E Pluribus Unum

There is a theme that runs through the entire New Testament, finding particular emphasis in Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-26. That theme is oneness:

20 “I am not asking on behalf of these alone, but also for those who believe in Me through their word, 21 that they may all be one; just as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 The glory which You have given Me I also have given to them, so that they may be one, just as We are one; 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and You loved them, just as You loved Me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. 25 “Righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; 26 and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.

So Jesus emphasizes being one with the Father, and His disciples being one with Him, being mutually in Him as He is in them.

In the Epistles, Paul and the other writers also repeatedly emphasize this principle of being one body, and one with Christ.

In particular, the Bible’s descriptions in prophetic literature, including Jesus’ own words in the Gospels, emphasize the joining together into oneness being an essential feature of God’s Kingdom – deeper than mere unity, but actually one Body of Christ. The Body of Christ comes together, and then is united with Christ in a wedding of the Bride and the Lamb, which prophetically has been foretold by the phrase “one flesh” describing marriage starting in Genesis, then reaffirmed by Jesus himself in Matthew 19.

As such, it seems hard to overstate the importance in God’s Kingdom of the Body of Christ becoming one, both with Christ, and also with each other.

But it’s pretty clear to any observer that at this point in history, there is a stunning lack of oneness in the church, not to mention the world.

Individualism and Collectivism

I’ve been reading the book “Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes” and it has me thinking hard about collectivist versus individualist societies. In a nutshell, collectivist thinking is “us” and “we” thinking – a focus on the group which one inhabits, and working for the benefit of that group. It can be any kind of group: your family, your race, which school you attend, the company you work for, the state where you live, your country, your religion, your denomination within that religion, your church within the denomination, the small group in that church… there are dozens of groups that engender a sense of collective identity.

On the other hand, individualism is related to the habit of being independent and self-reliant, according to the Oxford Dictionary. It’s in many ways the opposite of collectivism. Americans are strongly individualistic – the most individualistic thinkers in the entire world, based on various studies and surveys.

But there are aspects of both collectivist and individualist thinking in each and every group that exists, even in America. Groups like their collectivist “group-ness,” giving a place of belonging, but groups and their members also like their individualist uniqueness that sets them apart from other groups. Part of the pleasure of being in a group is believing it to be different from, and superior to, other groups.

So how can we understand this collectivist thinking in the midst of an extremely individualist society?

Call it, perhaps, collectivist individualism: self-interested individuals banding together in collective groups for their mutual benefit.

Or maybe individualistic collectivism: collective groups acting for their own best interests against other collectives.

The Thing About Groups

In any case, here’s the thing about groups: their members are collectivist (they think about the “we” in the group) but in most cases, the groups act individualistically – they don’t want to be too closely tied to the other groups. They are either competing with the other groups – such as sports teams – or they don’t want other non-competing groups to infringe on their own liberty. For example, most of us are fine with neighboring states or countries having their own group identity – but only as long as they don’t try to impose their will on us.

The same is also true in the church. We’re generally okay with other denominations or other nearby churches believing or acting differently than us. We may believe they’re wrong in some ways, but we are mostly happy to ignore those differences – but if they try to make us act or believe like them, that’s definitely not okay.

Don’t Tread On Me

So in a very real sense, we still think and act very individualistically, even though in many cases we are acting individualistically as part of a collective.

It’s the perfect manifestation of “don’t tread on me.” Except “me” is “us.”

This usually works okay – we don’t go to war against fans of opposing sports teams, and we don’t go burn down churches from different denominations.

But there are some real and serious problems that nonetheless arise from this individualist collectivism.

When we insist on so closely identifying with a given group that we begin to actively oppose integrating or even cooperating with a parallel or competing group, we create division that prevents this Scriptural oneness.

A great example is when we identify very closely with a given racial group. When we sense that another group is intruding on our rights or our space or our comfort, we will react very strongly to preserve our own group’s rights.

Another great example is when we identify very closely with a given denomination or specific theology. It’s absolutely necessary to seek the Truth, but I think it’s undeniable that believing that we definitely know The Truth about some aspect of doctrine makes us sharply intolerant of someone who differs on that point of doctrine. We will rise up against that other person to defend our God and our doctrine and our denomination. But the other person is just as convinced that they know The Truth. Yet, somehow, we are called to be one. If we want to be one with Jesus Christ, that necessarily involves being one with each other. We can’t have a lot of ones with Jesus that are not one with each other. If A=B and A=C, then B=C.

Another absolutely current example is American politics. The two political parties are acting as collectives in opposition to each other.

This pattern is often called “tribalism” – the strong identification with a tribe, and particularly, “the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group” (from the Oxford Dictionary).

In “Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes,” the authors point out that when two different groups share a value, then there can be a fight. When the values differ, those two groups might bicker but there would be no fight. By way of example, they cite Paul visiting Athens’ Mars Hill and identifying the unknown god as the God that he worshiped. When he told them about his God, they were not particularly bothered, because he wasn’t treading on a shared value: they were willing to add another god to their polytheistic belief system. But when he shared a similar sermon with Jews, and his interpretation of their singular God differed from theirs, it caused a riot. Paul was treading on a shared value, the interpretation of who YHWH the One God really was.

