Friday, October 26, 2007

Individualism versus Groupism

While working in Korea for three years I was able to experience a different worldview that paid homage to the group rather than the individual. Being a good individualistic Canadian, I was surprised by the ease at which another culture fit within a group mindset.

One of the stories that highlighted Korean group thinking was from the late 70’s. Korea was still reeling from the economic devastation that had plagued them since the Korean war in the early 50’s. Shortages were a way of life and jobs were scarce. The government suggested that 1 or 2 children per family would strengthen future job security. There were no laws written to enforce this rule but almost without exception Koreans complied and it was rare for me to teach children that had more than 1 sibling.

As North Americans we are branded by the rest of the world for our brash individualism. What’s in it for me has become the motto for our individualistic preoccupation. Individual rights are brandished about without any historical thought that individualism is a rare and dangerous form of personal expression. If our government suggested we should only have 1 or 2 children, an election would surely sweep out anyone who had the audacity to dictate what goes on in our bedrooms. Ironically, the average Canadian family has just 1 or 2 children.

Does Christianity lean towards groupism or individualism? The answer is obvious when a Christian asks another Christian this question, “What church do you go to?” Belonging to a group is synonymous for many, with being a Christian. When you can’t answer this question with the name of a church or a pastor, there is often an awkward silence that ensues.

I would suggest that Christianity is really more about individualism than the modern and historical views reflect. The very nature of Jesus was that of a radical individualist who did not fit into any particular group’s mindset. One of the striking pictures that flows throughout the gospels was that He didn’t come to please any group, from that of his own family to the ruling religious elite of his day. Any group that tried to adopt Him as one of their own found Him leaving them just as quickly. He wasn't against any person that belonged to a group, His message really was unconditional love. He simply would not be shackled by the limited misrepresentations that groups inevitably enshrine and then enforce.

If this is true and we are to become more like Jesus, how can we put on the cloak of a group and say we are responding to that call in our lives? In Luke 18:9-14, the tax collector went home justified while the Pharisee was completely unaware of his self righteousness. It seems that while the Pharisee could fit well into his particular group, he didn’t fit well with God’s desire for him.

I remember being asked this question shortly after being hired at a church: “If it comes to defending the group or an individual, what would you choose?” My answer, which I thought was the only way to truly reflect Christian leadership, was the individual. I didn’t even consider the group as a worthy choice. I would later learn that the correct answer, if you wanted to be trusted, was “the group”.

It may seem that I am arguing for individualism over groupism and to the degree that religion inevitably makes icons of groups, that is true. I am not na├»ve in thinking that individualism can’t easily take one down the path of selfishness and carelessness. Don't forget that the deception of greed for the tax collector was less damaging than the self righteousness of the Pharisee within his group.

Even now, I still feel the unease of not being able to identify with a particular group. (It’s hard to shake off 30 years of indoctrination.) But I am finding that it’s ok to love Jesus and to love others without identifying myself with any particular group.

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