Susan Eastman, in her chapter in Apocalyptic Paul, provides an excellent reminder for Westerners that salvation is not found in life-in-community or corporate identity. We are in a very different world from the world(s) in which the Bible was written, and one of the main differences is how we conceive of ourselves.
Yet it’s not that communal identity is the solution for individual identity. Redemptive community dynamics are the solution to corrupted community dynamics.
Eastman shares this conversation with an African woman she met on a cross-country flight:
She told me she had immigrated to the United States. I asked how she found American culture and society, in comparison with her own, and she said that she much preferred it. That surprised me a bit, so I inquired further: don’t you find our culture isolated and individualistic, in comparison with a more communal society? I added that I always had been impressed by the well-known African saying, “I am because we are, and because we are, I am.” “I hate that saying!” she exclaimed. “Don’t talk to me about community! I cam here to get away from all that! Here, I create myself; no one tells me who I am or what I can do. I want autonomy. I celebrate American individualism! I love it! I could never go back.”
Life in community is not always good news!
Eastman continues, in a footnote:
As my colleague Esther E. Acolatse has written about pastoral care with African women, “what is termed ‘relational ethos’ benefits only some of the people” . . . She continues, “[T]he need of the female for connectedness is seen as essential for the survival of the self, and yet this need in certain cases also becomes the source of the death to the self.” Connection may mean death, not life. Acolatse is speaking about a particular gendered cultural experience, but surely her observations can be applied more widely; in any community, social harmony in effect may be maintained by an unequal distribution of burdens and goods. Furthermore, corporate solidarity can issue in violence every bit as much as individualism can. The idea of self-in-relation per se, let alone communal solidarity or corporate identity, is no panacea for humanity’s ills.