The argument, then, indicates that there is some intrinsic shared value at play. In my church conflict example above, both sides are interested in the Truth, and interested in preserving the honor due to our holy God. Where we differ is the “how” of making that happen. In the political example above, both parties strongly value the future and strength of the American nation; where we differ is how to achieve that shared value.

Thus, here’s the problem with tribalism, this individualistic collectivism: the conflict is evidence that there’s some shared value, but the conflict prevents us from working together to achieve that value. Instead, we decamp to separate spaces, point fingers at each other, scream across the fence, and insist that only our own solution or doctrine or approach is going to solve the problem.

I personally find it inconceivable that in either Christianity or American politics either side of any given position is utterly correct. It simply beggars belief to propose that 50% of American voters are idiots, or that any given denomination is totally apostate and going to hell, despite also naming Jesus as their Lord. It’s much more likely that both political parties have significant value to offer to find real solutions for America. It’s much more likely that God has placed on deposit in each denomination something very real and valuable, and all of them are necessary to begin to understand an infinite God.

So Then What?

Are we willing to throw away the other tribes than our own?

On every piece of American currency is our de facto national motto – “E pluribus unum” – “out of many, one.” And as I noted above, that was also the thrust of Jesus’ heart for his Church – out of many, one.

We’ve clearly lost our way on this front.

Our sense of individualism has become toxic, both politically and religiously. We organize ourselves into collective groups ever more strongly. And those groups actively oppose other groups that we perceive as infringing on our own collective’s individuality.

Where does it end?

I’m not sure we Christians can solve the political problem, but I’m also not sure we’re called to do so. We’re members of a much different collective – the Kingdom of God – which is where our political loyalties should lie.

Where we SHOULD be focusing is on Jesus’ call in John 17, to become one. We’re not called just to live in unity, tolerating each other’s supposed errors and deviance. That’s not oneness. Rather, as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 12:15-26, we are called to celebrate each other in our full uniqueness, even honoring the less presentable and less honorable.

15 If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has arranged the parts, each one of them in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many parts, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again, the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those parts of the body which we consider less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor, and our less presentable parts become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable parts have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that part which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one part of the body suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if a part is honored, all the parts rejoice with it.

The Call to Repenting (Changing Our Position)

So I don’t think we should be focusing on the political realm. I’m also of the opinion that we shouldn’t be focusing too much on any given denomination or local church. Rather, the Body of Christ must arise as a mature son of God, incorporated out of every tribe and tongue and nation and people, rejoicing in its full diversity yet as one. When the world sees what has been henceforth impossible under any political system, then “Many nations will come and say, “Come and let’s go up to the mountain of the LORD And to the house of the God of Jacob, So that He may teach us about His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” (Micah 4:2) It is the thing for which the world has been longing since the very first family was shattered by jealousy.

I’m also increasingly aware of Jesus’ call to sacrifice for the other, to lay down our lives (John 15:13), to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), even to carry an oppressor’s load further than he demands (Matthew 5:41). One toxic aspect of individualism – even when expressed by a collective – is self-interest. It inherently stems from our need to be in control, and expresses itself as self-protection. We don’t want anyone else to dictate to us, to demand from us, to make decisions for us. But that self-protection and self-interest run counter to Jesus’ urging to self-sacrifice.

And in the context of Christian practices, I’m also increasingly of the opinion that we try too hard to defend the honor of God or try to protect His Kingdom. God offers us the opportunity to partner with Him in showing His glory and His nature to the world and to the spiritual forces in heavenly realms. But He doesn’t ask us, anywhere in Scripture, to protect His person or His honor. At most, we’re asked to be ready to defend our faith in Him (2 Peter 3:15). In fact, Jesus tells a parable relevant to this idea. When a ruler’s servants come to him and inform him that some enemy has sown weeds among the wheat crop, the ruler tells them to ignore the problem until the harvest, when the fruitful wheat will be separated from the worthless weeds. This is a hard word – to not try to root out some bad doctrine, but let it all mature, until it’s fully grown and will then be obvious which was right and which was not. At some level, we may often find that our intent to defend God is actually defending our own faith. So engaging in collective-to-collective attacks does exactly what the ruler in Jesus’ parable warns against: it rips out good wheat and spoils the crop.

On the balance, neither individualism or collectivism are inherently better than the other. Each has positives and negatives. But my appeal here is to be keenly aware when your own individualism or your collective group rises up against another individual or collective. Carefully observe your heart attitude towards other individuals and groups. Recognize and be wary any time when your response is to seek to exclude another, or beat another down to protect your collective. Ask the Lord to bend your heart towards that single most important collective – the family of God, the Body of Christ, as the only group worthy of membership in our hearts. All other groups must diminish, even if they’re Christian groups, before we can become one with each other and ultimately with Christ.

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