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The Kingdom of God Is Big Enough for Both Collectivists and Individualists

For the public interest, is it okay to infringe on individual privacy? In South Korea, at least, it does not seem like a big deal. Most people willingly submit themselves to government authority, and few complain. This has been particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the public has willingly cooperated with the government by allowing access to their personal information in order to trace COVID-19 infections. By contrast, in major Western countries, including the United States, such restrictions and surveillance targeted at public interest have caused significant backlash.

These contrasting contexts represent two opposing cultural values: collectivism and individualism. During the pandemic, cultural factors, rather than leadership, technological, and administrative factors, have played a major role in the differences between the East and the West. Western individualistic culture prioritizes the needs and desires of the individual, while Eastern collectivist culture pushes societal needs to the forefront. This is not to say that one culture is inherently superior or inferior to the other. They are just different.

In today’s highly mobile global society, contact between individualists and collectivists is increasing, and a better understanding of the two is essential. We must not fall into the trap of limiting ourselves and our choices. Either/or thinking that one or the other is right causes us to overlook the diversity, depth, and richness that God has given to humans.  As Christians, we should strive to recognize the two cultures without prejudice and better understand those who live based on their cultural values. This article is not about the clashes of cultures but rather aims to “pursue the goal of peace along with everyone” (Heb 12:14a, CEB), recognizing each other’s light and shadow. Both individualism and collectivism contribute to the kingdom of God with their own unique values.

Collectivism

Collectivism refers to a social pattern in which the needs of groups or communities of various units have priority over the needs of individuals. In many cases, collectivism is predominant in communal societies (Gemeinschaft) based on natural ties such as blood, regionality, and ethnicity. Accordingly, sentiment, tradition, and common bonds are emphasized within collectivism. The solidarity of a group can be kept without any formal regulation.

Collectivism demands commitment and sacrifice to the group rather than individual freedoms and rights. In a collectivist culture, persons with individualistic tendencies are treated as selfish and harmful to the community. Often, the relationships in the work process are more important than the efficiency and results of the work. Despite their outstanding individual capabilities, those who do not respect the given group preferentially are marginalized. In a collectivist culture, it is more sensible to be in the rain together than to put up an umbrella alone.

Collectivism, which prioritizes public welfare and equality through regulations, often conflicts with the values of free-market capitalism, which emphasizes individual competence, competition, and freedom. In collectivism, an individual must have a sense of responsibility and priority for the community. If this is not followed, the individuals do not fail alone but cause trouble to their family, friends, and neighbors. In collectivism, where individual failure threatens the community’s well-being, shame is experienced more prominently than guilt. According to Ruth Benedict, one of America’s pioneering anthropologists, “True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin.” Guilt is related to individualism in that it involves an individual not meeting standards of their own. In contrast, shame in collectivism involves feeling disappointment for not meeting the standards of the community to which one belongs.

When Samuel tries to tell Saul that God has rejected him as king for disobeying God’s command, Saul’s pleading words while holding onto the hem of Samuel’s robe reveal the shame in the collectivist culture. “I have sinned. . . but please honor me in front of my people’s elders and before Israel, and come back with me so I can worship the Lord your God” (1 Sam 15:30). Like this episode, the Bible is generally set in a collectivist culture. It contains cultures that place great importance on kinship, patronage, brokerage, honor, shame, and boundaries. The call to God’s people as a new community and new family also reflects the collective disposition of our Christian faith.

Individualism

Individualism is defined as a social pattern that “consists of loosely linked individuals who view themselves as independent of collectives.” The self is independent in individualism. The concept of an individual implies the indivisibility and uniqueness of an entity. Individualism sees a person’s happiness as its ultimate end in its overall development. The state or community is considered only to achieve the individual’s end.

In individualist cultures, the emphasis is on rational analyses of the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining a relationship. Individuals have their own preferences, needs, rights, and contracts that prioritize their personal goals over the goals of the collective. Accordingly, individualists do not have to permanently conform to the organization or group to which they belong, and no sentiment or tradition limits their wills. As members of Gesellschaft, where legalism and affective neutrality are emphasized in relationships, individuals tend to show self-interest by rational analysis and are characterized by emotional disengagement.

Individualism respects the uniqueness and individuality of the person. Individualism maximizes a person’s capabilities and creativity in freedom and helps them to become autonomous. Consequently, individualism is consistent with the idea of neoliberalism, which sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. In an individualistic society, individual choice and freedom are prioritized over regulations for public interest and safety.

