What is Christianity? Is it a collection of individuals, each following Jesus? Is it a type of culture, a philosophy that can govern courts, legislatures, and armies? Is it a radical fringe movement, at odds with mainstream culture, or is it a faith that is central to what it means to be American?
Throughout history, different Christians have answered these questions in several different ways. Some – particularly the liturgical churches – view their faith as being interwoven with the entire society. While personal conviction is important, faith is ultimately not a matter of the individual, but rather a corporate faith and practice that permeates the whole culture. In this worldview, it makes perfect sense to have a Christian president, generals, judges, CEOs, and police officers. Christianity isn’t a radical ideology; it’s the glue that holds our society together.
Another view is that Christianity is first and foremost about the individual’s relationship with God. This is the perspective that gave birth to the Evangelical commitment to Jesus as “personal Lord and Savior” – “personal” being the key word. In the most extreme versions of this viewpoint, nothing matters at all except the personal decision to believe in Jesus. Participation in any particular community, society, or even code of conduct, is secondary to the personal choice to accept his sacrifice on the cross.
Finally, there is the perspective of the dissenting church – groups like Quakers, Anabaptists, and others who have been violently persecuted for their counter-cultural beliefs. According to this viewpoint, the Christian faith is not primarily about individual conviction, nor is it a question of conformity to a large-scale, mainstream culture of Christendom. Instead, Christian discipleship takes place within a context of radical community, a community that stands outside the bourgeois assumptions of the mainstream and the violent logic of Empire.
For the dissenting church, the way of Jesus is a path of building a new society in the shell of the old. Rejecting both individualist faith and conformity to the wider culture, this perspective holds that Jesus is most authentically followed in a community that rejects common wisdom and joins Jesus on the margins of society.
Key to this understanding of the church is the lived experience of solidarity. The way of Jesus is not one that we can walk alone. In the radical community we rely on one another to find our way as disciples of Jesus. This kind of solidarity must go beyond shared identity and group membership. It has to extend into our intimate life choices: Our money, our living situations, our family. In the radical community gathered by Jesus, we don’t get to hold anything back from one another. We own nothing, not even our lives. Everything belongs to Christ, and we belong to one another.
Most of us today – including those of us in the historic dissenting churches – don’t really have the stomach for this kind of total submission to Christ in community. So we’ve ended up gravitating towards a more individualistic ethos. We value each person’s preferences and experience, preferring it to the discernment and cohesion of the group. Each one of us can live our lives our own way, and if the community has misgivings, it’s ultimately none of their business.
Given how privileged most of us are, we can get away with this. We’ve got the material resources that allow us to rely primarily on mainstream consumer culture, rather than the support of the believing community. We don’t really need each other. If we can pay rent, groceries, and Netflix, we’re good. And so we drift apart. Nothing binds us together that we can’t find somewhere else. If not at church, then maybe the yoga studio or spin class.
Is it any wonder that Christianity is disintegrating in the West? We’re just too rich and self-satisfied to prioritize one another over ourselves. By choosing individualism, we are ultimately captured by the most powerful voices of the mainstream culture – unchecked consumerism, militarism, greed, and fear. Without a community of solidarity that we truly lean on because we have no other alternative, we fall prey to whatever the imperial culture throws our way.
At this point, it’s a huge challenge to choose anything besides conformist individualism. It’s in the air we breathe, the clothes we wear, the media we consume. We’ve been atomized for so long, our communities of solidarity have been relegated to mere clubs and interest groups. And we’ve come to think of this feeble state of affairs as normal.
We’ve got a choice to make:
What is the story we want to live? Who do we want to live it with? And what are we willing to give up in order to be part of a community that distinguishes itself from the dying, violent order that we’re living in today?