Community vs Individualism – A false divide? Part 1

Last year while at a conference the principal of Spurgeon’s college spoke of his support for individualism. I sneered within. Typical westerner. Community is what we are meant to be. Isn’t that what a major portion of theology and the bible is working towards? And of course we Indians know about community compared to these poor individualistic Westerners. Ah racial prejudice! You’re like a nasty cold that never leaves.

The principal has a point. Over the past few years by reflection and observation I’ve seen and realised how oppressive communities can be. In fact so much of the radical steps of society, were in recognizing and safeguarding of the individual. The reformation for example allowed faith to be expressed in such individual terms as had rarely been before. The balance is probably the other way now especially in urban cultures where the individual is given so much importance that everyone’s a bit tired of it and wants to get ‘community’ back.

However communities can be dangerous. Amartya Sen in his brilliant book Identity and Violence speaks of how communities suddenly turn to violence when individuals consider their community identity as the sole way of expressing individual identity. History has shown this. All the Germans who supported the Nazis weren’t bad people. Yet as a community they seemed to be taken by a particular spirit that blinded them to horrors of Nazism.

Beyond the obvious examples of Nazism and Stalinism I’ve seen how communities suddenly unite to exclude certain kinds of people. Twice before because of disagreements with church leadership we suddenly found ourselves losing bunches of ‘friends.’ The people that are meant to love each other and the supposed community is actually a tribe which can’t bear for its superstitions and institutions to be questioned.

I think all groups of people have this herd mentality from choirs to churches, to political parties to the regulars at the pub. There seems to be a kind of spirit that descends on people when they are together and united. This ‘spirit’ can do great good and great harm. I think the question I’m grappling with is how the community can truly make us human when so often it dehumanises everyone in it.

How do we call ourselves a community without losing the individuality that is also core to our identity?

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2 thoughts on “Community vs Individualism – A false divide? Part 1”

  1. I’m actually struggling to deal with this at the moment within the church community. I’ve left and I’m not sure what to do. I’m trying to balance the loss by keep close friends near but I’m trying to figure out what next so this is a super relevant question for us to consider if we’re going to be honest individuals trying to live within the freedom and constraints of community.

  2. I’m interested to see where this discussion goes, but Sen provides us some answers in the same book you quoted. For him (and I agree), the best approach is to allow individuals to freely associate with many collectives — and by extension — own many identities. The dangers of the community are worsened when individuals can ONLY choose one identity (say, a national or ethnic one) , and rejection of that identity then leads to accusation of being a heretic/traitor etc.

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