The Bible reflects individualistic tendencies when it comes to salvation. Through personal and voluntary determination and confession, we become children of God (Matt 10:22–23, Matt 16:24–26, Rev 3:20). Salvation is only possible through the determination of an individual before Christ, not by any group, blood tie, or class. Jesus’ invitation to “follow me” was for an individual, and those who hesitated because of collectivist tendencies did not qualify to become the Lord’s disciples.

As seen above, both individualism and collectivism have their own values and characteristics. Any simple parallel comparison of which side is superior or inferior is meaningless. An immature human can advance to a more mature position in the harmony of the two cultures. Conversely, there is always a risk when a single culture, value, or story is underscored. Now we will look at how neither individualism nor collectivism is exempt from its own shadow. This is not for the sake of condemnation, but to be honest about one’s own weaknesses and to find a harmonious and enriched path to a godly community.

The Shadow of Collectivism

The collectivism that emphasizes unity has a pervasive compulsion for people to be the same. Collectivists who grew up hearing “do whatever your teacher tells you” at school seldom ask questions in class or during meetings. This is because the coercion of “the sameness” of the group leads to self-censorship of questions or objections, which may signify “difference.”

In collectivism, shame plays a major role in the compulsion to live up to the expectations of the community to which one belongs, not the expectations set by oneself. A byproduct that often arises from such shame is vainglory. In a collectivist culture, there is a tendency to pay more attention to outward appearance than actual appearance. In a society with excessive interest and meddling in other people’s lives, the individual cannot be free. Having to live up to the community’s expectations, one is always in the spotlight. Consequently, one needs to show off with great pomp and ceremony. But remember, although Jesus came to this earth to embrace and mingle with everyone, he was harshly critical of the Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders, calling them “hypocrites.” His criticism was closely related to this dynamic of collectivist culture, in which people tend to be obsessed with their appearance to others rather than their own inner self.

In an organization pressured to live up to people’s expectations in this way, diversity fades and creativity stumbles. Collectivists frequently feel shame when they deviate from the way of their fellows. Obedience is a significant factor in keeping harmony. Those who have outstanding abilities and who speak their own opinions without hesitation are not welcomed in a group of collectivists. And without space for varying opinions or discussions, it is difficult for necessary change to happen.

Collectivism values reciprocal relationships such as social and family ties over independent action, but it does not always respect and provide hospitality to others. Emotional bonds often block rational discernment. Unfair and preferential treatment are rampant in spaces of employment due to kinship, regionalism, or school relations. When emotions take precedence over reason, exceptions are more likely to be created than principles and rules.

At its worst, collectivism tends to be exclusive and hostile to the outside group while demanding the solidarity of the in-group. It sets the group in conflict with other groups. The group can maintain stability and cohesion better if its members feel surrounded by enemies. It is an in-group mentality that constantly stigmatizes, hates, and expels others who are different from them. Xenophobia is manifested in the minds of collectivists who demand sameness toward strangers.

The Shadow of Individualism

Individualists never want to be seen as victims of the social environment. A person’s success depends on their own choices, abilities, and aspirations. The self-enclosed individuals frequently isolate themselves from a formative relationship with God as well as others. In return, they take on an unwieldy responsibility for themselves.

Today’s individualist is the achievement-subject who endlessly exploits themself. They enable voluntary self-exploitation without any domination or external constraints. This may be the reason why there are suddenly so many neurotic patients in the individualist society. Emotional sociologist Alain Ehrenberg explains depression as a major disease of achievement society:

Depression began its ascent when the disciplinary model for behaviors, the rules of authority and observance of taboos that gave social classes as well as both sexes a specific destiny, broke against norms that invited us to undertake personal initiative by enjoining us to be ourselves. . . . Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself.

The excess of positivity in market capitalism expands and deepens individualism, but paradoxically, it can give obsession, exhaustion, deprivation, and depression—rather than liberty—to the individual. A self-enclosed individualist chokes alone in their destiny to become achievement-subjective on their own. The achievement-
subject wages war against themself. The internal pressures plunge the subject into depression.

For individualists, the force of consuming passions is never depleted. Though tired of this insatiability, they are voluntarily accustomed to living to consume, not consuming to live. In a society where the state prioritizes protecting the market over its citizens, the individual’s identity is formed through consumption and possession rather than through relationships and friendships. As a result, they effortlessly indulge in “the fetishism of commodities” predicted by Karl Marx in the early 20th century, which reveals the vulnerability of individualism to the mammonism Jesus warned about (Matt 6:24).

