In the 1830’s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote this about the United States. “Individualism is a word recently coined to express a new idea…Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.”
Recent political debates about the state of our U.S. economy point out how on-target de Tocqueville was. We’ve watched television reports about crowds who march on legislative centers with placards and bull horns, each lobbying for its own special interest. Most protests don’t take into account the well being of the whole state or country. “Our way or the highway,” some seem to be saying.
Probably the most disturbing barometer of this self-interest is the all-too-frequent story of the person who’d rather hang on to a whole salary rather than sharing a small percentage so that a fellow employee can stay employed.
This 21st century individualism is nothing new. The New Testament writer, John, seems preoccupied with this theme. “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness,” he wrote. He also commented about a group of people who “went out from us,” and John said that “if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.”
The apostle John as well as the Frenchman de Toqueville both knew that community requires an interest in the well being of the whole community, not just a person’s individual tribe. What a person believes about community is very evident in whether they are generous when they tip their waitress, how they drive in traffic, whether they flush the toilet, act thankful, hold the door, and speak to others.
There’s no human institution that is immune to radical self-interest. It happens in churches, businesses, educational institutions, and governments. The chief, and most chilling, version of this my-way-or-the-highway game has been in the stand off we’ve witnessed in state and federal debates over the financial crisis. We know the threat of an economic shut down is too possible because of the capacity of human beings for individualism and self-interest.
But a blaming finger should not be pointed too quickly at legislators. Individualism also happens at church when a person says, “sing my songs or I’m leaving.” Or “I’ll contribute if you do my special project.”
We don’t know why a group of people left the church to which John wrote. It is clear, however, that the leavers thought they were above the others or superior in some way.
The message of community is that no one is superior, and everyone has something valuable to contribute. On that basis various institutions can prosper.