A couple thoughts on individualism and governance.

Two friends and I have had a healthy conversation that I’ve been thinking about more recently. Their names are Matt and Paul, and I continue to deeply appreciate their perspectives on life…and that appreciation leads to good conversations sometimes over our similar and different perspectives on life. Penny for your time (and responses, if you so wish). Matt’s the guy on the left, and Paul on the right.

The link to the original place of conversation (Matt’s Myspace blog) is here. It may be a bit easier to follow there.

Matt originally made a suggestion that sparked all this, saying

This is an offshoot of thoughts inspired by a sermon (his pastor) Kevin preached on the movie Crash, which has left me devestated and yet determined. You should listen to it. It’s more than racism, and one of the parts that affected me most was his discourse and slight criticism of his own struggles with prejudice and especially most Americans’ prejudices against foreigners.

It’s been since about forever since altruism gained more Cash-Flow than greed. It’s been about forever since the whole United States Knew the meaning of Philanthropy and how it feels to be part of the solution, not the problem; I’m not sold on the American Dream. Now, the media and government work together to make you feel worse and more afraid; and more afraid and more afraid, and more insistent on American Policies and Politics in the living rooms of our “enemies..” or so they’re telling me. Guilt. Shame. The fuel that feeds political gain, but they’re only the ethanol to the gasoline that is fear – without they’re protection we’re bound for destruction, but I’m not convinced that most of these enemies have a problem with me so much as my country and the coroporate greed it seems to feed with the blessings of the media and pork-belly policy. So we torture detainees in GitMo and we withhold love from border crossers: failing to see that’s not our mission, which is to love God and love people. Just because I wear a cross does not mean I ride the elephant, or the donkey for that matter. Supporting policies does not mean withholding love and when you support policies, make sure they don’t inherently prevent love, and make sure not to give away your only hope. Make sure the things you get upset about are worth it and make sure you don’t become a machine, a wheel in the machine, or eventually you’ll break down. He’ll still pick you up though.”

I originally responded with,

Has the whole United States ever grasped the concepts of altruism, philanthropy, and how to be part of the solution rather than the problem?

Donald Miller said it best, I think, when talking about a conversation with his atheist friend Laura.
“One day Laura brought up an odd topic: racism in the history of the church. She had moved to Portland from Georgia where, though she is an atheist, she told me she witnessed, within a church, the sort of racial discrimination most of us thought ended fifty years ago. She asked me very seriously what I thought about the problem of racism in America and whether the church had been a harbor for that sort of hatred…

I told her how frustrating it is to be a Christian in America, and how frustrated I am with not only the church’s failures concerning human rights, but also my personal failure to contribute to the solution. I wondered out loud, though, if there was a bigger issue, and I mistakenly made the callous comment that racism might be a minor problem compared to bigger trouble we have to deal with.

‘Racism, not an issue?!’ she questioned very sternly.
“Well, not that it’s not an issue, only that it is a minor issue.’
‘How can you say that?’ She sat back restlessly in her chair. ‘Don, that is an enormous problem.’
I was doing a lot of backpedaling at first, but then I began to explain what I mean. ‘Yeah, I understand it is a terrible and painful problem, but in light of the whole picture, racism is a signal of something greater. There is a larger problem here than tension between ethnic groups.’

‘Unpack that statement,’ Laura said.

I’m talking about self-absorption. If you think about it, the human race is pretty self-absorbed. Racism might be the symptom of a greater disease. What I mean is, as a human, I am flawed in that it is difficult for me to consider others before myself. It feels like I have to fight against this force, this current within me that, more often than not, wants to avoid serious issues and please myself, buy things for myself, entertain myself, and all of that. All I’m saying is that if we, as a species, could fix our self-absorption, we could end a lot of pain in the world.‘ “

That’s from Blue Like Jazz, and I agree. I think it’s important to acknowledge, also, how broken we are, that even though we’re inherently selfish as people, somehow we buy into the ideas of nationalism and racism that extend “me” beyond myself to other whites and other Americans…so instead of being individualistically self-absorbed (or, more accurately, on top of the dominant reality of my self-absorption), I become absorbed into thinking other races or nationalities are inherently a threat to me because they’re “them.” We hate brainwashing, but we’re all hopelessly enculturated by where we grow up, aren’t we? Plenty of fodder to identify, subvert, and kill for the rest of our lives.

Racism, nationalism, and individualism are probably good places to start.

I’d say, in addition, I guess, that this clearly isn’t an American problem only. America just happens to be at the top of the heap right now, so its self-absorption is all out there for the world to see. 70, 80 years from now, the globe will be obsessed with the self-absorption of China or the EU or something.

Either way, our commitment to being a global people as Christfollowers, together with the foundational expectation that we are to reject the artificial boundaries we put up for comfort and safety…called to serve instead of rule…should blow this whole selfishness and fear crap right out of the water.

