The recognition that each individual is a person of value and worth and “has certain inalienable rights” is one of the hallmarks of Western civilization and the Enlightenment worldview.
Individualism also has roots in Christianity. The Bible teaches us that God numbers the hairs on our heads (Matthew 10:30), leaves the 99 sheep to search for the lone lost one (Luke 15), and doesn’t want any to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
These verses show a God who cares not only for humanity as a whole, but also for each individual as a person of worth and value. None of us is “just another brick in the wall.”
There is, however, a dark side to individualism. We can so value independence and self-reliance that we become blind to the reality of how interdependent we are and how much we rely on each other.
Interdependence and reliance on others are not weaknesses of the human condition, but part of the fabric of who we are and what it means to be truly human.
It’s common for Christians to say that each person is created in the image of God, but in Genesis 1 it is humanity – in its maleness and femaleness – that is declared to be made in the image of God.
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
While an individual male or female is fully human, I understand this verse to mean that it is humans-in-relationship that form the image of God, reflecting that three persons comprise the oneness of God.
Thus, individuals-in-community is the essence of the “imago dei.”
What shouldn’t go unnoticed is that after the first creation story declares that everything is good, the second creation story declares that the creation of a solitary human is “not good.” “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone'” (Genesis 2:18).
In our culture, people often view community and individualism as if one mitigates the other. Usually, when the two come in conflict, it is community that loses.
The Bible doesn’t hold the two in tension, however. It declares that both community and individualism together are good and emphasizes that privileging one over the other is not good.
If the evil of communism and fascism is that they both devalue the individual for the sake of the state, individualism becomes evil when it privileges the individual over the community.
Instead of the biblical model of humanity as individuals-in-community, the model of hyper-individualism is the individual-over-against-community.
This ultimately pits individuals against individuals, with each person taking responsibility only for themselves and not worrying about the common good. Is this what we mean by “personal responsibility” and “self-reliance”?
Isolation is the curse of individualism. Not only do we end up isolated, we also isolate people from us. By congregating only with people like ourselves, we keep those who are different than ourselves at a distance.
Distance and isolation alienate us from others and others from us. For example, we can do this to the poor. We isolate them and we keep our distance from them, and from that distance we make judgments about them.
It’s amazing to me how fashionable it has become in some circles to speak so poorly of the poor.
For instance, we denigrate them all as lazy. While you can certainly find some poor people who fit that description, it’s my experience that lazy people are found in all economic groups, as are the industrious.
The Bible does not speak poorly of the poor. The writer of Proverbs often speaks poorly of the lazy, but doesn’t identify the poor as those who are lazy. In fact, the Bible more often identifies the rich as lazy.
For example, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘Bring something to drink!'” (Amos 4:1)
To listen to some people today, including Christians, if a poor person doesn’t work they are lazy.
Yet, if a wealthy person doesn’t work, even if the wealth is inherited, they are a man or woman of leisure.
The biblical model is of community with all humanity united together taking care of each other because we recognize the worth and value of each individual, whether rich or poor, native or foreigner, intelligent or not, of all races and ethnicities.
That’s when the image of God is reflected in us.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Md. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter: @EubanksLarry.
Pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.