Individualism that focuses on oneself rather than relationships with others is narcissistic. People no longer want to photograph the masterpiece itself when in front of the famous Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum. Rather, they hold selfie sticks and focus on themselves to take a selfie! A narcissistic individual’s faith embraces a shamanistic perverted gospel such as prosperity theology. There is a lack of loyal discipleship. Although they live with a richer Christian heritage than any period in the history of the church, narcissistic individualists demand with picky tastes and choices. They cannot remain faithful disciples of Christ.

Compared to collectivism, individualism lacks a sense of history. Self-enclosed individualists are discontinuous and fragmented. Consequently, individualism tends to stay in privatized faith.

Constructive Reflections

Both collectivism and individualism are important and useful in society. At the same time, it should be noted that if only one culture is emphasized, the shadows within it can easily destroy us. More dialogue, inclusion, and solidarity with one another is essential between the two cultures. As Christians, we should actively pursue incarnational life within both—even as we remember that we belong ultimately to the gospel before either culture. In this regard, I would like to suggest some constructive Christian reflections between collectivism and individualism.

Confession. Above all, both collectivism and individualism are imperfect because of human sinfulness. We are all imperfect in a world where freedom is deprived for the sake of fairness, or the common good is lost for the sake of rights. This is not a simple deficiency; it is irreparable.

Confession of sin is disappearing from the Christian faith today. It is a natural result of the growth of a narcissistic society where human desires are maximized. As a result, the word “sin” today is easily degenerated into a kind of pain, hurt, regret, or failure.  My community and I need a restoration of the practice of confession. To do this, above all else, we must be reflective. Reflective beings should be able to stop their hyperactivity regularly and look inside themselves. There are no limitations in the individualistic life where one has to become an achievement-subject and compulsively live to survive in the competition. In a collectivist society where people are forced to be like others, it is not very sensible to look back on the inner person. It is only the appearance of myself that is important to others.

Through the practice of confession, we begin to discover our sinfulness in our daily lives. When we face the reality of being collectivists who frequently hate other groups and fall into vainglory, or individualists who fall into narcissism and religious consumerism, there is hope for us. When we confess our sins before God, both collectivists and individualists gain the foundation to form a healthier self and community through forgiveness, healing, and mutual understanding.

Radical Hospitality. The collectivism that enforces homogeneity has a strong exclusivity to heterogeneous external groups. Individualism, which is concerned with achieving one’s own goals, has a strong competitive spirit against others. All of these exclusions and competitions are rooted in fear. When this fear is heightened, it is easy to develop into xenophobia and violence.

On the contrary, love for others (philoxenia) is at the heart of Christianity. The Christian spiritual life calls on us to continue to practice love for our brothers and sisters, and especially for the little ones (Matt 18:1–10). The great commandment of Jesus explicitly shows the importance of this practice (Matt 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28).

Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez explains that the distinguishing characteristic of Christian spirituality is that it provides a ground for fearlessly practicing that freedom as a child of God. When the main character of spirituality is freedom, its greatest enemies are fear, depression, timidity, and complacency. Spirituality as freedom is revealed in serving others, not in exclusive collectivism or narcissistic individualism. Paul exhorted, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). It reaffirms that the direction of the spiritual freedom of a disciple of Christ should not stay within boundaries but should be unceasingly expanded to love and serve others.

There are many gracious people in the church today. But God is looking for a person who is willing to give themself to others in the world. This is the way to be a good Samaritan of our time. When subject to fear, we define and label others with our collectivistic or individualistic frameworks. The walls between us and others only come down when the labels are changed into human faces. Hospitality starts with creating a space so that other people can enter my heart. Hospitality is not about what I do; it is about who I am. Hospitality isn’t about making someone what I want them to be; it’s about being willing to give them a place to be who they are.

Suffering. Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han defines modern society as a “palliative society,” asserting that “a universal algophobia,” that is, a generalized fear of pain, dominates today. We live in a society where tolerance to pain is rapidly weakening. The consequence of this algophobia is permanent anesthesia. Accordingly, all relationships are oriented in a palliative manner. Neither collectivism nor individualism is an exception. Collectivists are accustomed to living in conformity with a group’s expectations that enforce sameness instead of arguments over the better idea. Individualists are indifferent to their neighbors’ pain. Rather than raising their voice in public squares, they are accustomed to indulging in home shopping. Both collectivists and individualists avoid controversies and conflicts; they prefer quick-acting pain killers. They all lack the courage to endure pain.

