is that no culture is purely individualist or solely collectivist. We all exist on a spectrum. Each one of us lands on this spectrum and then weighs our options based on where we land.

For example, I came out to the shame of my family and to the sacrifice of my community. Coming out, for me, then required a decidedly individualist stance. I had to do this for myself. If I were a person with more collectivist values, I might have stayed in the closet to avoid bringing shame on my family or being cast out of my community.

I have read many opinions lately about gun violence and gun control, and I see in these debates the same spectrum of individualist vs. collectivist. The individualist says, "No, you won't and can't take away my gun." The individualist focuses on the individual's right to live in the way they wish. They approach this with the same kind of values that led me to come out of the closet. "It was my right." 

On the other hand, the collectivist perspective says, "We cannot allow our children to continue to be subjected to gun violence." As the collectivist says this, they are not necessarily even speaking of their biological children. They are speaking about "their children" in a much broader sense, meaning any of the kids in my community. We can see in this statement the collectivist view of the the extended family and the community being the greatest values that must be protected.

Hopefully with just these two examples (my coming out and gun control) you can see that at the heart of most of the questions and challenges in our lives there is this "decision kernel" that forces us to prioritize either the self or the community. At the heart of each decision we make, we must first decide to move up or down on the spectrum of the individualist vs. the collectivist.

Knowing this doesn't always make the decision easier because some decisions require us to land on the individualist side of things and some on the collectivist side of things. Still, I share this with you to encourage you to think about the matters that are on your heart and ask which is needed in this situation today? Jesus lived in a collectivist culture and often challenged them to be a bit more individualist. We live in an individualist culture. My guess is that he would challenge us to be a bit more collectivist.

May the God of all peoples and cultures bless you as you consider the nature of the responses that are needed from you in the decisions that lie before you today.