The problem is, we’re gutless…so, like Don talked about, we whine about the issue without dealing with the root. I’ll be the first to stand up and say I pass the buck to someone else instead of living into my calling to the Kingdom of God first and foremost…I talk a big talk, but I end up buying into the same materialism, individualism, and artificial boundaries that Joe Schmoe beside me who doesn’t know Christ does. And that’s pathetic. The root of the issue is my pride and self-absorption. Everything else spins off it. Gotta strike at that root. I like your rant.”

To which Paul responded,

Nate wrote: “Has the whole United States ever grasped the concepts of altruism, philanthropy, and how to be part of the solution rather than the problem?”

Prolly not. Depends who you ask. For example, some would criticize the US on philanthropic grounds for not having entered WWII against the Germans soon enough. Perhaps an awkward example for this post, but it is a fact that that a strong undercurrent fueling American isolationism at that point was the significant amount of American investment in German industry (i.e., $ fueling the German war machine). It seems even our “peace” has been rooted in greed and self-absorption.

Sadly, the US’s track record is not the exception, it’s the norm. Like Nate said, it’s just at the top of the heap now, but the clear problem is that it is populated with people. I, too, lay the problem at the feet of human selfishness.
“Has the whole [insert country, past or present, here] ever grasped the concepts of altruism, philanthropy, and how to be part of the solution rather than the problem?” Again, prolly not.

It seems a “wholly altruistic” nation will need at least a majority of components (people) that are likewise altruistic. My confidence is low that this will take place without individual moral renovation because we can do away with all the isms we want, but I’ve never needed the help of an ism to be a selfish prick. Indeed, it seems it’s my selfishness that spawns self-serving rationalizations akin to racism, etc.

With that said, isms do seem to have the power to dull, paralyze, or misguide altruism, allowing injustice to thrive, so it still seems we must be as innocent as doves and as clever as serpents, and not the other way around.
True: “Make sure the things you get upset about are worth it.”

Some relevant Police lyrics:
There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitution
There is no bloody revolution

Our socalled leaders speak
With words they try to jail you
The subjugate the meek
But it’s the rhetoric of failure

Where does the answer lie?
Living from day to day
If it’s something we can’t buy
There must be another way
We are spirits in the material world”

And I know this is getting far too long and you may have already abandoned ship, but I responded by saying,

“Paul said, “We can do away with all the isms we want, but I’ve never needed the help of an ism to be a selfish prick. Indeed, it seems it’s my selfishness that spawns self-serving rationalizations akin to racism, etc. With that said, isms do seem to have the power to dull, paralyze, or misguide altruism, allowing injustice to thrive.”

I see what you’re saying, Paul, but I think you’re underestimating the power those -isms exert on your life and mine. It’s clear that the apostle Paul, the early church, and Jesus existed in a society with a much stronger emphasis on communalism. Their identity was found not as an empowered, free-thinking individual (our society’s bent), but as a part of a movement or family or people that defined them much more than their thoughts or conscience.

Today, however, the dominant philosophy of individualism has its dirty paws all up in all our bidness…Whereas in Jesus’ day you could find unfaithful comfort in being a Jew (or in NOT being a Samarian) or in being a member of the class of the wealthy elite (and NOT poverty-stricken); today the scope has been widened to the unfaithful comfort of the “rights” of the individual joining that whole mess. What seems to matter less is what others think or want: it’s what I want, I “need,” I think life should be all about…

It’s just hopelessly fragmented and really unpredictable. I’m the one I care about most of the time, but if something happens where another race or nationality challenges my comfort within my own race or nationality, I personally invest in “my” people’s struggle (immigration, English language, economic status, etc) to protect us from them…but when the crisis situation passes (or recedes to a low boil), I return to my self-centered existence until another crisis situation threatens.

So, in essence, in order to govern effectively in our day and age and move people beyond their inherent self-centeredness, leaders must get the society they lead to a consistent state of being on their toes…they need to identify a common “evil” enemy, they need the people to be sufficiently afraid to accept his/her definition of the enemy as evil, some sort of concrete action (war…limited to keep public outcry low and stories of heroism high) to unify the people, and an open-ended commitment to said enemy so the goal is always just…out…of…reach. War on terror, anyone?

It doesn’t take much study of modern democracy to see that war or some degree of conflict is needed on a regular basis to move the people beyond their individualism to a common goal and identity. So, as a leader, you need to find a good enemy upon entering office to unite the people, if you want to be effective.

So the ism of individualism is so potent and defining that leaders need to be fully conscious of how to subvert it in order to effectively govern the whole.

That’s insidious, very self-centered (if we can think of the modern nation-state as a freaking huge “self”)…can I say sinful? Is it possible that the governance and discipline of the church (only possible with the power of the Holy Spirit and committed followers of Jesus) is in fact the highest form of “government” this world has ever seen? That heightens the importance of cultivating the atmosphere we are called to as the church…the world is crying out for people who would live like this and a system like this. It looks like the early church did this well. For a ridiculously short period of time.”


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