It is only through suffering that we can achieve reconciliation, solidarity, and transformation. Suffering is about willingly entering into a relationship with others. Suffering accentuates differences; without suffering we are sinking into indifference. The cross does not lead us on the path of vainglory but on the more difficult path of participating in the historical reality in which we live. Above all, suffering is the formative path to incarnational life. Genuinely embracing others should be rooted in the self-giving love of God as manifested on the cross of Christ. With armchair critics, fickle aspirations, or thin sentimentalism, we cannot reach a life of Christlike kenosis. Jesus calls us to take up the cross in our “daily” life. Today’s Christians need to step out of the comfort zone of conformist in-group or consumerist living and rediscover the discipline of lamentation to listen to and empathize with the suffering of others.

Conclusion

The Christian’s role as an evangelist is to bring our situation into closer approximation to and anticipation of the kingdom of God. To do this, we are not to force others to believe that our culture is superior to theirs. Labeling, hatred, and exclusion have no future. The kingdom of God is big enough for both collectivists and individualists to live together. Collectivism and individualism must be reconciled and complementary: We must learn from the collectivists a sense of responsibility and commitment to the community; we must also learn from the individualists a sense of creativity and autonomy. Through confession of our sins, radical hospitality, and suffering, we will be able to more firmly fulfill the vocation God has entrusted to us. Above all, let us not forget the words of the letter to the Hebrews that teaches us that we can see the Lord only through mutual peace and holiness: “Pursue the goal of peace along with everyone—and holiness as well, because no one will see the Lord without it.”

Written By

Euiwan Cho is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry. He specializes in the sociology of religion and spiritual formation and their implications for holistic ministry in the Korean/Korean American context. His recent book, Desert Spirituality and Urban Ministry, explores the origins and subsequent development of Egyptian desert spirituality and its theological and practical implications for Protestants. He previously served as a faculty member at Luther Rice University/Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. He also served as senior pastor of Knoxville Korean Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, for six years.

For the public interest, is it okay to infringe on individual privacy? In South Korea, at least, it does not seem like a big deal. Most people willingly submit themselves to government authority, and few complain. This has been particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the public has willingly cooperated with the government by allowing access to their personal information in order to trace COVID-19 infections. By contrast, in major Western countries, including the United States, such restrictions and surveillance targeted at public interest have caused significant backlash.

These contrasting contexts represent two opposing cultural values: collectivism and individualism. During the pandemic, cultural factors, rather than leadership, technological, and administrative factors, have played a major role in the differences between the East and the West. Western individualistic culture prioritizes the needs and desires of the individual, while Eastern collectivist culture pushes societal needs to the forefront. This is not to say that one culture is inherently superior or inferior to the other. They are just different.

In today’s highly mobile global society, contact between individualists and collectivists is increasing, and a better understanding of the two is essential. We must not fall into the trap of limiting ourselves and our choices. Either/or thinking that one or the other is right causes us to overlook the diversity, depth, and richness that God has given to humans.  As Christians, we should strive to recognize the two cultures without prejudice and better understand those who live based on their cultural values. This article is not about the clashes of cultures but rather aims to “pursue the goal of peace along with everyone” (Heb 12:14a, CEB), recognizing each other’s light and shadow. Both individualism and collectivism contribute to the kingdom of God with their own unique values.

Collectivism

Collectivism refers to a social pattern in which the needs of groups or communities of various units have priority over the needs of individuals. In many cases, collectivism is predominant in communal societies (Gemeinschaft) based on natural ties such as blood, regionality, and ethnicity. Accordingly, sentiment, tradition, and common bonds are emphasized within collectivism. The solidarity of a group can be kept without any formal regulation.

Collectivism demands commitment and sacrifice to the group rather than individual freedoms and rights. In a collectivist culture, persons with individualistic tendencies are treated as selfish and harmful to the community. Often, the relationships in the work process are more important than the efficiency and results of the work. Despite their outstanding individual capabilities, those who do not respect the given group preferentially are marginalized. In a collectivist culture, it is more sensible to be in the rain together than to put up an umbrella alone.

