The Anemic Individualism of White Evangelicalism

Individualism thoroughly pervades evangelical culture, which prepares evangelicals and evangelical churches to deal with racism poorly and even counter-productively.

There are many ways of grappling with the individualism that afflicts us. As just one consideration, evangelicals have heard for generations that Jesus is “my personal savior,” and this reality happens when I “ask him into my heart.”

This conception is nowhere in the New Testament, of course. NT texts portray Jesus as cosmic Lord, the King of his kingdom into which he calls all people to participate in a political order of justice and ongoing renewal under his life-giving and joy-generating reign. This political entity is called the church, which relates to the wider culture with hospitality toward the marginalized, service to the needy, and advocacy for the oppressed and vulnerable.

The New Testament clarifies our corporate identity and public behaviors, and if we had been raised and trained in such a vision, we would be prepared to meet the current moment, as we would have met many previous moments.

But we have not been so trained. Rather, we know that Jesus is in our hearts but we have thought little of what claims he has made on our bodies, nor how God by his Spirit has united us as bodies into one political body—the body politic of Christ.

With Jesus in our hearts, we have been taught that being Christian involves allowing Jesus to heal our inner wounds, to make us feel warm during times of “worship,” and to give us a devotional buzz when we read our verse or two for the day. And to the extent that he’s ever outside my heart, he’s the one whose singular footsteps are seen on the beach of my life.

We imagine that to really love Jesus is to feel, perhaps closing our eyes and lifting our hands to really feel during “worship,” or to weep when we hear a touching anecdote or testimony.

This is why so many of us are responding to this moment with our hearts, with sentiment.

When we hear of outrageous injustices we do what we’ve been trained to do for centuries, going back well before the Victorian era with its hymns about walking in a garden alone with Jesus (church music as love song has quite a pedigree). We express our emotions. We feel. We cry. “Our hearts are with you! We mean it! We’re really feeling!”

But what is needed is not emotion, nor feeling, nor sentiment, nor even our thoughts. What is needed in this moment, as ever, is white bodies joined together with black and brown bodies as a body—bodies and body committed to God’s public justice. A justice that confronts power rather than cozying up to it; a justice that enters the Oval Office to point a finger and speak prophetically, not to shake a hand and smile for the photograph; a justice that puts itself on the line for the oppressed; a justice that sacrifices its comforts; a justice that is visible and long-term rather than episodic and spasmodic.

It’s a good time to step back and look at how and why we are here, and what this moment may reveal about our training and our condition. It’s a good time to revisit the New Testament conception of the people of God as a body that embodies God’s righteousness/justice by God’s Spirit, for God’s glory, and the for the life of the world.

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