I am the Sunday School teacher so I am responsible for what the class will discuss. We actually do well in creating a safe-enough space that members can have some difficult conversations and agree to disagree while being exposed to differing ideas. On a recent Sunday, the discussion had wandered into the issue of racism and the daunting task of putting its evil endurance behind us. As we talked, the emotions began to rise and one person spoke strongly that no one in her family had ever owned a slave…
No damage was done; no friendship damaged. We talked to one another. However, I have pondered repeatedly about the exchange because it seemed to me a glimpse into a much bigger issue for those of us with very different ways of seeing the world. I understood my friend to be saying “don’t blame me for something I did not do nor did my family.” I certainly do not disagree with her, but it seems clear to me that cultural issues, racism being only one glaring example, are far more complex and enduring than individual reactions.
Individual freedom, responsibility, ingenuity, risk, integrity — these are built into western culture. The founding documents of America were written to protect individual rights. We admire greatness, especially if that greatness is achieved by overcoming great hardship. Our history, our economy, our rule of law, our technology and our faith life are all given direction by great leaders. They are also determined less visibly by countless men and women who simply lived their lives with courage, integrity and faith. We expect individual integrity and find it especially appalling when political and religious leaders abandon that very integrity in the pursuit of money and power.
There is a problem, however, when the focus on individual behavior becomes blinded to both the excess and the impotence of individuals in a diverse world. I am certainly not alone nor especially articulate in writing about the problems that come when the emphasis on “I and me” is blinded to the needs of “us and we.” In excess, I think of the entrepreneur who makes a fortune for himself and a few associates but pollutes the air and water or distorts the local economy with no concern to the damage caused. In impotence, I think of the prejudices that profile people as suspicious or potentially dangerous simply on the basis of skin color or unusual dress.
Christianity has been a dominant force in shaping the ways we Americans understand life together. Much, perhaps most, of that shaping has emphasized individual salvation, individual responsibility and individual integrity. Many great individuals have come from that tradition. They have shared their wealth and their compassion; they have created schools and hospitals and homeless shelters. But the individual focus has too often mirrored rather than challenged the cultural values of the time. In the frequently honest belief that the only role for faith was to change individuals, church history is too often a sad one of resisting new ideas and of turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to abuses and prejudices.
Many believe that everyone benefits most when every individual does what s/he thinks is best. Yet that kind of individuality can too easily adopt the perspective that life is not fair, so it’s every man for himself. Too bad if you are weak or poor or a minority or grew up in the wrong place to have any advantage in the great competition of living. Compassion can take a real beating here.
If personal integrity is the virtue sought by those who value individuality, social justice is the virtue pursued by those who think also about life together in community. Justice adopts a broader perspective — it wants to assure a level playing field. Justice recognizes that there are circumstances, social taboos or unfair laws that make it difficult or impossible for some individuals to break out of their circumstances. Justice rejects that the strong can casually take advantage of the weak.
Individualists reject being blamed simply because they are part of some identified offending group, and they hate political correctness that can grow from social reform efforts. Justice advocates are angered at the silence and complacency of people who are satisfied and fiercely defensive of their comfort and privilege. My goal is to tease out the idea that neither the bleeding heart nor the hard heart is adequate to deal with the issues and emotions of a divided culture.
I believe there is a great divide of misunderstanding and hostility as we try to balance the values of individual integrity and community justice. The fearful, the angry, the manipulative, the demagogues who favor either value would have us believe that we must choose one over the other. Either/or, black/white, all or nothing are tempting simplifications in response to the complexities of life together. At the risk of seeming simplistic in my own way, I would offer the faith-based alternative best known to most of us as a teaching of Jesus, but one consistent with great humanists and with the best of world religions: love your neighbor as you love yourself.