Living as ‘Both/And’
By JIM NICHOLS
Whatever its mechanism for you, what was really occurring when you were baptized? That is, understanding that important spiritual things were happening, what were they? Here is a suggestion—actually, two suggestions.
On one hand, when you were baptized, you were individually connected to God as a redeemed being. It was a point of salvation for you, a point of receiving the Holy Spirit, of receiving an adoption as a child of God. We could quibble about some of the mechanical events and timing of this, but this is the bottom line, it seems to me.
On the other hand, when you and I were baptized, we were connected to a group of other followers. Our adoption was part of a large-scale adoption of others past, present, and future. We now had a great spiritual family, and we were part of a spiritual body, the church.
To be more specific, baptism involves two movements immediately connected. One is the movement toward God as an individual, and the other is the inclusion into God’s now expanded by one, group. I fear that we have too often allowed our pride in American individualism to enter this combination and to lead us to overly emphasize that aspect of our spiritual life to the diminishing of our group responsibilities and privileges. There is great value and importance to our role as individual Christians; we make an individual confession, make individual repentance, have an individual baptism. However, we are connected to one another by deep spiritual bonds, and they must not be swamped by our American individualistic stances. In many ways, we are “all in this together” as followers of God, and our behavior should illustrate that.
Even in the Hebrew Bible we see a lot of emphasis on the “group” of God’s followers. God is seen leading the group, guiding the group, punishing the group, admonishing the group, saving the group. There are certainly individual punishments, sins, and approvals, but it seems to me that there may be more total group effects than individual ones. Again, because in our country we have been so heavily steeped in individual achievement and progress, we may be overlooking the appropriate balance that God has intended. Indeed, the balance can be so disturbed that it becomes destructive; illustrations of this are seen in the amazing resistance to COVID vaccinations and masking guidelines. I have read of rural health practitioners (of which there are too few already) leaving their practice because townspeople are so resistant and negative about medical aspects of the pandemic. This is, frankly, toxic individualism. At what point does individualism become selfishness?
In the Hebrew Bible we see God quizzing whole communities of his followers about their practices and sins. Many, many times they are told how they have been called out as God’s people (collectively) and are accountable as such. In the New Testament we see that God’s redeeming work is for the whole world, not just each individual heart.
This interplay between individual and group Christianity is a difficult, but necessary interface. In a local congregation, the give and take concerning practices and stances must satisfy individual beliefs while at the same time avoid derailing the congregation from its primary spiritual missions. If you do not sense this tension, you are not paying careful attention.
Do only individuals sin, or do groups? Apparently, in scripture, both do. Are only individuals selfish, or can societies be selfish? Can companies be selfish, or is business competition the justification for virtually any business behavior? Can governments be selfish? Are just individuals racist or can societies be racist? I suggest both can and are.
Each of us has a great temptation to think first of ourselves and those closest to us in our families. There is some logic to this biologically and theologically, but, again, selfishness rears its head quickly. Jesus is clear that we are to love God and love others (all others). We are connected to one another as part of God’s creation and have responsibility and accountability for others. When we refuse to take this responsibility for one another, we are rejecting clear and direct desires from God. Let us not become so indebted to individualism that it feeds our innate selfishness.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain