Collectivist vs. Individualist
You may not believe me, but Western culture makes it virtually impossible to fully grasp some of the lessons and stories in the Bible. After all, the Bible comes from the Middle East, and to this day, things are done very differently there than they are in the U.S.
A major way Westerners misunderstand Biblical scriptures can be corrected by understanding that Middle Eastern culture was (and still is) “collectivist” rather than “individualistic.”
That simply means this: where Americans would cherish and expect “privacy,” a non-Westerner (including the characters we read about in the Bible) would very likely avoid it at nearly any cost. In fact, where Americans value anonymity, Middle Eastern culture generally puts a grave warning against it. Many Asian countries join in this belief and likewise still don’t trust a person to make right decisions if no one was watching. By their logic, the most difficult kind of temptation to battle against is that which promises no one else will find out. And so they surrounded themselves with community as often as possible. To them, this was (and is) critical to making honorable decisions. Meanwhile, we Westerners think even life’s gargantuan decisions are entirely personal. For us, it’s all about the decisions we make behind closed doors. Just ask a typical American what they think of arranged marriages.
The Western world has fought hard to protect our privacy. We’ve effectively explained away our reliance on community by inventing a virtue we call “integrity.” Instead of accountability, we put the expectation of wise decision-making on the individual’s shoulders. We tell each person that his or her responsibility is to “do the right thing” while also giving them a key to their bedroom door, which they can use to lock everyone out if they feel like making a decision they know wouldn’t be collectively acceptable. We make it worse by telling each person that “the right thing” is really open to their own interpretation–whatever private conclusion they come to.
Not so with collectivist cultures.
The Privacy Myth
Aside from our absurd expectation for people to privately choose “right,” there’s a glaring problem with the notion of integrity. No Christian (or anyone from any god-fearing religion) can honestly say our actions are ever private. Someone is always watching, even when we really wish they weren’t. The basic truth for any God-fearing person is that God is not just real, but with us. If this is true, “privacy” is a complete myth. Like it or not, we are all fully known at every moment of every day.
Christians refer to this unavoidable presence as the Holy Spirit. And Western Christians still put the expectation of listening to and obeying that guiding Spirit on our private decisions. In many ways, we are even discouraged from treating it as anything except a strictly personal and anonymous relationship. Non-Westerners would scratch their heads at this. They would say if we want to live honorable lives for God, we are placing far too much confidence in our individual and anonymous ability to faithfully obey that quiet, still Voice. They would say we were designed to openly help each other on this quest. They would wonder how we don’t see that our expectation of privacy only makes an obedient and honorable life harder to pursue.
Learning this pretty much blew my mind. Suddenly, just about every sinful choice we can make is exposed, at least partly, as a problem of anonymity. And the craziest part about it is that we’ve intentionally given it to ourselves. We’ve protested to keep it and even to get more of it. We’ve come to think of privacy as a basic privilege, a sign of progress, a standard of modern, civilized society. But what else can we point to that can claim more responsibility for the problem of pornography or online affairs? What has played a larger role than the perception of total anonymity in the spending habits that have driven many “privileged” Americans into unnecessary debt? How many disastrous relationships would have been ended before they reached marriage if the hormone-crazed couple actually cared what their trusted family and friends thought, rather than saying “you don’t know them like I know them”?
We still have a hint of collectivism in our culture. If you look closely, you’ll notice many parents still convince their kids to behave because “Santa’s elves are watching” or whatever other creepy elf-on-a-shelf thing we can create. Anything to make them think they’re never really alone. But then as we grow older, we inevitably fall for the lie of individualism. We get tricked into thinking that, not only is it all about “me,” but there is such a thing as “privacy” in the first place–and that it’s good! Yet if we were to honestly consider how much easier a terrible decision becomes when we think no one is watching, we might start to wonder why we crave anonymity so badly.
The writer of Hebrews famously wrote one of the most powerful and honest motivators to living a life that flees from sin: witnesses. He said that we have a “great cloud of witnesses” (including God Himself) and should act as if we will have to answer for our actions. All of them. The childlike concept of Santa’s helpers is more realistic than we might have realized. And it makes me wonder if this is part of what Jesus meant when he told us to pursue a childlike faith.
This makes the big question not “What is the right thing to do?” It takes the pressure off behaving even when we think we can get away with it. With this basic theological perspective, the actual question is “What would I do if God were here with me?” or “What habits are honorable even inside a glass house?” This approach leads us deeper than just right or wrong decisions and into what is honorable or shameful. When others are watching, the shameful decision is worse than simply the wrong decision, and an honorable decision isn’t always the automatic right choice. And if we want to be really honest, taking this idea of living to honor God seriously, we should admit that we often need a good kick in the pants from others around us to help us make better decisions.
Collectivist cultures go back to the beginning of Creation with God’s observation that man shouldn’t be alone in Genesis 2. There is far more wisdom contained in a collectivist culture than an individualist culture, partly because it’s been around longer, but mostly because it’s biblical. It describes the original design of what is actually best for us, which doesn’t rely on our own, rebellious opinions.
Think of it this way: people in ancient times could have built houses that gave every kid a private room, but they didn’t. With a world population a small fraction of today’s, it would have been effortless to put miles of “privacy” between houses, but they still clumped them together. They knew then, and still know today, that a life lived in community leads to a more honorable life, especially in God’s sight. They saw the anonymity we Westerners expect as an environment for unavoidable and shameful temptation, and I can’t say I disagree.
There are other dangerous problems created within an individualist society by anonymity. Without constant community built into our efforts to help us live a more Godly life, basic Christian principles like accountability and confessing our sins to one another become extremely awkward at best, and abhorrently rude at worst. “None of your business” and federal privacy laws are standards we think ensure an independent and respectable life. But in reality, they more often ensure our freedom to dishonor God without having to answer to other people about it. We say we have a right to live without onlookers, but would we still say that without a multi-billion-dollar pornography habit? We’ve become desensitized to the basic fact that if you’d feel uncomfortable admitting something to someone close to you, it’s probably not an honorable thing you’ve done. If we feel the impulse to lie and cover something up, we immediately have a reason to seek accountability and make sure that we no longer do that thing–for God’s sake, our family’s sake, and our own eternity’s sake.
We do everything to avoid accountability and honest confession, but these two habits happen to be crucial to repentance–a non-negotiable demand by Jesus for His followers. And we’re bold enough to call this culture we’ve created “advanced.” But I immediately call into question any society that actively makes repentance more difficult and the pursuit towards a closer relationship with our Creator more awkward.
Rather than making our lives more private, what we should be doing is living in full disclosure and honest community. We should be giving people permission to know what we’re up to and hold us accountable. You may be shaking your head in disbelief right now. But for this to scare us so badly reveals the problem of our sinful nature and proves just how determined our culture is to push God away. It shows that we’re well on our way to taking His place as individual gods. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like this project of replacing God is something that should be battled against, not protected by Congress.
Every law allowing for more anonymity has only led to more corruption with only the illusion of safety sprinkled on top. I can’t think of one instance in which full disclosure is a bad thing. It’s exactly what Jesus said is coming at the judgment, which is even more reason to see it as a desirable quality of our lives right now–not just to be embraced when Jesus comes back. It may be unrealistic to long for a society where everyone is fully accountable for their actions, but for righteousness’ sake, when did it become such a terrible idea to try?