Collectivism, which prioritizes public welfare and equality through regulations, often conflicts with the values of free-market capitalism, which emphasizes individual competence, competition, and freedom. In collectivism, an individual must have a sense of responsibility and priority for the community. If this is not followed, the individuals do not fail alone but cause trouble to their family, friends, and neighbors. In collectivism, where individual failure threatens the community’s well-being, shame is experienced more prominently than guilt. According to Ruth Benedict, one of America’s pioneering anthropologists, “True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin.” Guilt is related to individualism in that it involves an individual not meeting standards of their own. In contrast, shame in collectivism involves feeling disappointment for not meeting the standards of the community to which one belongs.

When Samuel tries to tell Saul that God has rejected him as king for disobeying God’s command, Saul’s pleading words while holding onto the hem of Samuel’s robe reveal the shame in the collectivist culture. “I have sinned. . . but please honor me in front of my people’s elders and before Israel, and come back with me so I can worship the Lord your God” (1 Sam 15:30). Like this episode, the Bible is generally set in a collectivist culture. It contains cultures that place great importance on kinship, patronage, brokerage, honor, shame, and boundaries. The call to God’s people as a new community and new family also reflects the collective disposition of our Christian faith.

Individualism

Individualism is defined as a social pattern that “consists of loosely linked individuals who view themselves as independent of collectives.” The self is independent in individualism. The concept of an individual implies the indivisibility and uniqueness of an entity. Individualism sees a person’s happiness as its ultimate end in its overall development. The state or community is considered only to achieve the individual’s end.

In individualist cultures, the emphasis is on rational analyses of the advantages and disadvantages of maintaining a relationship. Individuals have their own preferences, needs, rights, and contracts that prioritize their personal goals over the goals of the collective. Accordingly, individualists do not have to permanently conform to the organization or group to which they belong, and no sentiment or tradition limits their wills. As members of Gesellschaft, where legalism and affective neutrality are emphasized in relationships, individuals tend to show self-interest by rational analysis and are characterized by emotional disengagement.

Individualism respects the uniqueness and individuality of the person. Individualism maximizes a person’s capabilities and creativity in freedom and helps them to become autonomous. Consequently, individualism is consistent with the idea of neoliberalism, which sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. In an individualistic society, individual choice and freedom are prioritized over regulations for public interest and safety.

The Bible reflects individualistic tendencies when it comes to salvation. Through personal and voluntary determination and confession, we become children of God (Matt 10:22–23, Matt 16:24–26, Rev 3:20). Salvation is only possible through the determination of an individual before Christ, not by any group, blood tie, or class. Jesus’ invitation to “follow me” was for an individual, and those who hesitated because of collectivist tendencies did not qualify to become the Lord’s disciples.

As seen above, both individualism and collectivism have their own values and characteristics. Any simple parallel comparison of which side is superior or inferior is meaningless. An immature human can advance to a more mature position in the harmony of the two cultures. Conversely, there is always a risk when a single culture, value, or story is underscored. Now we will look at how neither individualism nor collectivism is exempt from its own shadow. This is not for the sake of condemnation, but to be honest about one’s own weaknesses and to find a harmonious and enriched path to a godly community.

The Shadow of Collectivism

The collectivism that emphasizes unity has a pervasive compulsion for people to be the same. Collectivists who grew up hearing “do whatever your teacher tells you” at school seldom ask questions in class or during meetings. This is because the coercion of “the sameness” of the group leads to self-censorship of questions or objections, which may signify “difference.”

In collectivism, shame plays a major role in the compulsion to live up to the expectations of the community to which one belongs, not the expectations set by oneself. A byproduct that often arises from such shame is vainglory. In a collectivist culture, there is a tendency to pay more attention to outward appearance than actual appearance. In a society with excessive interest and meddling in other people’s lives, the individual cannot be free. Having to live up to the community’s expectations, one is always in the spotlight. Consequently, one needs to show off with great pomp and ceremony. But remember, although Jesus came to this earth to embrace and mingle with everyone, he was harshly critical of the Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders, calling them “hypocrites.” His criticism was closely related to this dynamic of collectivist culture, in which people tend to be obsessed with their appearance to others rather than their own inner self.

In an organization pressured to live up to people’s expectations in this way, diversity fades and creativity stumbles. Collectivists frequently feel shame when they deviate from the way of their fellows. Obedience is a significant factor in keeping harmony. Those who have outstanding abilities and who speak their own opinions without hesitation are not welcomed in a group of collectivists. And without space for varying opinions or discussions, it is difficult for necessary change to happen.

