Individualism, Community & Bonds of Oneness Dedicated to the Common Good.

Our weekly ecumenical discussion group got into Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer as recorded in John 17.  More particularly we talked about what it means to be one with something, as Jesus proclaimed he was one with the Father and called his disciples to be one with him. To be one with Christ is not to surrender one’s individual identity, but to enter an unbreakable bond with Christ. Even though different from one another, all who claim a bond with Christ share in a community of oneness with each other. It is a bond grounded in God’s abounding and steadfast love that brings healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and beyond death to life eternal.

It is a theological truth with parallels in daily secular life. What is true for Christianity is true of all humanity and the communities to which they belong.  The multiplicity of bonded oneness is what forms community however defined: family, neighborhood, town, nation, passions, and so on. Healthy societies cannot exist without individuals in fungible bonded oneness with communities dedicated to the common good: “E Pluribus Unum.”  The opposing force to oneness in community is individualism. The two can work in creative tension with one another or in mutually destructive enmity. The balance between the two can be approximated in unstable equilibrium, unstable because humanity is sufficiently selfish to reject the common good in favor of individual freedom and personal advantage.

Individualism is not  in itself a bad thing. The American creed of individualism is important to our democracy, but it can be taken too far when it demeans and distrusts the greater value of communities and the common good, including the governments that define them.  At its extreme it becomes a kind of libertarianism acting as in a Hobbesian state of nature. John Stuart Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson are often cited as the Godfathers of American individualism, but Mill’s essay On Liberty defined it within the context of community, of being one with more than one’s self, of Emerson’s self-reliance as a function of responsibility to one’s self and others and the communities with which one was affiliated.

I’ve been reading an exhaustive history of North American Indians in which Indian tribal leaders and scholars describe how their people greatly value individualism but have a binding ethos of oneness with the land, oneness with the tribe, and oneness with the Great Spirit however understood. It’s too easy to romanticize it: there never was such a state of being in which humans were not fallible and selfish.  But it may be the best example of Emerson/Mill individualism, and a good model to work from.  When asked to talk about themselves, most people will describe relationships, work, hometown, family, close friends, interests and hobbies, religion, clubs and so on.  Without using the term, each is describing the bonds of unity with communities that help form self identity.

A society like ours cannot continue in good health if it doesn’t have a strong creed of community forming  durable, but not breakable,  bonds of oneness. An American creed of community has to live in creative tension with the creed of individualism, so important to our sense of freedom.  It is what the Declaration and Constitution tried to articulate, and the nation has lurched through nearly 300 years of trying to get it right.  Those ruthless for power and position know how to break the bonds of community by redirecting individualism to unquestioning obedience to the the power elite or Great Leader.  Hitler and Stalin are the most obvious examples of how raw brutality is used, but the same tactics are used by autocratic leaders and powerful elites in most any community or organization. They break down bonds of oneness with community by making each suspicious and fearful of others deftly labeled as the source of troubles or threats to status. . Hope of survival and security is only through obedience to those in power.  It is the tactic used by the powerful to enslave, subjugate, oppress, and conquer.  It uses the creed of individualism to destroy  healthy community, then remaining individualism is destroyed. Orwell wrote metaphor, not dystopian fiction. 

Trumpism and its legislative agents use the same tactic today to break bonds of oneness in community and in pursuit of an anti-democratic authoritarian government.  They have skillfully used the weaknesses of Reagan’s small government individualism and Tea Party libertarianism to break down trust in community.  Where possible they have suppressed individual rights and freedom with authoritarian rule with the excuse that it is good for all.  We’ve been through this before and come out OK when the public finally woke up to what was happening.  Will they awaken this time? The outcome is uncertain.  It depends on the electorates’ ability and willingness to recommit to a strong creed of community guaranteed and nourished by government, voluntary associations, and the importance of bonds of oneness linking each to one another for the common good.

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