I’ve been trying to write all week about how American hyper-individualism is crippling our ability to cope with everything from Covid-19 to systemic inequity. Then I remembered I’d already written about the same thing over 5 years ago.
Adapted & updated from an article first published Feb. 9, 2015
It was the first day of a week-long seminary intensive course on the theology of John Wesley. I found myself in a classroom in central Kentucky viewing a satellite feed from another classroom in Orlando where our professor was conducting his lecture.
We were less than an hour into the class, having gone through brief introductions from everyone on both sites. Then, out of the blue, the professor dropped the bomb.
“Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”
If a seminary classroom ever had a collective, unspoken “WTF?” moment, this was it.
Of course, the professor intended to create a stir. His statement was as much for shock value as anything…he was not making a political statement so much as he wanted to capture our attention and point us to something beyond what we’d mostly always been taught.
Have our freedoms enslaved us?
To a large degree, the church in America has hung its hat on the idea that our nation was founded on Christian principles. Our fight for liberty from an oppressive monarchy was, we’ve been taught, both right and righteous.
And as we drafted policies to protect our freedom to express our religious beliefs, that naturally grew into all sorts of other freedoms that were necessary to protect the foundational freedom of religion.
But as those freedoms have become more and more ingrained, an uglier side of them has emerged. We have gone from protecting ourselves against subjugation to the point where the rights of individuals have, in many cases, overridden the common good.
What was supposed to be freedom from oppression has become freedom to oppress.
Case in point: the current debate over wearing masks in public and social distancing as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that while imperfect, mask-wearing and social distancing of at least 6 feet can significantly reduce the spread of virus particles from one person to another.
Yet in our staunch defense of individual choice, we are seeing what should be a simple, if mildly inconvenient solution being turned into a topic for political debate.
Which leads to the question:
Have our freedoms enslaved us?
And, perhaps more to the point, to what extent is the church complicit?
The church complicit
For centuries predating the founding of America, church and state were effectively the same thing. From the time Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, religion and governance have gone hand in hand.
And while the American project, with its explicit constitutional separation of church and state, ostensibly rebelled against extant Christendom, nothing really changed.
The predictable result, as history has shown over and over, is a rather unholy alliance where the agenda of the state invariably infects the agenda of the church.
And so as America grew in its love of individual freedoms and protection of our rights to make choices contrary to the common good, so the church became equally enamored of those freedoms.
Which is what made my professor’s statement so provocative.
The Sovereign Self
Somewhere along the line we managed to turn a movement based on radical inclusion and sacrificial love into a hackneyed champion of the sovereign self. We have become so consumed with exercising what we perceive to be our individual “rights” that we can no longer distinguish where one person’s rights begin and another’s ends.
But the Jesus we claim to follow was no respecter of persons. Everything he did and said laid bare the claim that, while individual rights and freedoms are indeed important, the most free a human being could be was in setting aside personal rights in favor of the other…even to the extent of loving our enemies.
The radical claim of Jesus is not that we are so much free from something—oppression, marginalization, even sin or death—but that we are free for something.
And that something is the terrifying prospect of being able to love in the ultimate way…unconditionally and sacrificially.
Protecting the right to ignorance
The reason most of my classmates were shocked at my professor’s statement was that they have bought into the idea that our sociopolitical protection of individual rights is somehow a biblical concept. They immediately equated Christian socialism with political Marxism…which was not at all the claim the professor was making.
To claim that Jesus was a socialist is to claim that Jesus valued others above self, community above individuals.
21st Century America is arguably the most individualistic society ever to exist on the face of the earth. It is so much a part of our DNA that we don’t even realize it. The idea that we would sacrifice individual rights—even the right to ignorance—is not only completely foreign to most of us, it is downright offensive.
But the kind of love Jesus represents requires a vulnerability that flies in the face of militant protection of individual freedoms.
That’s why it causes me no grief at all to echo my professor’s provocative statement: “Jesus was a socialist…and so am I.”
It’s not a political statement. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the benefits and privileges that come with being a free citizen of this free country.
But we have to realize how often our personal rights and freedoms come explicitly at the expense of others.
The question for the church is, do we have the courage to repent?