Collectivism values reciprocal relationships such as social and family ties over independent action, but it does not always respect and provide hospitality to others. Emotional bonds often block rational discernment. Unfair and preferential treatment are rampant in spaces of employment due to kinship, regionalism, or school relations. When emotions take precedence over reason, exceptions are more likely to be created than principles and rules.

At its worst, collectivism tends to be exclusive and hostile to the outside group while demanding the solidarity of the in-group. It sets the group in conflict with other groups. The group can maintain stability and cohesion better if its members feel surrounded by enemies. It is an in-group mentality that constantly stigmatizes, hates, and expels others who are different from them. Xenophobia is manifested in the minds of collectivists who demand sameness toward strangers.

The Shadow of Individualism

Individualists never want to be seen as victims of the social environment. A person’s success depends on their own choices, abilities, and aspirations. The self-enclosed individuals frequently isolate themselves from a formative relationship with God as well as others. In return, they take on an unwieldy responsibility for themselves.

Today’s individualist is the achievement-subject who endlessly exploits themself. They enable voluntary self-exploitation without any domination or external constraints. This may be the reason why there are suddenly so many neurotic patients in the individualist society. Emotional sociologist Alain Ehrenberg explains depression as a major disease of achievement society:

Depression began its ascent when the disciplinary model for behaviors, the rules of authority and observance of taboos that gave social classes as well as both sexes a specific destiny, broke against norms that invited us to undertake personal initiative by enjoining us to be ourselves. . . . Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself.

The excess of positivity in market capitalism expands and deepens individualism, but paradoxically, it can give obsession, exhaustion, deprivation, and depression—rather than liberty—to the individual. A self-enclosed individualist chokes alone in their destiny to become achievement-subjective on their own. The achievement-
subject wages war against themself. The internal pressures plunge the subject into depression.

For individualists, the force of consuming passions is never depleted. Though tired of this insatiability, they are voluntarily accustomed to living to consume, not consuming to live. In a society where the state prioritizes protecting the market over its citizens, the individual’s identity is formed through consumption and possession rather than through relationships and friendships. As a result, they effortlessly indulge in “the fetishism of commodities” predicted by Karl Marx in the early 20th century, which reveals the vulnerability of individualism to the mammonism Jesus warned about (Matt 6:24).

Individualism that focuses on oneself rather than relationships with others is narcissistic. People no longer want to photograph the masterpiece itself when in front of the famous Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum. Rather, they hold selfie sticks and focus on themselves to take a selfie! A narcissistic individual’s faith embraces a shamanistic perverted gospel such as prosperity theology. There is a lack of loyal discipleship. Although they live with a richer Christian heritage than any period in the history of the church, narcissistic individualists demand with picky tastes and choices. They cannot remain faithful disciples of Christ.

Compared to collectivism, individualism lacks a sense of history. Self-enclosed individualists are discontinuous and fragmented. Consequently, individualism tends to stay in privatized faith.

Constructive Reflections

Both collectivism and individualism are important and useful in society. At the same time, it should be noted that if only one culture is emphasized, the shadows within it can easily destroy us. More dialogue, inclusion, and solidarity with one another is essential between the two cultures. As Christians, we should actively pursue incarnational life within both—even as we remember that we belong ultimately to the gospel before either culture. In this regard, I would like to suggest some constructive Christian reflections between collectivism and individualism.

Confession. Above all, both collectivism and individualism are imperfect because of human sinfulness. We are all imperfect in a world where freedom is deprived for the sake of fairness, or the common good is lost for the sake of rights. This is not a simple deficiency; it is irreparable.

Confession of sin is disappearing from the Christian faith today. It is a natural result of the growth of a narcissistic society where human desires are maximized. As a result, the word “sin” today is easily degenerated into a kind of pain, hurt, regret, or failure.  My community and I need a restoration of the practice of confession. To do this, above all else, we must be reflective. Reflective beings should be able to stop their hyperactivity regularly and look inside themselves. There are no limitations in the individualistic life where one has to become an achievement-subject and compulsively live to survive in the competition. In a collectivist society where people are forced to be like others, it is not very sensible to look back on the inner person. It is only the appearance of myself that is important to others.

Through the practice of confession, we begin to discover our sinfulness in our daily lives. When we face the reality of being collectivists who frequently hate other groups and fall into vainglory, or individualists who fall into narcissism and religious consumerism, there is hope for us. When we confess our sins before God, both collectivists and individualists gain the foundation to form a healthier self and community through forgiveness, healing, and mutual understanding.

