Individualism Harms How the (White) Church Confronts Racism
something is broken in how we as believers approach racism.
After the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, the conversation about racism is happening almost everywhere. It’s happening in our homes, on social media, in company boardrooms, in city council meetings and police departments. And it’s happening in church.
As this conversation has been happening in the church, it’s become clear we have a problem with our posture.
Namely, individualism is harming the posture of the church in confronting racism.
First, what is individualism?
Individualism is a value system in which the individual is of more value than the whole, the collective. It says that I can be my own person, independent of restrictions and confines placed on me by society. It says, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work your way to the top.
Personal rights trump collective rights in the mind of the individualist.
This “rugged individualism” (as President Hoover named it) has been a defining trait of American culture since the founding of our country. Many Americans (and Christians) hold to its framework, maybe without even knowing it.
Is individualism a biblical value?
The short answer is, not really.
It’s true that the God of the Bible seeks to have a personal relationship with each individual. That’s a really key element of the Gospel. However, that is only one element of the Gospel.
The Gospel, and the Bible, have implications reaching far beyond the individual.
Being a follower of Jesus is not only about making your personal relationship with God right, but it also is about loving others sacrificially and working towards the redemption of all things.
There is no doubt you and I as individuals are highly valuable in a biblical framework, but the Gospel is about more than making the individual right with God.
How Does Individualism Hurt the Church?
Though it’s not high on the list of biblical values, individualism has crept into our churches and our approach to many things, especially if your skin is white like mine.
As white people, it’s easy for us to embrace individualism because we’ve experienced no hardship based on our ethnicity. We can operate as individuals in a way many people of color cannot in America.
However, I think individualism is destructive as a worldview both to those who hold it and those affected by it. There are a few ways I think individualism specifically harms our posture towards racism:
- Individualism tells us we have no responsibility to commit to the collective body of Christ.
Individualism says that my personal relationship with God can happen without being committed to the church, to older believers, to believers with different experiences and convictions than me. This distances us from experiencing the beauty of the diverse church united by the Gospel, and it also distances us from entering into the pain of our brothers and sisters. When there is no commitment to the whole church, there can be no biblical lament on its behalf (for more on biblical lament read “White Christians, We Must Learn Lament”).
2. Individualism shields us from accepting corporate responsibility for sin committed by a group we’re apart of.
Individualism says that my actions are completely independent of any group I’m apart of, whether it’s my church denomination, my family, or my ethnic group. While responsibility for personal sin is very biblical, we see that corporate responsibility for sin is biblical as well. The prophet Nehemiah wept over the sin of idolatry his fellow Israelites had committed, though he never personally took part in that or was even in Israel when that happened. He repented over the sin of his fathers, his fellow Jews and his own sin.
Individualism runs contrary to the biblical model of corporate responsibility & repentance.
3. Individualism blinds us to how sin & racism can be systemic.
Individualism says that each person acts independent of the structures and systems around them. It would then follow that racial discrimination is always a product of personal choice. While racism does occur in personal choices and actions, discrimination can also occur not only because of someone’s individual choice, but also because of an unfair system beyond individual control (for more on the specifics of how racism has become part of American systems and laws, read “Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein).
Understanding how the sin of racism has become entrenched in American systems is not possible with individualism as a core value.
4. Individualism gives us short-sighted, incomplete solutions to racism.
Once again, because individualism says every person acts independently of systems they participate in, the solution it gives us for racist acts is primarily individual change. This means that if I personally am not a racist person, I have no responsibility to participate in the fight for justice and equality. This means that racism can be solved by me personally treating my black neighbor politely or equal to the way I treat my white neighbor.
The Bible is clear that our hearts being transformed is central to the Gospel, and that works itself out into transformed actions. We must reckon with racism that exists in our individual hearts to be sure. But, because racism can also be systemic, it is not the only reckoning we must have.
While evaluating ourselves to fix broken places in our hearts, we must also evaluate the structures in society to fix our broken systems.
The Bible calls us to pursue the welfare and justice of our cities alongside pursuing virtue in our own lives. Unlike individualism, it gives a full understanding of how justice and peace can prevail over racism.
As a white Christian, I’ve been vulnerable to individualism becoming a driving force for how I approach racism. For that, I repent.
I believe that the Bible calls you and me to something more.
The cross has two beams — vertical and horizontal. Too often, we, the white church, have over-emphasized the vertical beam: the importance of our personal relationship with God. We’ve forgotten the horizontal beam: loving others sacrificially as our witness of who our God is.
To embrace one without the other will always be harmful, whether it keeps us from working for justice for others or leads to us shirking our personal responsibility of faith and Gospel living.
Fellow white Christians, I pray we would be found faithful to reflect on that wondrous cross and reject individualism as our posture, especially as we confront racism.
Thank you so much for reading!
My hope is that you might be encouraged & challenged, and that these pieces might spark life-giving conversations. I would love to hear from you and connect, so shoot me a message on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, or leave a response to this piece.