Individualism is the assumed, and thus unquestioned, operating structure of for both the Left and the Right, conservatives and liberals. They are two sides of the same coin.
Nearly every disagreement and conflict that see in our society is framed within individualism and often ‘both sides’ are just the inverted – or photo negative – of each other simply focusing a different aspect of the individuals experience.
I ask the question: what is the most dangerous or objectionable thing that you believe? Not to your opponents but to your chosen group? Do you vote the party line? Do you vary at any point? Do you diverge from popular opinion at any level?
It’s like language – there is no private language. Language is socially constructed as is nearly every aspect of our life and culture. Race is socially constructed. Sexuality is socially constructed. Religion is socially constructed.
The problem comes when we don’t realize the ways that we have been:
Thus even our deepest conviction and true opinions are not independently our own. We are acting within a given structure that acted upon us and within in that we have some agency but we are never choosing from an unlimited menu of options. We are located socially and thus make choices within that structure.
Conservatives focus on one aspect of the individual. Liberals do the same just prioritizing different aspects of the individuals. Libertarians are just radical in this regard.
Watch the linked video and let me know your thoughts. Share with with groups your think might benefit from this challenge as a conversation starter.
Until we recognize the dominating ideology that is operational in all of our politics and social strife, we will not be able to fix the broken, fractured, and fragmented state or our societal problems.
I am intrigued when someone accuses me of being a liberal. What that tells me is that they only have two options in their mind, and I am clearly not conservative. They have no larger framework to understand that what I am actually outside of their spectrum all together (social constructivist).
What is helpful to understand is that our contemporary political ‘spectrum’ is actually a very small slice of a much bigger historical spectrum.
We live in the shadow of the Enlightenment which prioritized the individual. We are all, basically, at this point individualist – unless we come from a culture that is more communal or familial in its orientation.
What we call ‘conservative’ is a actually conservative individualists (which is a type of liberalism) and what we call ‘liberal’ is just a slightly more liberal individualist. We speak in a sort of shorthand: ‘conservatives’ are really conservative liberals and ‘liberals’ are liberal-liberals.
I always encourage people, when given an either/or binary of options, to find a third alternative to help clarify the skewed picture. In this case you might think of Libertarians. Libertarians, however, are actually extreme individualists and in sense are just radical liberals.
What I would want people to see is that a better alternative is more of a Communitarian approach that understands both the interdependent nature of our social fabric and the way that we are all enscripted (or conscripted) into a society with its expectations, behaviors, language, practices, beliefs, and narratives.
Now to be clear, I am very concerned about the embedded hierarchies, and specifically, patriarchy, built into communitarianism but I still think that it is a better option than the atomized individual that is plaguing every aspect of our culture right now.
What I am interested in is a radical democracy – not this thing we have now of representative democracy where our law-makers are beholden to special interest lobbies and big money. No, I actually want people to have equity (if not equality) in the system and for then to have actual say in their communities, workplaces, and institutions.
What may surprise you is that this politic actually comes from my theology – specifically my ecclesiology. I view Pentecost as the decentering and democratization of God’s presence in the world. My view of the church is an empowerment model of mutuality, participation, and accountability.
For me this is the power of the liturgical calendar from Christmas to Easter and on to Pentecost which leads to ‘normal time’. Normal time is the result of that narrative. In the incarnation God identifies with humanity. In the crucifixion the scapegoat is sacrificed and then God vindicates the victim. In Pentecost you have the dissemination of God’s spirit which is no longer contained with man-made temples since the curtain between heaven and earth was torn in two.
Side note: the silly either/or binary of a physical resurrection and a ‘spiritual’ one is the result of imposing our Enlightenment rationality back onto a premodern narrative (anachronistic) which is the most liberal thing I have seen. Jesus’ was neither a ghost nor a zombie – but had a glorified body. Read the story. Enter in to the narrative. He could both walk through walls and disappear but also bore the scars of his suffering and execution, and could be touched. He looked enough like himself the disciples could recognize something about him but was different enough that the mistook him for a gardener or fellow traveler. His glorified body was not the reanimation of a corpse but a glorified body that teaches us about new creation. The round and round debate about resurrection in an Enlightenment problem that will never go away because it is debating a set of expectations that the gospel itself has no interest in mediating.
Anyway, back the subject at hand. When we don’t know that all of our political options and arguments are actually centered on an individualism that foreign to the world of our sacred scriptures and then we try to import and impose our liberal (be they conservative, liberal, or radical) expectations on them, we will always be unsatisfied and impotent. We are trying to manipulate the variables in a equation that does not have any of the givens we are looking for and have learned to count on. It is just not there.
This anachronism (from the Bible) and amnesia (from the Enlightenment) leaves us in wasteland of polarization and arguments that are irreconcilable because they are inherently incompatible. This is why no election result this fall will fix what ails us – the cancer that plagues us in individualism which is baked into the bread of our system whether you fall on the conservative, liberal, centrist, or radical wings of that spectrum.
Moving toward a communal understanding, or communitarian approach, which prioritizes cooperation, compromise, mutuality, collaboration, and gifting (grace) is the only hope we have of getting out of this cultural morass.
Several years ago I was part of a leadership development cohort of young people and on the final day before they sent us back to the places that we came from all over the globe the leader encourage us to stop working on our weaknesses.