Radical Hospitality. The collectivism that enforces homogeneity has a strong exclusivity to heterogeneous external groups. Individualism, which is concerned with achieving one’s own goals, has a strong competitive spirit against others. All of these exclusions and competitions are rooted in fear. When this fear is heightened, it is easy to develop into xenophobia and violence.

On the contrary, love for others (philoxenia) is at the heart of Christianity. The Christian spiritual life calls on us to continue to practice love for our brothers and sisters, and especially for the little ones (Matt 18:1–10). The great commandment of Jesus explicitly shows the importance of this practice (Matt 22:34–40; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28).

Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez explains that the distinguishing characteristic of Christian spirituality is that it provides a ground for fearlessly practicing that freedom as a child of God. When the main character of spirituality is freedom, its greatest enemies are fear, depression, timidity, and complacency. Spirituality as freedom is revealed in serving others, not in exclusive collectivism or narcissistic individualism. Paul exhorted, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13). It reaffirms that the direction of the spiritual freedom of a disciple of Christ should not stay within boundaries but should be unceasingly expanded to love and serve others.

There are many gracious people in the church today. But God is looking for a person who is willing to give themself to others in the world. This is the way to be a good Samaritan of our time. When subject to fear, we define and label others with our collectivistic or individualistic frameworks. The walls between us and others only come down when the labels are changed into human faces. Hospitality starts with creating a space so that other people can enter my heart. Hospitality is not about what I do; it is about who I am. Hospitality isn’t about making someone what I want them to be; it’s about being willing to give them a place to be who they are.

Suffering. Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han defines modern society as a “palliative society,” asserting that “a universal algophobia,” that is, a generalized fear of pain, dominates today. We live in a society where tolerance to pain is rapidly weakening. The consequence of this algophobia is permanent anesthesia. Accordingly, all relationships are oriented in a palliative manner. Neither collectivism nor individualism is an exception. Collectivists are accustomed to living in conformity with a group’s expectations that enforce sameness instead of arguments over the better idea. Individualists are indifferent to their neighbors’ pain. Rather than raising their voice in public squares, they are accustomed to indulging in home shopping. Both collectivists and individualists avoid controversies and conflicts; they prefer quick-acting pain killers. They all lack the courage to endure pain.

It is only through suffering that we can achieve reconciliation, solidarity, and transformation. Suffering is about willingly entering into a relationship with others. Suffering accentuates differences; without suffering we are sinking into indifference. The cross does not lead us on the path of vainglory but on the more difficult path of participating in the historical reality in which we live. Above all, suffering is the formative path to incarnational life. Genuinely embracing others should be rooted in the self-giving love of God as manifested on the cross of Christ. With armchair critics, fickle aspirations, or thin sentimentalism, we cannot reach a life of Christlike kenosis. Jesus calls us to take up the cross in our “daily” life. Today’s Christians need to step out of the comfort zone of conformist in-group or consumerist living and rediscover the discipline of lamentation to listen to and empathize with the suffering of others.

Conclusion

The Christian’s role as an evangelist is to bring our situation into closer approximation to and anticipation of the kingdom of God. To do this, we are not to force others to believe that our culture is superior to theirs. Labeling, hatred, and exclusion have no future. The kingdom of God is big enough for both collectivists and individualists to live together. Collectivism and individualism must be reconciled and complementary: We must learn from the collectivists a sense of responsibility and commitment to the community; we must also learn from the individualists a sense of creativity and autonomy. Through confession of our sins, radical hospitality, and suffering, we will be able to more firmly fulfill the vocation God has entrusted to us. Above all, let us not forget the words of the letter to the Hebrews that teaches us that we can see the Lord only through mutual peace and holiness: “Pursue the goal of peace along with everyone—and holiness as well, because no one will see the Lord without it.”

Euiwan Cho

Euiwan Cho is associate professor of Christian spirituality and ministry. He specializes in the sociology of religion and spiritual formation and their implications for holistic ministry in the Korean/Korean American context. His recent book, Desert Spirituality and Urban Ministry, explores the origins and subsequent development of Egyptian desert spirituality and its theological and practical implications for Protestants. He previously served as a faculty member at Luther Rice University/Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. He also served as senior pastor of Knoxville Korean Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, for six years.

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