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Individualist Libertarians, Collectivist Bibles: the Challenge of Being Libertarian and Christian

Libertarians are known for their embrace of the philosophy of individualism. We support merit-based selection over group identity as the criteria for determining who gets a coveted job or college offer. We reject collective punishment and the social contract, recognizing that they are false constructions of those in power to legitimize their use of force against peaceful people. But how does this belief in individualism square with a biblical worldview? Can we be libertarian individualists while also holding to a Christian framework?

The Bible’s Collectivist Anthropology

To start with, we have to acknowledge that the Bible was written in the context of a collectivist, familial culture. The difference between these ancient cultures and our modern context is stark. In the west today, two people choose to get married; but in the ancient world, families arranged marriages. In the west today, people are expected to survive through individual effort (e.g. holding down a job); but in the ancient world, people survived through networks of dependency such as patron/client relationships. In the west today, one acts to fulfill his own personal desires; but in the ancient world, one acted in order to bring honor to his family or clan. We see some of these earthy, collectivist frameworks reflected back onto the ancient culture through the language and metaphors that the Bible uses to describe higher, heavenly things. For example, much like a client who acted to bring glory to a faithful patron who graciously provided for them, Christians were encouraged to glorify God as their faithful patron who showed them grace which they could not earn but which they were expected to reciprocate through faithful obedience.

Early Christians also taught and believed a dualistic anthropology wherein each person was part of one or another human collective–either Adam or Christ. To be in Adam meant to be on a path leading to death, but to be in Christ meant being transferred into a new kind of humanity that shares in Christ’s eternal nature. In the New Testament, Christians of all ethnicities, classes, and sexes are presented as being all part of one family that takes care of each other like a natural family was expected to. This mindset still predominates among Christians in the collectivist east, but it has been significantly reshaped in the individualist west because we tend to rely on ourselves instead of upon our communities to survive and thrive.

With the church’s collectivist anthropology came a new ethic, though it’s difficult to categorize it as merely collectivist or merely individualist. The Christian ethic, much like the Trinity whence it derives, is neither the self interest of Ayn Rand nor the altruism of her collectivist opponents. Instead, it is a mutual self-giving that glories in sharing because each Christian derives a reward in their present union with Christ and also in their future glory where nothing given away will have been lost.

The Bible’s Collectivist Justice

So far, libertarian Christians can probably reconcile their political individualism with the corporate aspects of their religious commitments–after all, individual rights do not conflict with the right to be part of a group and to choose to take on a collective identity which subsumes the individual to the group. There is a difference, after all, between individualism as a personal philosophy and as a political one. But does the Bible support this latter kind of individualism?

For instance, what can a libertarian Christian say about God slaying Egyptian children for Pharaoh’s disobedience (Exodus 11)? How can someone who believes in individual responsibility justify the divine collective punishment meted out to the entire nation of Judah, including women and children, when not everyone in the nation was in rebellion against God (2 Kings 25)?

Some Christians might look to Paul’s letter to the Romans to explain God’s use of collective punishment. For instance the apostle’s claims that:

  1. All humans (not just certain groups) are slaves to sin, both as victims and as willing collaborators (3:9-18, 5:12, 6:16-18).
  2. We are all without excuse because we know better yet choose to suppress the truth in unrighteousness (1:19-21).
  3. The appropriate fate for all sinners is death, and God is not obligated to extend life to any of us. However, His general posture is to extend grace (6:23).

Since God does not owe any of us eternal life, there would not be anything fundamentally wrong with His killing the Egyptian firstborn–though we can agree that death is, on the whole, an undesirable curse and even an evil. In other words, God is allowed to engage in what might be termed collective punishment, but as we are not God, we do not share that divine prerogative.

Another reality that we as individualists struggle to accept is that we cannot escape from collectivism entirely. Though we are individuals, we were born into families and live our lives within communities. This means that our choices affect the people around us, even when they had nothing to do with them. In the political sphere, everyone in the United States benefits or suffers from the choices our president makes, even those who didn’t vote for him. On a more personal level, when a husband and father has an affair, it can be hugely detrimental to the well-being of his innocent wife and children who did nothing wrong. In short, righteous behavior blesses those around us, but evil behavior harms them.

Sometimes sin is not so much a positive choice I make, but a power that ensnares me. Did each German living under the Third Reich throw their active support behind the Nazi party? Certainly not. But it’s also true that the party could not have achieved its evil aims if not for the permission (tacit or explicit) of the German collective. This raises a difficult moral question: though as one individual I can do very little, do I bear some responsibility for what the community I am a part of allows? God’s collective punishment thus becomes an object lesson for all of us. Each one of us has a moral duty to refuse to approve of evil. When enough of us fail in this duty, we must expect that this collective sin of our community might be visited against it–including upon those who did stand up for what was right or who did nothing blameworthy: the guilt of Egypt’s elite in murdering Hebrew babies and resisting God’s will came back on their firstborn children through Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness.

So for the Christian, some degree of collectivism cannot be avoided. This is the bad news/good news of human existence: we die in Adam, but we live in Christ.

Biblical Individualism

Should we then conclude from these data that we ought to be forming a society which institutes collective rewards and punishments intentionally? Would a biblically-informed politic support, for instance, the punishment of the entire Arab world for what happened on September 11th?

This is where libertarian Christians can stop holding their breath. The Bible affirms that we are all held personally responsible not for what our countrymen have done but for what we choose to do. The Bible is full of examples of obedient individuals who were rewarded by God for going against the grain–Elijah at times felt like the last worshiper of God in Israel, Jeremiah spoke prophetically against Judah’s leadership and was eventually rewarded for his faithful witness. One of the greatest statements of individualism in any ancient (or even modern!) writing comes from the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel challenged the collectivist understanding of God’s justice wherein sons were punished for their fathers’ behavior, retorting:

“[A good man] will not die for his [wicked] father’s sin; he will surely live. But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people. Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them” (Ezekiel 18:17-20, NIV).

The New Testament develops this theme to its most logical expression–that on the day of judgment each person will be judged by God individually. In other words, in this life sin may come back and harm the innocent along with the guilty; but this will not be so when God settles accounts. True justice–perfect justice–takes into account what each individual has done and does not judge them for what strangers who speak their language or live in their city have done.

This model of a perfect settling of accounts no doubt influenced our western conception of individualist justice, our rejection of collective punishment, and our belief that each person should be judged not by collectivist externals but by the content of their character.

Moreover, the gospel message has a universalistic viewpoint that shoots past the often tribalistic connotations of collectivism to include people from all tribes and tongues into one new people–a new collective, to be sure, but not one founded on nationalism, racism, or violence.

Conclusion

In short, libertarian Christians cannot ignore collectivist themes and outlooks in their Bibles, but they can highlight the more perfect justice that God will ensure is done as well as the more universalistic implications of the gospel–seeing these as the gold standards for the justice we seek to create today. Furthermore, Christians should feel quite comfortable striving for a political individualism in which each person is judged by their own actions and is free to live the life they choose. However, we are also called to embrace the choice to live a communitarian life among our brothers and sisters in Christ and to allow that collective identity to subsume all others.

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