It really caught my attention because up to that point I been under the impression that my primary job was to become a well-rounded person and leader into bring up my weakest areas so it would’ve matched everything else. He said “no, put almost all of your energy into you area of strength – the thing that makes you unique only work on your weakness to the degree that it would disqualify you from ministry or cripple your leadership take away your credibility”.
Don’t work on your weakness – put all your energy into your strength – only work on your weakness enough that it does not cripple you or disqualify you from leadership.
I’ve always thought that was an interesting idea and I logged it in the back of my head carrying around all of these years and once in a while I see something and I think this calls for that I was recently out of the news cycle in the political arena for several weeks due to illness and then work stuff and then caring for family and so I was out of the loop and coming back into it has been rough.
It has been really eye-opening and I’ve noticed that when people are cynical or critical that sometimes they have an internal message that the cynical suspicion is something negative to be resisted.
I want to consider today that it might actually be the perfect time to be cynical.
A couple of years ago my friend Tad DeLay wrote a book called “The Cynic and the Fool”and I was in conversation with him around that time. I’ve noticed that it is not healthy to define yourself by what you’re not! There’s no fruit in that. There’s nothing nourishing about defining yourself in contrast to somebody else or some other group
What I am saying is that because of how we participate in our society – especially in the media age (the Society of Spectacle is one of my favorite books) – that we are conditioned, trained, and well-practiced at being cynical. It helps us not be so vulnerable and susceptible to the stunts and lies that are constantly put in front of us.
Embrace the cynicism to the degree that it compels you toward action.
So that’s my encouragement for today that that maybe this isn’t something to be resisted and that maybe it’s entirely appropriate for our moment and that it’s not a negative thing.
Maybe a little cynicism isn’t the worst thing in the world – especially if Zizek is right and the light at the end of the tunnel is another oncoming train.
Here are the 7 conversations that I hope will come up in the next 3 months:
The church is supposed to be an alternative way of life – a prophetic and subversive witness to the world – that critiques the ways of the world and provides an alternative way of being in the world. She works best as a minority position within the larger culture and is not designed to be in charge or in control of culture.
Neither the Republican or Democratic party can fix the problem of society. The Democrat and Republican parties are two sides of the same flawed coin. They are not the solution to the problem – they are manifestations of the problem.
The church is not a middle way between these two camps (compromise) but it supposed to be a third way (alternative) to their ways. What we call ‘the church’ is so saturated with both Empire and consumerism that it is completely impotent to confront the ‘powers-that-be’ – which crucified the Prince of Peace (as a scapegoat) – and these powers continue to make life worse for most of humanity.
The American ‘church’ is in bed with the systems of this world that reinforce racism, sexism, poverty, and militarism – 3 of those 4 things Martin Luther King Jr. called the ‘triplets of evil’.
There is a way of living, which Jesus modeled for us and taught about, that leads out of the muck-and-mire we find ourselves in and opens up the hopes and potential of a different way of being in the world. That is the good news of the gospel (evangel).
The church has the potential (capacity) to be the most beautiful and profound vehicle (venue) for unleashing human flourishing and peace. She does this by resisting evil, acting in love, and advocating for those who are vulnerable or on the margins.
The kingdom (or kin-dom) of God is actually within reach but the church has compromised and been corrupted by being in alliance with Empire and the systems of this world. What we call ‘church’ is a shadow of what is supposed to be. Us vs. Them thinking is a symptom of that disease.
Here is a quick video (5 min) to introduce the topics:
Let me know your thoughts, questions, and concerns.
A population is more willing to view as exceptional the excessive tactics and escalation of violence precisely because we now live in a permanent state of exception (or emergency).
Gulli [in this article ] reports, “At the end of his critique of the state of exception, Giorgio Agamben addresses the question of contingency, which is very important in all of his work, when, with a reference to Benjamin, he speaks of “the urgency of the state of exception ‘in which we live’” (2005)
In his eighth thesis on the philosophy of history, Walter Benjamin says:
“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency.” (1968)
I bring this up in the hopes that our current crisis might help to create a real sense of emergency that will call into question in the larger American conscience a question about the permanent state of exception that has crept in over the past decades. The supposed ‘war on terror’ and ‘war on drugs’ are but two examples of this.
We must question the exceptional violence and emergency politics that have become too normalized and quietly accepted in our society.
* I capitalize ‘State’ to illustrate its elevated and exceptional status.
Normally I am allergic to modifiers. I find them deeply suspicious.
Why reference someone as female comedian or author? You don’t call Stephen King a male author or Jerry Seinfeld a male comedian.
Randy Woodley is often referenced as a Native American theologian. That is fine… but why am I not introduced as a white theologian?
The worst is ‘biblical’. Every time I hear it used I think to myself, “this is probably going to be inaccurate and untrue”.
People talk about biblical marriage but that is an imaginary. There are between 9-15 types of marriage in the Bible. It is the same with a ‘biblical’ worldview. There are 6 different worldviews in the Hebrew and Christian testaments. People want to say that scripture speaks with one voice … but have you read it ? I wish it did!! It just doesn’t.
All of that is to say that I DO have one modifier that I find helpful: Christian. Not like christian bookstores, or christian radio stations, or christian colleges.
I find the modifier ‘christian’ helpful when it comes to politics and the underlying motivation behind them.
Watch the short video and let me know what you think.